2 Nephi 1:5 prophesies of a land of liberty: “Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord.”
And those others come. They come from Jordan. From Mexico. Syria. China. Somalia. A list of nations represented by the Church’s Immigrant Services Initiative reads like a score of colorful passport stamps.
And just as diverse as the immigrants they serve are a group of passionate volunteers from both within and outside of the Church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Immigrant Services Initiative provides a wide variety of services to immigrants, including cultural adaptation classes and legal clinics. These services are provided at the Church’s Welcome Centers, and through partnerships with other multicultural and spiritual centers in the Valley. Currently, Arizona’s only Welcome Center is in Mesa, but plans for expansion are on the table.
Sister Susan Whetten-Udall is a Volunteer Services Coordinator at the Mesa Welcome Center. The daughter of an immigrant, she served a Pathway mission and began an ESL program in the Valley. She loves watching lives improve as the result of the work being done.
“The trajectory of a life can change,” she says, “and it can impact generations perpetually.”
In the Greater Phoenix Area, affiliations with volunteers from across all faiths and walks of life bring their time and talent to people in need. These site partnerships include Arizona State University’s Beus Center for Law and Society, the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, and the Somali American United Council Office in Phoenix.
Immigrant and refugee populations face myriad challenges in adapting to their new lives. Such challenges may come as issues of distance or cost. Language barriers and differences in social norms can make getting information problematic, but the volunteers who serve Arizona’s immigrant community offer solutions, motivation and hope.
One volunteer, Sister Norma Chavez, understands the drive of the immigrant community she teaches—and she understands their roadblocks as well.
Chavez, who didn’t learn English until she got to school, remembers “being ostracized, being set aside.”
She worked as a child doing backbreaking field labor in California. As a girl, she had one dream: to attend UCLA, which she did. After an elementary teaching career that spanned more than four decades and touched the lives of many immigrants, Sister Chavez was well positioned to take over as the Immigrant Services Center Volunteer Coordinator at the Islamic Community Center site this past March.
Just like her elementary students, “these [immigrants and refugees] have become mine in my heart,” Chavez says.
Sister Chavez works with Ahmad Odeh, current president of ASU’s US UNITED (Undertake Natural Integration to Endorse Diversity), and incoming president Adam Akkad.
With his fair skin and blond hair, Akkad says, some people are surprised to find out that the U.S.-born college student is ethnically Syrian, a Muslim who spent much of his life in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. This is one of many misconceptions he is happy to dispel as a volunteer for the program.
“The refugees that are coming from overseas aren’t people that are different from us in any way—it’s just their lives got completely turned upside down, and now they’re here.”
Fallacies that immigrants are “not as educated, not as skillful, not as functional” are unfortunate, says Akkad. “In reality, we’re all people.”
Sister Noemi Cruz, Assistant Volunteer Coordinator, was born in Mexico. She had experience in language immersion through her children’s school, and volunteering seemed like a natural outgrowth of her personal background and love for others.
“I love to teach and I love to serve,” she says. “Wherever God needs me, I’m there.” Her volunteer work began with the simple action of setting up tables, then moved to crafts and tutoring.
Her eyes fill with tears as she talks about helping one special needs immigrant child. “I feel that I’ve done something worthwhile for this child and his family,” she says.
Another volunteer, Rehana Mohamed, serves with Helping Hands and Muslims for Humanity. She eventually found herself partnering with the Mesa Welcome Center, where over 100 people get help every week. Originally from India, Mohamed worked in the tech sector before finding her passion for helping immigrants.
Mohamed sees herself in the diverse faces of the people she serves. “They’re people like us,” she says. “We have to love each other. We have to be humble and sincere to help them.”
At the Somali American United Council offices are Sister Ruth Stamp-Shepard, a Jamaican immigrant herself, and Sister Nora Castañeda, the Special Projects Director of Language Acquisition in the Creighton School District.
Sister Stamp-Shepard remembers being teased as a child for her accent—not by children, who were sympathetic, but by adults. “If we can remember to become like a child, to be open, to be loving, unconditionally, things would go so much smoother,” she says. Of her experience with immigrants and refugees, she exudes positivity and warmth: “They are dedicated. They love this country. They appreciate the freedoms we enjoy . . . the heart is the same.”
Sister Castañeda is adamant about how her volunteer work has changed her views on service: “Charity and love go beyond putting together a packet of items to give away.”
Work at the Somali American United Council offices is headed by Dr. Mohamed Ali Abukar, President and CEO. Dr. Abukar, now an adjunct professor at Utah State University and Grand Canyon University who received political asylum from the United States government during the Somali Civil War, had witnessed the destructive tribalism in his home country.
When he founded his nonprofit to support Somali immigrants, he founded it upon three maxims: his foundation would not import the disease of divisiveness from Somali, it would work to heal wounds, and everyone would work on a volunteer basis—without grants or outside help—to ensure commitment.
Since then, the Somali American United Council has grown in scope and service, aiding immigrants from all nations in its programs. It boasts an ethnically diverse board as well.
Dr. Abukar is emphatic about the value immigrants bring to a community: “We all gain from the strength and courage of millions who fled their homes for freedom and opportunity.”
Sometimes Church members are hesitant to get involved with immigrant and refugee programs. Sister Ruth Stamp-Shepard is quick to respond when people ask her why she serves the immigrant community.
“We do that because they are our brothers and sisters,” she says. “We need to be open, we need to be loving, and we need to see them as individuals.”
Indeed, Sister Susan Whetten-Udall sees the hand of God in this immigrant influx, reminding all who cross her path of 2 Nephi 1:6: “[T]here shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.”
To get involved, please visit the Church’s Mesa Welcome Center at 830 E. 2nd Avenue in Mesa, the Islamic Community Center of Tempe at 131 E 6th St in Tempe, or the Somali American United Council at 2425 E Thomas Road #11 in Phoenix.
Look for next month’s cover story, where we’ll detail the type of services provided by these volunteer organizations and share the personal stories of immigrants and refugees who benefit from them.