By Mo Scarpelli
Marsa fell in love when she was fifteen years old.
“He had no goats,” she says. That means the man she loved couldn’t afford to offer her parents a dowry.
So Marsa’s family found her an older man from a different tribe in the Sudan, a man that didn’t speak her language or know her at all prior to their wedding.
“His brothers knew my language and translated,” she said.
Marsa, her new husband, and her brothers came to America in 2000. Pregnant, she soon found out she had syphallis and needed to take a series of shots so that her baby would live.
“If I had not had the shots,” she said, “then my baby would have died.”
But Leno, now 7 years old, survived, and Marsa is thankful for that.
“At first, I get here and I cried every day,” she said. “But I was happy after I had children.”
Marsa has four children, actually. The banging screen door is an indicator of their presence as Marsa explains her story with six-month-old Apik in her lap. Abuk, 5, helps herself to a hotdog for lunch and Nyakajn, 2, lingers around the couch area where her mother sits.
Marsa’s family is one of hundreds living in the Kennedy Park city housing in Portland, Maine. Most of those within blocks of her apartment are Sudanese and Somali refugees, brought into the United States through Catholic Charity sponsorship.
The city has the largest Sudanese immigrant population in the country. Even on rainy days, the neighborhood courses with some of the darkest-skinned people in America.
“But there are many others – over 42 nationalities are represented just in this community,” said Peggy Hinman, volunteer ministry coordinator of the Root Cellar, a community center that aids refugees and immigrants in their transition to American life.
In a brand new world, among new languages and social norms, many immigrants like Marsa crave stability and direction. The Root Cellar tries to provide that in the form of food and clothing donation, education, free dental and medical care and relational ministry.
“We have refugees come straight from the plane to the Root Cellar to get clothing,” said Hinman. “They know us so well. Many refugees went through hard times coming here and they just want to be in a community with peace.”
Experience Mission started working with the Root Cellar just this summer. Interns Noah Nells, Heidi Clum and Cori Lyons are the first to manage EM teams in Portland, where they see building relationships as the most important service for people adjusting to a new culture.
“These kids need people that are genuine to love them,” said 22-year-old volunteer Leah Sherck from Greenville Church of the Bretheren in Greenville, Ohio. “From talking with the kids, you see they’re so distrustful, they’re really looking for someone they can trust. I haven’t been here even a week and I already see a difference with some just from talking to them and remembering their names.”
Marsa’s children, along with more fifty more from the neighborhood, come to the Root Cellar every weekday for Kids Club with Experience Mission. The volunteers’ time with them for several hours a day in a safe place gives them stability, confidence and a chance to relate to others.
“It seems really odd because it’s Maine, it seems to be the middle of nowhere,” said Sherck. “When I think of serving refugees in America, I always think of L.A. or New York City, but there are so many immigrants here. It’s a very unique situation.”
Portland was named a refugee city in the country by Catholic Charities. Through the Charities alone, more than 5,000 people from more than two dozen countries arrive in the area as refugees from foreign countries.
Portland has the most Sudanese immigrant population in the United States.
Just by walking through the neighborhood, says Hinman, you feel like the United Nations is right in your backyard. The vast diversity, many languages and continuing cultures don’t hinder the Root Cellar and EM’s message of Christian faith through service, however.
“I say we believe in God,” Hinman said of the volunteers. “And I don’t apologize for that one bit. We can do all sorts of projects, but it’s really the faith that does it. God just does things – it’s so awesome, I can’t stand it.”
Experience Mission will serve the Portland, Maine area until July 18, and hopes to return to the area again every summer for years to come.
Experience Mission is offering Summer 2009 mission trips to Portland and other locations in the U.S. and abroad. Visit www.experiencemission.org or call 360-732-0986 to learn more.