Written by Tess Allen
Photos by Cole McCauley
DURHAM, N.C. – When the door opens, there are white faces and there are black faces. There is English and there is Swahili. But all are laughing and talking together as though they are family.
Marcia Elliott and Alice Bolanos make weekly trips over to this plain, beige apartment in Durham, North Carolina, where they spend time with the Muya family, a refugee family of eight who arrived in the U.S. from Somalia in September.
The Muyas fled from Somalia to a refugee camp in Kenya in 2004 to escape the war-torn country they call home. Then, in 2016, they finally arrived in the United States.
The family didn’t meet Elliott and Bolanos until just months ago when they arrived in the U.S., but you’d never know from watching them. They seem like the oldest of friends.
Elliott and Bolanos are part of the Good Neighbor team assigned by World Relief to the Muya family.
World Relief is an international refugee resettlement agency with 25 offices nationwide—one of which is in Durham. According to their website, they “stand with the vulnerable, partnering with local churches to end the cycle of suffering, transforming lives and building sustainable communities.”
One way they do this is by partnering local community members with refugee families as part of their Good Neighbor program.
But the Good Neighbor program is about much more than just helping families like the Muyas navigate the logistics of life in a new place when they arrive.
“Since then our job has just been developing a relationship with them, just trying to help them make sense of life here in America, “ Elliott said. “Just being a friend.”
World Relief also emphasizes to their Good Neighbor teams how important it is that they not only help these families but that they do so in a manner that allows them to become independent.
“My initial thought was, ‘We’ve got to help them do everything.’ You see their situation and you just want to be a friend and help, and World Relief was pretty quick to say, ‘OK, but they need to be independent,’” Elliott said. “I think it’s amazing how independent they are becoming. They really know how to get on the bus, get around. They know how to contact their medical care; they know how to get in touch with their teachers.”
Bolanos smiled recalling her first bus ride with the Muya family. She had to learn the Durham bus routes alongside them so that she could teach them.
“We got on the bus, went down to the bus station and took the next bus to get to Braggtown Church to get them some clothes. It was raining, and we had to find the bus on our phone and the route and everything, so it was good that we had that experience with them to kind of empathize with how difficult it is,” Bolanos said. “It helped them to get a routine going. They get acculturated very quickly.”
World Relief and their Good Neighbor teams are focused on the long-term success of these families.
It’s a warm Friday morning this week when Elliott and Bolanos stop by the Muya’s home near Duke University’s campus.
Elliott reminds the mother, Mnoza, that she needs to sign her daughter’s permission slip so she can go on an upcoming class fieldtrip and then tells the oldest of the Muya kids to go change his clothes so he won’t ruin his new shirt. He and his father will be going to the Bethesda Ruritan Club on this day to clean it. Elliott and Bolanos helped them find this job to make their rent this month, as their income from Mnoza’s homemade jewelry and her husband’s minimum wage part-time job at a fast-food wing joint aren’t cutting it.
The Good Neighbors ultimately aim to find the family more permanent work so that they can independently pay their rent and take care of themselves on a regular basis.
“We help them build their resume, help them get on LinkedIn, help them fill out applications, because most applications are online now, “ Bolanos said. “Just seeing them smile and knowing what to do, for me, that is worth it all. When you know they’re going through a rough time and then you pick them up after a meeting and they have a big smile, or you come out of a job interview and, even if they’re not going to get the job for whatever reason, just knowing that they’ve survived a job interview is a big deal.”
Every day is a struggle to adapt to a new culture for the Muyas, but with World Relief and people like Elliott and Bolanos on their side, they are thriving. They are finding jobs, succeeding in school and learning about life in the U.S.
And Elliott and Bolanos can no longer imagine their lives without the Muyas.
“These are our friends, and we’re just trying to continue to pour into their lives and help them out,” Elliott said.
World Relief is also one of the many organizations that will be affected by President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigration from six Muslim-majority nations should it be reinstated. While the order is on hold for now, the possibilities of what will happen if it’s enacted are concerning to Elliott, Bolanos and all of those at World Relief.
While this order would not directly affect the Muya family or most of other families that are already in the U.S., Elliott is still worried.
“It affects, I think, how I feel about the whole refugee program and just thinking about all the different other people who need the resources and need the support and need the safety,” Elliott said.
World Relief depends on federal funding for the majority of their financing. They receive a per capita grant dependent on the number of refugees coming into their area. That money helps support the agencies’ offices, staff and, mostly, the refugees themselves.
With the dramatic decrease in refugee arrivals that would accompany the reinstatement of this order, World Relief’s funding will drop equally dramatically. The Durham office, for example, will lose one-fourth of its federal funding, or about $250,000 a year. Nationwide, five World Relief offices will close and 140 staff members will be laid off.
The federal funding that World Relief receives for refugees, though, is used for the initial arrival period. However, Matthew Soerens, World Relief’s U.S. director of church mobilization, says that the organization is very intentional about trying to serve refugees beyond that period.
“That’s where we lean really heavily on churches, on volunteers, on other community groups as well and on raising private revenue to support people beyond that time period,” Soerens said.
Soerens said that at World Relief, they believe that 90 days is not long enough for refugees to become fully integrated and comfortable in a new culture.
“And that’s where we love every refugee to be connected to a team from a local church, or a community group that’s going to befriend them, that’s going to help them understand what culture is in Durham, North Carolina,” Soerens said.
This is where the Good Neighbor teams come in to play.
Soerens also said that the loss of funding is why it’s increasingly important for their Good Neighbor teams to help refugees find jobs. World Relief can no longer afford to cover rent for families for more than a couple of months.
Kaylee Law, World Relief Durham’s family and volunteer coordinator, said that local support in the Triangle Area is overwhelmingly high. Their volunteer base is the largest of any of the 25 World Relief offices in the U.S. so finding Good Neighbors to partner with refugee families is not difficult.
“There’s just an incredible number of people wanting to love refugees and get to know them and serve them,” Law said.
World Relief trains them and pairs them with families in the hope that the partnership will launch into a friendship when the organization itself is no longer able to provide direct support.
And it’s clear in the case of Elliott, Bolanos and the Muya family that World Relief’s goal is being obtained even in the midst of these challenges.
A new community is being built in Durham, one that is constantly evolving, one with a mix of faces, languages and cultures. And World Relief Durham and its volunteers plan to be there every step of the way.