Participating Church Stories

Hospitality continues for detained immigrants during pandemic

An UMCOR grant helps El Refugio serve detained immigrants and their loved ones


By Christie R. House

El Refugio provides care packages that help immigrant families protect themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO: EL REFUGIO
El Refugio provides care packages that help immigrant families protect themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO: EL REFUGIO 

After 20 months in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, J. underwent major surgery and was then released under an order of supervision from Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. He’s lived in the United States for 28 years and has children who are U.S. citizens.

Because cases of COVID-19 have been reported at Stewart, the judge ordered J. to quarantine for two weeks before returning home to his family in New York City. But J. knew few people in Georgia and had nowhere to go to quarantine.

Fortunately, J. contacted El Refugio, a ministry of hospitality that serves immigrants at Stewart Detention Center and cares for their loved ones. El Refugio found an Air B&B operated by the parents of one of its active volunteers where J. could stay. The large, wooded property set back from the road in South Fulton, Georgia, was the perfect place to decompress while J. recovered from his surgery. The healthy food provided by his hosts had an immediate, positive impact on his health.

A place and people of welcome

El Refugio began in 2010 as a visitation ministry to accompany immigrants held at the Stewart Detention Center, a private, for-profit institution. Its location is isolated, a 2 ½ hour drive southwest of Atlanta. The nearest hotel is about 40 miles away. Volunteers discovered that families would often drive eight or more hours to see their loved ones for the permitted one-hour visit but had nowhere to buy food or stay for the night.

As the ministry grew through the participation of churches and community groups, El Refugio became a nonprofit organization in 2012 and Amilcar Valencia, a committed volunteer, became its executive director in 2015. The volunteers rented a house to serve as a hospitality center for people detained and their families. Today, El Refugio owns the hospitality house.

This year, El Refugio received a solidarity grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief to help transition its ministries during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Stewart went into lockdown and visitors were denied entry, El Refugio sought ways to stay connected with those detained inside, to continue to serve their needs and offer hospitality to them and their families.

Reaching across the COVID-19 divide

J. received clothes, shoes, toiletries and all he needed for his recovery and journey home through El Refugio’s hospitality service. PHOTO: EL REFUGIO
J. received clothes, shoes, toiletries and all he needed for his recovery and journey home through El Refugio’s hospitality service. PHOTO: EL REFUGIO

Among U.S. detention centers, Stewart has one of the lowest rates of asylum case approval, about 4%. The national rate is 47%. Most people detained at Stewart are deported, and it is important for their families in the U.S. to know what is happening and to make the trip to see them if they can.

Valencia mentioned that, at first, El Refugio and other organizations expected Stewart to release hundreds from detention. Organized around units of as many as 80 people confined together in a room with 40 bunkbeds, social distancing would be impossible. But the expected flood never happened. Stewart continued to release only a trickle of immigrants.

During lockdown, El Refugio continues to offer hospitality, assisting those released with one or two nights of lodging, clean clothing and toiletries. When the volunteers could no longer deliver backpacks with food and clothing, they found a way to mail them to immigrants being released. The agency continues to coordinate with families to find transportation or pay for bus or airline tickets to return immigrants to their families in the U.S.

The UMCOR grant has provided funds for detained immigrants to use in the detention commissary so they can supplement their food rations and buy toiletries and other things they need. To keep families connected, El Refugio also set up phone accounts.

“We have a hot line,” Valencia explains. “People call us from Stewart. At the beginning of the pandemic, they received no masks or other forms of protection, but by the end of April, they had masks, one mask to last 10 days or two weeks.”

The immigrant families that El Refugio serves cannot receive federal economic assistance. El Refugio provides families with care packages that contain personal protection equipment, gift cards and hard to find items, like toilet paper. Networking with other agencies around the country to help immigrants resettle is also important.

As part of local and national groups fighting for immigrant justice, El Refugio advocates release for specific cases. The agency also continues education sessions in the community to tell the stories of immigrants detained, released or deported.

Urgent needs met

Valencia has many stories to tell. “Just recently, a woman shared with us that she was pregnant and due on the same day her husband was to be deported,” he said. “We mailed her a standard care package containing gift cards for groceries, masks, hand sanitizer and other items. And we sent a second care package containing diapers, lotion, baby wash and items for the new baby. She received the care packages the same day she returned home after giving birth. She called the hotline to say she felt less alone in her journey as an undocumented immigrant with a husband facing deportation, two school-age children and a new baby.”

El Refugio provided J. with clothing, toiletries and more, including a cane. Michelle Fierro, El Refugio’s post-release coordinator, checked in with him daily. “Coming out of detention, the environment is so oppressive,” she said. At the detention center, J. was known only by the last three digits of his number.

On May 1, J. left for New York to enter the care of a human rights partner that works with families facing deportation before reuniting with his three grown daughters.

Valencia expressed thanks to UMCOR for providing financial support, so El Refugio can continue to accompany people like J. “When we take the time to truly listen to our friends and understand their needs, we can direct our resources in ways that provide the support they need to move forward in their journey.”

Christie R. House is a writer and editor consultant with Global Ministries and UMCOR.

Partnering for abundant health across Nigeria

By Christie R. House

Patience Zakari, a young mother in rural Nigeria, was afraid to take her children to a clinic when they were sick with fever. She feared the cost of treatment, given her limited budget, which made it difficult to pay for essentials like food and school fees. She preferred, instead, to go to a local chemist to buy cheaper malaria drugs, but they didn’t always work. 

When her twins, who were still babies, became ill, she feared they would not survive. She found a clinic operated by the Nigerian United Methodist Church, which was screening for and treating malaria at no cost to the patients. “I, my twins, and my other children all received treatment and are well again. Now that we are receiving free malaria treatment, I no longer fear going to the clinic,” Zakari said. 

Patience Zakari received medication for herself, her twins, and her other children from the Imagine No Malaria project in Nigeria. She had been afraid to go to clinic for a proper diagnosis because of the cost, but the UMC Nigeria health clinic provided health assessments, proper medications and education about preventive methods and use of bed nets for free. Photo: UMC Health Board, Nigeria

A strong, integrated health system that families and individuals can trust to give the best care possible is not a given in many parts of the world. In Nigeria, United Methodist health facilities in rural areas are working to improve their outreach into the communities they serve. 

The Nigeria Rural Health Program, operated by the Nigeria United Methodist Health Board, oversees 16 rural health clinics in four annual conferences within the Nigeria Episcopal Area. It also supports the newly established Jalingo Hospital, constructed in 2017, thanks to an Imagine No Malaria (INM) Hospital Revitalization Grant. 

A Health System Strengthening operational grant from Global Ministries’ Global Health unit supports the operations required to manage the health board’s country office. The grant provides salaries for key program staff, like the health board coordinator, Dr. Godfrey Ogbu. It makes possible supervisory visits and on-the-job training of facility staff at the supported health facilities. This integrated and comprehensive approach to the health needs in Nigeria increases access and improves the quality of services delivered. 

A year-long Imagine No Malaria program that began in June 2019 provides long-lasting insecticide bed nets, prophylaxis to prevent malaria, and medications and supplies for diagnosis and treatment. Education encouraging behavioral changes to prevent malaria are included in this outreach to community members. 

Reaching patients with services and treatments they need 

The Nigeria Health Board team travels to United Methodist primary health-care facilities to equip and empower clinic staff with technical information to increase their response. Moses Alikali, who serves as the INM officer in Nigeria, reports that he and Ogbu visited the 16 facilities to monitor malaria programs four times between June and December last year, despite the difficult terrain. Alikali outlines the details involved in one of these visits: “We are making sure that the beneficiaries are receiving free malaria treatment, that health facility staff are adhering to World Health Organization malaria treatment protocol, and that proper documentation of patients and accountability of malaria commodities are recorded.” 

Moses Alikali conducts a clinical review meeting in the Northeast Conference of the UMC, looking at malaria statistics, and data gathering and reporting. Photo: UMC Nigeria Health Board

Through collaboration with their Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) and INM teams, the Nigeria Health Board works toward quality care for all patients who visit the UMC facilities, particularly pregnant women and children under five, who are the most vulnerable to disease. Women who come for prenatal visits can receive medication that will protect them and their babies from contracting malaria. They can also be tested for HIV and if they test positive, start antiretroviral medications. With proper treatment, HIV-positive mothers have a good chance of delivering HIV-free newborns. 

This work is vital because Nigeria accounts for 10% of the world’s maternal deaths and ranks 6th in the world for mortality of children under age five. Malaria infection during pregnancy raises risks for both mother and fetus. Maternal anemia, fetal loss, premature delivery and low birth-weight are a few of the dangers. 

But the first step is gaining the trust of families so that mothers are aware of their need for the services and come for prenatal visits. 

Marta Sunday, who lives near the United Methodist Taka Wurkum facility, found the treatment she needed after she’d tried others: “I was sick for weeks. Even though I was receiving treatment from another health facility, I didn’t recover. At Taka Wurkum, the doctor checked me and explained the reasons why I was still sick. He said either the malaria drugs I bought from the market had expired or I wasn’t taking the right dose. Within two days, the medication he gave me changed everything, and I am feeling good. My baby is calm and healthy since she was treated in this facility. I thank the mission clinic and the doctor in charge who has taken the time to see that these services reach us.” 

The Nigeria Health Board also received essential medications and equipment from a HSS Primary Healthcare grant to support gaps in medications and supplies in the targeted health-care clinics. In addition, funds will support the rehabilitation of seven health facilities in Nigeria. 

Along with facility revitalization and provision of essential supplies, the HSS program invests in staff development to improve the quality of care. Through a Global Ministries-funded obstetric training event held in the Philippines, a doctor and nurse team received hands-on Caesarian-section training that they brought back to Jalingo Hospital and are sharing with their colleagues. 

Working with communities for health improvement 

Alikali says community involvement is key for the successful implementation and sustainability of malaria control intervention. “Already in the communities are infrastructures, like community leaders and church leaders, who provide avenues for entry,” he noted. 

In its first six months, the INM project directly impacted the lives of 21,075 people, including children, pregnant women, and others. More than 2,038 people who might have died of malaria were saved. The project made quality malaria medications available in hard-to-reach communities. And, the number of patients that visited the health facilities where the INM project has been implemented tripled to 23,991. 

The success of this project has boosted the confidence and enthusiasm of the staff in the facilities and the level of community trust as well. This abundant trust has gone a long way to increase health and well-being in remote areas. Receiving correct diagnoses and effective treatments at little or no cost has increased the number of families seeking treatment. The Nigerian Health Board therefore anticipates a general reduction in morbidity in the communities they serve, especially for women and their babies. 

Christie R. House is a consulting editor and writer with Global Ministries.

No longer a generation of anguish but a generation of hope

Ending the AIDS pandemic is a collective responsibility. It is a life-saving ministry and movement in which the church plays a vital part. There are eight projects under the Abundant Health banner that have leading roles in reaching young people who are least aware, most at risk, and perhaps most afraid of stigma. 

United Methodist Health Board section marches in the parade, World AIDS Day 2019, Kitwe, Zambia. Photo: Courtesy Zambia UM Health Board

The United Methodist Church’s Health Board in Zambia joined local partners in Kitwe, and the rest of the world, to organize and commemorate World AIDS Day 2019 in December. It was themed “Communities making a difference, pressing toward ending AIDS.” 

The celebration began with a candlelight service, helping participants remember people lost to AIDS and to have renewed hope for life. The district commissioner, Binwell Mpundu, gave an inspiring message. He said, “We are no longer a generation of anguish but a generation of hope. A hope that by 2030, Zambia will have zero new HIV infections.” He declared the goal attainable with collective action from all stakeholders. 

United Methodists taking part in World AIDS Day activities in Kitwe, Zambia, started off their participation with a candlelight service of remembrance for those who lost their lives to AIDS. Photo: Courtesy Zambia UM Health Board

The day was filled with activity for the people of Kitwe – aerobics, a march, a fun run and tug-of-war, but also with HIV education, counseling and testing, and condom distribution. Everyone was called upon to participate in the fight against AIDS; everyone can offer a hand to stop it. The general public was encouraged to go for testing, refer others for testing, take preventive measures and take antiretroviral medication consistently. 

The church is part of the wider community. It can make a significant difference in this life-saving campaign. The health board actively works with the Zambian Ministry of Health and other organizations in the mining city of Kitwe to spread information to prevent HIV, improve access to testing and treatment, and to work against stigma. It recently trained 74 young people as Peer Educators. They are starting to reach out to their friends at school, college and university, establishing clubs and communicating through drama, song and radio, urging everyone to know their status and to treat each other with dignity. The health board is the only organization there reaching out to adolescents. 

Project manager, Mrs. Phiri, describes Zambia Health Board HIV and AIDS projects to the district commissioner and other delegates at the World AIDS Day 2019 commemoration in Kitwe. Photo: Courtesy Zambia UM Health Board

The Zambia UMC Health Board is part of a national campaign to pursue UNAIDS’ 90–90–90 target. The objective for this campaign is: 90% of people living with HIV know their HIV status, 90% of people who know their HIV-positive status access treatment and 90% of people on treatment have suppressed viral loads. In 2019, the health board launched the U=U campaign: The Undetectable virus is Untransmittable. 

As the Zambia Health Board, we are proud of being part of this noble cause and making contributions to Zambia’s vision of ending new AIDS infections by 2030. 

Betty Tshala, Health Office/Board Coordinator 

Kathy Griffith is the program manager for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, Global Ministries. This article was adapted from a report by Betty Tshala, who serves as the Health Office/Board Coordinator, Zambia UMC Health Board, and as a UMC missionary with the Mujila Falls Project in Zambia.