Thomas Gabriel, a Syrian refugee, considers the events of the past three years nothing short of a miracle.
In 2014 he and his family faced likely death in the Syrian war. Now Gabriel lives peacefully in America with his wife and two boys. It’s not that Gabriel’s life is without fear; he’s been waiting for years for an asylum hearing in the United States and worries that his relatives still in Syria remain in danger. (For these reasons, his real name is not used in this article.) Yet he has a job. The kids are in school. And he and his family have inspired the creation of a new nonprofit that’s helped dozens more refugees from Syria and Somalia.
“God is amazing, and I keep sharing this with many friends here. One of them, he told me ‘God has stopped doing miracles.’ I got mad,” Gabriel says. “Being here with my family is a miracle.”
The nonprofit that Gabriel helped found is Ananias Mission. Ananias is the early Christian convert in Damascus whom God sent to restore sight to Paul (even though Paul—then Saul—was slaying Christians left and right).
“(Ananias) was the blessed tool of God in healing Saul. He changed his life for good,” Gabriel said. “This is what we find ourselves doing nowadays . . . trying to make the difference for people who were persecuted and tortured.”
How it began
Since many in the United States see the war in Syria as extremist Muslims killing Christians, it’s worth noting that a Muslim business colleague helped save Gabriel and his family. This man, hearing of the danger Gabriel faced in Syria, connected him to another business connection in the United States—Ed Wethli, a coffee wholesaler in the Pittsburgh area.
For months in early 2014, Gabriel called Wethli several times a week. Gabriel was working outside Syria, and his wife was in the Syrian capital of Damascus with their two boys. The children were unable to leave the house because of gunfights and explosions in the streets. Gabriel couldn’t return to Syria for fear of being conscripted by one of the warring parties. Gabriel wanted Wethli to help the family be reunited in the United States.
In those phone calls, Wethli asked probing questions about Gabriel’s faith and motivations—he wanted to make sure he could trust this man he’d never met in person. But as the war worsened, just a few days before Christmas, Wethli welcomed the Gabriel family into his home. He helped them settle in, open checking accounts, get phones, and secure medical appointments for the kids to attend school.
Then, Wethli says, “They started sharing these stories about their family in Syria.” Gabriel says his cousin, a judge, was shot in the back and his wife’s cousin was beheaded. Gabriel’s mother was hiding in an apartment hallway to avoid sniper fire at the window.
When Wethli saw the photo of a lifeless 3-year-old boy on a beach, he knew he had to do more than welcome in one Syrian family. The boy, Alan Kurdi, was the picture of innocence. He was lost at sea while trying to escape the Syrian war. Belly down, he lay at the edge of the Mediterranean surf dressed tidily in blue denim shorts, a red T-shirt, and gym shoes with his head of dark brown hair turned toward the ocean. The photo went viral, horrifying people around the world.
Wethli talked to Gabriel about what they could do, and they came up with a plan. Wethli texted 60 friends he thought might be interested in helping and invited them to his house. Twenty showed, several of whom would eventually become the board of directors for Ananias Mission.
Together, the group strategized about how to bring the families to safety. Someone suggested that his niece, Jennifer Allison, a lawyer, could help. Allison knew little about immigration, though she said she could possibly help with fundraising and communications. But she was quickly drawn in. She took a leave of absence from work. A few months later she told her employer she wouldn’t be returning. Today Allison is executive director of Ananias.
Allison says the group originally looked into a way to get Syrian refugees into the United States. “There really wasn’t,” she says. Then Gabriel told them that other Syrians were going to Canada. Canada has a private sponsorship program that allots churches a certain number of spaces for refugees.
Through this program, one church assumes almost all the resettlement expenses and tasks. “You have hundreds of people in these churches who are committing to welcoming the families in,” Allison says. “They have committees for everything. So they’ll have a group of people dedicated to driving the families around. They’ll make sure that the kids get enrolled in school and that they’re progressing well. They’ll have people working to help the adults find job opportunities and to help them with English.”
Canadian churches were willing to bring in refugees, but they needed financial help. Allison and Wethli got to work raising money through their personal networks—Allison recalls that alumna from her college kicked in nearly $10,000—and looking for a church that they could partner with. But their first connection, with a church in Quebec, fell through. Their bank froze their account because of the large sum connected with the word Syria.
Pope Francis ups the ante
In September 2015 Pope Francis announced he’d take in two Syrian refugee families at the Vatican. And he expected others to follow suit. “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe, take in one family,” the pope said.
Although Pope Francis was speaking specifically to Europeans, in St. Catharines, Ontario, Bishop Gerard Bergie echoed that sentiment to his diocese, and parishioners responded in droves.
“We were just getting flooded with phone calls,” says diocesan Vice-Chancellor Margaret Jong. The response overwhelmed the diocese. “Nobody knew what to do with them, so I just started taking the calls,” she says.
The diocese got a group together to develop a plan. Then, just before the meeting, came a phone call from about 250 miles south, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. The caller was Wethli. Ananias Mission had raised $30,000—the amount needed to sponsor a refugee in Canada—and was looking for partner with whom to share their funds.
Wethli says that when he started to explain the situation, Jong asked him, “ ‘Do you believe in providence?’ I’m like, ‘Of course.’ So she said, ‘We’re gonna have our first meeting at 2 o’clock to talk about sponsoring refugee families in the diocese. . . . Your families may be some of the first families we sponsor.’ ”
The first visit
Jong invited Wethli and Allison to speak to a group of Canadian Catholic parishes ready to sponsor refugees. “After that meeting we had four churches commit. And one church was gonna take two families,” Wethli said. “We started raising money, going to churches, calling everybody, and talking with friends and family. And we brought the first $85,000 up to Canada in January.”
Since then, Ananias has helped raise money to bring about 50 Syrian refugees to Canada.
Jong says that the Canadian community has been generally receptive to the new arrivals. “We do hear some grumbling. People say, “We never got this help when we came to Canada,” Jong says. “But for the most part, people are willing to help. Our schools have done tremendous things, like a clothing drive. School families have become involved.”
Under the private sponsorship program, each church commits to supporting families for one year. That support includes housing, clothing, arranging for the children to attend school, healthcare, finding employment, and language programs. “We want them to learn English so they can possibly continue in careers they had before leaving Syria,” Jong says. “They want to get back to as normal a life as possible.”
Medical care, particularly dental care, is important as well, Jong says, “Because a lot them have not had good diets for a length of time. We have to find professionals willing to do it at a lower rate to support families.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is also an immediate need. “One of the first families that arrived, the children would hear a car backfiring and become terrified,” Jong says.
Marilyn Nabilsi works with refugees for the Diocese of St. Catharines. She says that the events the refugees have lived through have placed a huge strain on relationships. “There’s a lot of families that need marriage counseling,” Nabilsi says. “There’s not a lot of resources in Arabic. There’s not a lot of resources for post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve been trying to help them, but I’m not a professional.”
Raising funds, opening hearts
To date, Ananias has raised $260,000. They speak at churches and conduct fundraisers, often up to six times a month. They speak to adult education classes, groups of children, and young adults.
Allison says that just as important as the fundraising is educating people about the crisis in Syria. Gabriel sometimes comes to speak as well so that people can see the human face of those affected by war. “You ask people what they know about Syria, and they’ll say ISIS, terrorism,” Allison says. “For a lot of Americans it doesn’t really go beyond that.”
Allison says she often sees a shift in people’s perspective after these talks. She recently spoke to a group of students that included a college-age woman with a Trump sticker on her laptop. By the end of the talk, Allison says the young woman enthusiastically agreed with her about the importance of helping the Syrians who are facing violence.
“We’ve definitely gone into churches that are very different ideologically,” Allison says. “I‘ve been very impressed when people hear our story.”
Meanwhile, Wethli sometimes feels disappointed in his fellow American Catholics. “I think more priests need to open their doors and let us talk in the churches,” Wethli says. “I think a lot of Catholics want to be Christians, and they’re not given the opportunity to demonstrate their Christian faith.”
Wethli, who lives in a wealthy neighborhood, also doesn’t understand why his neighbors don’t welcome other refugee families into their homes. “What I’ve done I don’t think is special. It’s fun,” he says, recalling bringing the Gabriels to Washington, D.C. for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. “It’s fun to get to know people and learn about their lives.”
One church that has become involved is St. James in the wealthy Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley. Parishioners contributed $8,000 on the first Sunday they learned about Ananias, and several large donors stepped up after that.
In religious education classes, kids wrote letters to let refugees know they were thinking of them, says Karen Conroy, director of religious education. “The fourth grade wanted to have lemonade and a bake sale,” Conroy says. “The sixth-grade class put together a little brochure with educational material. The first-grade class made crafts sold for a dollar a piece.”
Conroy, too, wishes other Catholic parishes would jump in. But she believes people are afraid of Muslims and of inviting violence into the United States. “It has been helpful that these (Syrians) are Christians, largely,” she says about those Ananias is helping. “I would like people to think that is not the limit. I think we have to realize that it doesn’t matter whether they’re fellow Christians. People in Jewish culture see their neighbor the same as other Jews. And Jesus had to call their attention to that.”
Some refugees don’t want to resettle in the United States; many are in Lebanon hoping to return to Syria. So Ananias Mission has broadened its scope beyond Syrian refugees living in North America. Wethli and Allison are working with a church in Lebanon, supporting a type of food stamp program. “They’re not a big church, but they are feeding 1,700 refugees,” Allison said.
Wethli and Allison visited some of those Syrian refugees in Lebanon. “The kids can’t go to school,” Wethli says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. Everything’s upside down.”
Ananias has also gotten involved with helping Pittsburgh’s substantial Somali Bantu refugee population. Allison said many people they’ve spoken to during church visits had said they wanted to help materially by donating furniture and clothing to local people. Meanwhile, Wethli learned that many Somali refugees were living in practically empty apartments, using cardboard boxes for furniture. Now Ananias is working with St. James to donate furniture and other household goods.
Then, after a man died in Pittsburgh in part because 911 dispatchers couldn’t understand the caller’s language, Allison helped the refugees create refrigerator magnets with several prompts to use when calling 911. The magnets are in multiple languages, including Kizigua, a Bantu language.
One of the Ananias board members, farmer Don Kretschmann, hired two Somalis to fill his labor gaps.
On the Somali men’s first day on the Kretschmann Family Organic Farm, Bare Bule plants onions while a younger man, Abdul Chirambo, waters the crops. Bule says he’s had other jobs before this one. “The difference between the other jobs and here is here you still make a little bit more money than the other job and, plus, there is no harassment, no discrimination,” Chirambo says, translating Bule’s words.
Kretschmann says that he didn’t hire the men out of exclusively noble principles. “I don’t want to make it sound too, all high-minded—I desperately needed help,” Kretschmann says. And he admits he does have concerns about cultural tensions even among his own small workforce, which includes Mexican immigrants as well as the Somali workers. Still, Kretschmann stresses the importance of integrating Christian Mexican migrants and Muslim Somali refugees in work and society. Otherwise, he says, we’re recreating the conditions that created the conflicts in Syria and other parts of the world.
Paying back and forward
In Kretschmann’s youth, he backpacked around Mexico. He says the locals were so hospitable to him that he couldn’t think of not repaying such kindnesses through his farm and through his work with Ananias.
Wethli and Gabriel point out the typical generosity of Syrian culture as well. They feel certain that, if the shoe were on the other foot, Syrians would open their doors to Americans.
“As a church [in Syria] we will not look at you with cross hands and say, ‘What can we do?’ ” Thomas says, folding his arms. “We will try to find a way to help you.”
Gabriel’s faith remains strong. The creation of Ananias Mission is an example to him of what can happen through faith. “God opened this door for us,” he says. “Four or five years ago, there was no Ananias Mission.”
When Gabriel talks about planning Ananias’ next steps, he frequently says what’s needed is as follows: “One is prayers, two is prayers, three is prayers. Four is money.”
Gabriel’s wife sustained his hope for peace when they were in the Middle East, and she says she still hasn’t given up hope for peace in Syria. They both shake their heads when they think of giving in to despair.
“You cannot give up hope,” she says.
“Never,” Gabriel agrees.
This article also appears in the August 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 8, pages 12–17).
Photo courtesy of Ananias Mission