Fort Worth

North Texas immigrants, refugees rely heavily on faith

One in an occasional series on the immigrant communities of North Texas.

Like many refugees who now call Tarrant County home, Jean-Claude Mauridi relies heavily on faith.

Mauridi, 35, left the Democratic Republic of Congo at age 15 to Tanzania because war made his home unsafe. He returned three years later during a short-lived period of peace but soon left again and lived for 12 years in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe.

Mauridi’s prayers were answered in 2009 when he received approval for refugee status in the U.S. Today, he works at Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth, where he helps people from all over the world displaced by war or persecution.

Every Sunday, Mauridi worships with fellow Africans at Christ Chapel Bible Church in Fort Worth, testament to his enduring faith.

“We are used to worship,” Mauridi said. “… We are alive because of God.”

North Texas is home to thousands of immigrants and refugees who have brought their religious beliefs with them as they started new lives here, building churches, mosques and temples — sanctuaries for prayer and fellowship.

Many times, U.S. churches reach out to these emerging communities to help with resources or in the establishment of worship centers that cater to the language or cultural needs and traditions of the immigrant populations.

Helping refugees from Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania has been a focus at Pantego Bible Church in Fort Worth, where churchgoers say they are following biblical teachings with the church’s aid.

“As Christians, we know there was a time when we were outsiders to God and God loved us and he welcomed us into his family and so we should welcome outsiders into his family,” said Pastor David Daniels, who helped the refugees establish the Regenesis African Ministry Church in east Fort Worth.

‘Abandoned human beings’

Immigrants and refugees end up in North Texas for different reasons, but once here many seek out places to pray.

“We get refugees of all faiths. We get Christians, Muslims, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhists — we will serve anybody,” said Jeff Demers, director of World Relief in Fort Worth, a nonprofit that helps resettle refugees in North Texas. “Often when they come, they want to plug in with a congregation or a religious group that meets them where they are at.”

Immigrants typically describe coming to this country seeking economic opportunity and planning to work or study. Refugees are displaced by war or political, religious or ethnic persecution. Regardless of why they are here, most search out places to worship.

Refugees have often prayed in refugee camps before arriving in the U.S., explained Pastor Method Bigirimana, who leads the Regenesis African Ministry Church in Fort Worth.

Bigirimana said “refugee” is a difficult label. Often refugees feel singled out wherever they go because they speak a different language or are misunderstood, he said.

“It is so unfortunate to be called a refugee,” Bigirimana said. “I define a refugee — a refugee is an abandoned, a lost human being. … When you are a refugee, the first thing you lose is human value.”

Refugees from the Central African countries of Congo and Burundi are among the most common arriving in Tarrant County in recent months. Between October 2014 and July 2015, more than 150 refugees came from those two countries, according to state figures. Congo, formerly Zaire, is “characterized by ongoing conflict,” according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Conflict in Burundi has also displaced hundreds of thousands, according to the U.N. agency.

The plight of the refugee has received global attention with the mass migration of Syrians into Europe. Images of Syrians getting on boats and landing in Greece put an international focus on refugees. Refugee experts said that when people see the Syrian situation on the news, they want to help refugees in the United States.

“To hear about the people just walking for miles and miles and miles — it’s just an unbelievable thing,” Demers said. “I think that struck a chord with people here.”

The experience of refugees or immigrants in flight touches many people across different religious communities, he said, adding that the Bible has stories of people in flight, including Mary and Joseph’s journey to Egypt to protect their infant Son.

“There are a lot of elements of movement of people across country lines in the Bible,” he said. “I think that resonates with people who believe the Bible — with Christians.”

The Rohingya are another group of displaced people who have been making international headlines, Demers said. Amnesty International described the Rohingya people as the “most persecuted refugees in the world.”

“In Burma, in Nepal you have different religious groups who are fleeing,” he said. “The Rohingya, coming out of Southeast Asia and being put on the boats, they are a Muslim minority. They are just being cast out to sea on their boats.”

Nizam Peerwani, chairman of the board of Al’hedayah Academy’s Eastchase Islamic Center, said serving refugees and immigrants is a big part of calling. He said the organization is looking to help Syrians who may move into North Texas.

“When they do come, we will certainly be there to support them and welcome them into the community,” said Peerwani, Tarrant County’s medical examiner.

Many cultures, languages and traditions are present during prayer services at Fort Worth mosques, such as the Islamic Association of Tarrant County and the Eastchase Islamic Center. Muslims from Somalia, Pakistan, India, Jordan and Nigeria are among those who worship in Fort Worth.

Imam Moujahed M. Bakhach said the mosques are like the United Nations with people from many countries represented. As Muslim refugee and immigrant communities have grown, so has the need for more worship space. For example, the Islamic Association of Tarrant County at 4901 Diaz Ave. in Fort Worth started as a smaller institution.

‘First level of assimilation’

In Euless, churches and worship centers on or near Main Street give the city an international feel. Coptic Egyptians, Greek Orthodox, Koreans and Tongans of different religions worship near one another, said Ofa Faiva-Saile, the city’s liaison to the Euless Tongan Committee.

Nearby, at 200 E. Euless Blvd., construction of a new Sikh temple is underway, she said.

A community of Tongan immigrants in Euless grew around religious faith with the formation of First Tongan United Methodist Church in 1981 by the Rev. Sione Haisila Taufoou, who is now retired. The church is now named First Wesleyan Church of Tonga.

Tongans within a 5- to 6-mile radius in Euless practice different faiths, including Mormon, Catholicism, Church of Tonga, Free Church of Tonga and Wesleyan Methodist.

There are nine Tongan churches in Euless and two in Bedford, Faiva-Saile said.

Churches allow these immigrant communities to build friendships in their own languages and find valuable resources about any number of issues, including learning English and getting guidance on driving in Texas, say immigrant leaders. Churches help refugees and immigrants step into a fast-paced American lifestyle.

“It is a cultural shock to come from Africa straight to the United States,” said the Rev. Emmanuel K. Botchway, senior pastor at Hope International Church and Ministries in Hurst. The church serves many Africans, including those from Liberia and Sierra Leone.

On most Sundays, about 200 Africans attend Botchway’s church.

“The worship aspect of our life is the first level of assimilation in the United States of America,” Botchway said, adding that solace found in at church helps his Liberian congregants. “Had it not been for the church, many people would have missed our way.”

Botchway said the church also becomes a resource and place for moral support when immigrant and refugee communities face hard times. That aspect of the church proved crucial last year for Liberians in North Texas who were struggling with the effects of an Ebola outbreak in their homeland and the first case in the United States.

The first case of Ebola in the United States shook the American Liberian community. Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with the deadly virus after arriving in Dallas from Liberia, setting off a healthcare scare that stretched far beyond North Texas.

Duncan, 42, died Oct. 8 at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

‘We never stop worshipping’

At the Pantego Bible Church campus, Africans worship in their own building, which serves as the Regenesis African Ministry Church. About 150 people — mostly refugees from Congo, Burundi, Rwaanda and Tanzania — have been worship together there since 2009.

On a recent Sunday, children arrived running to the service after attending Sunday school with other children of Pantego Bible Church. They danced while waiting for the service to start. One little girl held a handwritten note titled “My Testimony.”

Mothers arrived too — dressed in fabrics bright with yellow, green and magenta and patterns that zigzagged around their bodies. Some of older immigrants/refugees don’t speak English, so children serve as translators. Services complete with sermons, singing and dancing are conducted in Kirundi and Swahili.

The church was formed after several refugees asked Pantego Bible Church leaders for help. Bigirimana said they wanted to find a place to worship while holding on to their African traditions. Pantego Bible Church gave them a space.

Daniels, pastor of Pantego Bible Church, said, “I believe as Christians we have a particular responsibility to help the refugee,” explaining that the church has an “essentials closet” for its African friends. At the closet, Africans can pick up toothpaste, clothes and school supplies. In upcoming days, Daniels will hold sessions touching on the biblical response to the refugees called “Welcome the Stranger.”

Bigirimana said the immigrants were excited to have a place to pray and lead their children on a Christian path as they work to become new Americans.

“Before we left our respective home countries everyone had a home ch urch,” Bigirimana said, adding that the worship continued in refugee camps or while people fled their homelands. “We never stopped worshipping.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

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