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Remember, Reaffirm, Reinvigorate

June 19, 2017
Monica and Jessica arriving in the U.S., greeted by the Snyders and friends at the airport.

Monica and Jessica arriving in the U.S., greeted by the Snyders and friends at the airport.

The world is facing its largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. An estimated 20 million people are living on the brink of starvation in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria. At the same time, violence and civil wars across the globe have led to the largest numbers of refugees in recent history.

In the face of these needs, recognizing the exceptional ministry capabilities of the Christian Reformed Church and acknowledging the past commitments of the is the time to act.

These two paragraphs introduced a report that Synod 2017 acted upon. Synod asked all of us together  to remember, reaffirm, and reinvigorate our denomination’s commitment to a comprehensive and integral response to the hungry, poor, and rejected in our world and in our own nations.

From those estranged from God and filled with pride, from those hungry to those without drinking water, from those struggling in poverty to those seeking refuge due to war or disaster, the world is full of hurt and brokenness.  Yet, as Our World Belong to God states, “God holds this world with fierce love.”  These three Rs represent a significant and broad recommitment for all of us, recommitment in obedience to God and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Nesting these three Rs in faith, it is, nevertheless, challenging to know where to begin. Let me suggest we begin by looking in the rearview mirror—looking at what the CRC has done and is doing in caring for just one of these concerns: refugees.

Starting today, and continuing for the next few weeks, we will be sharing stories of Christian Reformed churches and individuals across the United States and Canada who have opened their hearts and homes to those fleeing from war and persecution.

I trust your hearts will be touched by these stories that you will respond in two ways: first, that you would join all of your brothers and sisters in voicing gratitude to God for what he has accomplished through the CRC in years past; second, that you would join in synod’s call to recommit to the important work of caring for refugees as well as in the other areas identified.

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matt. 25:40)

—Steve Timmermans
Executive director, the Christian Reformed Church in North America

Faith Christian Reformed Church, Holland, Mich.

In June of 2007, teenaged sisters Jessica and Monica Par were given one hour to pack and leave their home in Burma – forever.

The sisters lived in Chin state, a majority Christian region in western Burma (Myanmar), where Christians have been persecuted by the government.

Just days earlier, the notoriously brutal Burmese army had come and demanded that the girls plant acres of crops within a week – an impossible task – or pay a bribe of two years’ wages.

The situation soon escalated into threats that 14-year-old Monica and 16-year-old Jessica would be jailed, taken as wives, or even killed.

Their grandfather, who was beaten while the girls hid on their family’s land, decided that their only option was to run, to try to reach neighboring Malaysia and from there hope to get safe passage into another country.

He prayed over them, saying God would lead them as he had led Abraham, and helped them gather their Bibles and a few precious belongings for their journey.

“We left our town without a chance to say goodbye to our grandmother, friends or neighbors,” Jessica wrote in a testimony about their experiences. “It broke me to pieces and sadness exploded into my heart.”

They didn’t know that God was preparing a place for them halfway around the world in the home of Eric and Sonya Snyder and their three young children in Holland, Michigan.

They didn’t know that one day they would become U.S. citizens, college graduates, and young professionals, and that they would one day take the name of the family that would welcome them into their lives.

The Snyders, who are members of Faith Christian Reformed Church in Holland, had felt led to open their home to a refugee foster daughter, or even two sisters.

A Harrowing Journey

After leaving their home that life-changing day, Jessica and Monica embarked, with the help of a paid agent, on a harrowing 25-day journey, hiding in the forest by day and walking by night, always aware of the threat of armed men on the lookout for runaway citizens. During one part of the trip they travelled by boat, hidden under mounds of trash.

Even after they arrived in Malaysia, danger remained. The girls had to be on the alert for bounty hunters, police and others who would arrest them or take advantage of them.

“At that time our life was not better but it was getting worse,” said Jessica. “The only thing I could do was pray.”

When they registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, they found hope that they might one day leave this place of limbo. Ten months later they got a call that changed their lives forever. The U.N. had found a family for them in the United States.

“There was nothing that could compare to my happiness and freedom at that moment,” Jessica recalls.

In May, 2008, at an airport in New York City, Monica and Jessica met the Snyders for the first time. Jessica remembers that, “When we met them, everyone was so sweet, kind and friendly. I felt like I was so special to them—like a popular actress.”

One of the countless adjustments to their new life was improving their English. When school began in the fall, the girls worked hard each night on their studies at Holland Christian High. Jessica began as a sophomore and Monica, a freshman.

“I could barely speak English,” said Monica. Jessica recalls that their new mom put in “hours and hours every night” helping them with their homework. The girls made incredible progress and despite obvious challenges, began to flourish in their new environment.

New Arrivals

But there was to be more to the story. Less than two years after the girls’ arrival, the Snyders’ lives would intersect once again with refugees: Monica and Jessica’s cousin Elizabeth and her family.

In December 2009, Steven and Elizabeth Uk arrived in the U.S. with their baby Samson, and Steven’s younger brother, Sumte Thang.

The Uks’ story was also one of desperation and danger, escaping the brutality of the army. A newlywed, Steven was kidnapped and put to work as a porter, likely to be eventually forced into the army. He managed to escape soon after, and then began his long journey on foot to Malaysia.

Because of Steven’s escape, the army threatened to put his brother, 11-year-old Sumte, into the army, and threatened 18-year-old Elizabeth as well, if they would not produce Steven. Now Elizabeth and Sumte also had to run.

For three years they hid in a mountain farm near a village until it was too dangerous and they too had to make the treacherous trip to Malaysia. Not all their fellow travelers survived.

Elizabeth and Sumte were reunited with Steven in Malaysia, but life wasn’t easy. “Sometimes we don’t even have the rice to cook, we don’t have a penny in our hands,” said Elizabeth of those days.

They were thankful to successfully register with the U.N. and, after months of waiting and some delays related to the birth of their son Samson, they received a ticket out of Malaysia to the United States.

The Uks were sent initially sent to Jacksonville, Fla. But the Snyders learned that it was not a good situation there and, within weeks, brought them to Holland with the help of the Faith CRC community.

“They were so crazy enthusiastic,” Sonya said of their church. “They couldn’t wait for this family to get here. They were kind of the darlings of Faith Church.”

“When we heard that the church [was] going to support us and get us here, we were really excited,” said Elizabeth. They heard about all that was donated in preparation for their coming, and were overwhelmed.

“We went to church on [the first] Sunday and it was a big change in our life. You would never ever imagine that people would welcome you that much. We thought it would be different people, different culture, different language, everything is going to be different. And we thought we are going to have lots of challenges and lots of hard times,” she recalled.

“But actually our thought is totally wrong. We got to the church and all the people have smiling faces and they say ‘hi’ even though we don’t understand. They talk to us, you know. They are like, we are so happy to have you here! And, oh, we are crying that day!”

Church members provided an initial place for them to live and accompanied them on medical appointments. The Snyders found an affordable house in just the right location. The youth group rehabbed the home, and it was furnished entirely by donations.

“For Jessica and Monica,” Sonya said, “I feel like we decided, and we did a lot of hard work. When I helped with Elizabeth and Steven, it grew my faith, because everything that we needed, as we needed, it would just land in your lap. Being next to [Elizabeth] is like watching God’s hand at work.”

Elizabeth worked for three years as a workplace chaplain for a Holland-area company that employs many Burmese immigrants who do not speak English. Currently she is a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s three children.

Steven came to the US with some electrical experience, (two of his eight initial English words upon arrival were “conduit wiring”) and the Snyders were able to help him find a job working for Hoekstra Electrical Services in 2009. The company supports education for all its employees, which has enabled Steven to study for his journeyman’s license.

Sumte graduated from Holland Christian High School and is now studying at CareerLine Tech. The family are members at Faith CRC.

Jessica graduated from Calvin College in 2015 with a major in electrical engineering, following an interest she has had since childhood, despite having little to no electricity in their village and often having to study by candlelight or campfire. She now lives in Grand Rapids and works as a control engineer at JR Automation in Holland.

Monica graduated from Trinity Christian College in 2016 with a major in entrepreneurial management. As a student she served for two years as president of the Asian American Alliance, an organization that informs and engages students regarding different Asian cultures.

“It was nice to get to know other people, and to learn about their culture and have them learn about our culture,” Monica said. She now works in Chicago.

“We never imagined we were going to speak English like this and talk to you and explain to you our story like this,” Elizabeth reflected. “Whenever I speak English I’m like, ‘Thank you, God, for your gift!’ Because without English, what are we going to do here?” she laughed.

“It’s really hard to get into the United States. And there’s a lot of challenges, but the community that we are in, oh, it’s just such a blessing,” said Elizabeth. “We are far away from home and family, you know, but God gives us a new family here, and new friends, and new church. We feel like we are home again.”

—Susan Vanden Berg