Community Voices

How Helping a Family Seeking Asylum Changed Our Church Group

Before we met an Afghan family who resettled in Orange County last year, most folks at my church knew little about asylum seekers. We certainly didn’t understand how complicated the asylum issue was. But over the last year, our group of 14 Christian retirees has gained the education of a lifetime.

My wife Jenny and I have been married for 51 years and have belonged to our evangelical free church since 2020. Like others there, we sought to volunteer during our retirement, especially since our four kids left home. So when our group heard about World Relief’s Good Neighbor Team program, which connects community groups with refugee families, we signed up. And so last August, we met Nazir, Zahab, and their many children. (We’ve changed names for privacy.)

From the get-go, we discovered that the federal government gives asylum seekers little assistance—and limits their ability to work. Nazir was eager to support his family but couldn’t receive legal employment authorization for at least six months.

With minimal funds, the couple had not purchased groceries in weeks. So, two team members took Zahab and her eldest son to the store. Five of us arranged to come by with cake a few days later. We learned their story over the full meal the family insisted on feeding us. Nazir had assisted with evacuations during the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul and was assured his family would be evacuated, too. They weren’t.

Afterward, the Taliban took Nazir and beat him; other extended family members had gone into hiding or were put to death. In early 2022, the family fled Afghanistan. They caught a series of flights to Mexico, hoping to request asylum at an American port of entry. On the journey, human traffickers forced Nazir to surrender his money. Finally, the family crossed safely. A noble group of Afghan Americans, themselves children of refugees, connected the family to World Relief.

Our group was shocked by this story. Nazir and Zahab opened our eyes to how dangerous—and dehumanizing– the asylum process could be. The family didn’t only need material comforts; they needed trusted friends in this new country.

Over the next four months, our group took the family grocery shopping, to doctor appointments, and immigration hearings. As word got out, church donations poured in, but Nazir still hadn’t received a work permit nine months after their arrival. In late November, Nazir texted me with anticipation as the day had finally arrived for the family’s hearing to receive humanitarian parole. This two-year status provided a small amount of government assistance and would allow Nazir to work. But a few hours later, the hearing was canceled; the court had lost the schedule.

Jenny and I checked on the family that afternoon. They were devastated. We encouraged them to persist, but Nazir feared deportation if they didn’t receive legal status soon. When we couldn’t reach them a few days later, we drove to their apartment. It was dark. We feared the worst. Had they been deported?

When Nazir finally texted, we were beyond relieved. They’d fled to another country with friendlier immigration policies. In fact, Nazir soon received benefits and then work authorization there. I’m happy for the family, but I wish America had done more for them. Nazir risked his life for Americans, only to be denied basic dignity in the United States. We now see migrants in a new light, including their resilience in the wake of trauma and the injustices they face, like delayed work permits.

Jesus told us to welcome strangers. When we do this, we not only help others; we also change ourselves. Our team cannot fix all our immigration challenges. But we can make a difference by helping one family. We’re glad we did.

Bill Lawrence and his wife Jenny are retirees and members of Fullerton Free Church and live in Orange County. Their Good Neighbor Team is now serving a second refugee family.

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