Truly understanding the plight of a refugee can only come from experience; even then, it is almost impossible to emphasize with each individual’s story. Maria Naccarato, World Relief volunteer, spent three years of her life as a foreigner in another country and has only scratched the surface in beginning to understand the depth of a refugee’s strife.
Maria grew up in Spokane-Valley, attending Millwood Presbyterian Church, but went away to the University of Montana to study Wildlife Biology and pursue her love for the outdoors. While she was in school, she struggled with what she saw in the church. “I really struggled with seeing the way some Christians talked about how they should live and the way they actually lived,” Maria confessed.
“Why did they talk about feeding and clothing the poor, but none of these things ever got done?”
This led Maria to begin praying for an opportunity to live out her faith, “God, I’ll do whatever you want me to do, I’ll go wherever you want me to go, just tell what to do.” Maria felt the Lord’s call towards the Russian community, and now, she just needed a way to get involved.
“I took this very seriously and was willing to give up everything in order to pursue this calling.” While finishing college, Maria connected with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in order to get ministry experience and skills to prepare her for her upcoming journey.
Maria used her connection with InterVarsity to get placed as a full-time staff member in Kyrgyzstan, a former republic of the Soviet Union. “I worked in a small town with a local university and was the only foreigner on the ministry staff,” Maria explained. She spent 3 ½ years developing friendships with the locals and building a community through InterVarsity, but admitted that she never felt at home in Kyrgyzstan. Despite learning the language, learning to navigate the town, and even leading Bible studies in Russian, something was always missing.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends.” She wondered, “Are these people my friends because they like me, because I’m American, or because I’m a foreigner and they feel sorry for me?”
Her best memory of her time overseas came when one of her local friends told her,
“I love you–not because of where you came from, but because of who you are.”
Nevertheless, Maria confessed, “The lack of community was really draining. I don’t think I could have done that for too much longer… I wish I would have had more meaningful connections with people while I was there… I missed being able to tell a joke and laugh from my stomach at something only people like me would understand.”
Maria described being in another country as isolating, and also felt as if she was thrust into the spotlight, always being watched. She described her experience as “running in water.”
After so many memories, good and bad, Maria made her way home. Though she was home, she didn’t want to return as a Christian bystander, she wanted to be actively involved; something had to change. After just a month of being back in America, she contacted World Relief Spokane to volunteer.
“I think my experience in Kyrgyzstan made me excited to work with refugees because when you have been a foreigner, when you’ve felt the stress of going to the grocery store without knowing the language, it is easier to have compassion.”
Maria readily admitted that anything she felt, all the insecurities and troubles, are nothing in comparison to what her new friend, Liubov Shevchenko, has gone through.
Maria contacted World Relief Spokane Volunteer Coordinator, Nancy Goodwin, and got connected with Liubov, a refugee from Ukraine. Liubov had been in the country for two years before getting connected with a volunteer. They meet weekly at Liubov’s apartment to talk about life, bake, and share experiences.
Maria’s goal is to help Liubov learn English, but she delightfully added, “I see it a little more as just being a friend to her. She has a large Russian community in the area, but her and her husband have no American friends.” She related, “It’s difficult to be completely surrounded by a culture, but not be able to engage with the people of that culture. I invited them over for Thanksgiving and I got the impression that it was one of the few times they had actually been in an American home.”
Maria excitedly shared, “Liubov is practically a gourmet baker, so in order to teach her English, we have been baking together. As we bake, I have her explain to me, in English, what we need to buy and any instructions, like “rolling out the dough” or “measure this much flour”.” This is great for Liubov, because she is learning English, but also great for Maria, because she gets to learn how to bake.
She continued, “I often spend 2 or 3 hours with Liubov and I never regret my time spent with her. Every time I leave, I always feel encouraged. Part of it is the feeling of helping someone else, but the majority of it comes from my genuine friendship with Liubov.”
“It’s such a blessing to learn from her and be encouraged by her, especially since we both share our faith in Jesus. There are a lot of ways we are different, but there are a lot of ways we are the same.”
Maria presents a challenge to anyone interested in serving with World Relief, “Anytime you have the opportunity to be with people that are different than you are it’s worthwhile. This looks like a lot of different things: spending time with people who believe something different, look different, or are from somewhere different. Any time you spend with these people will only add to the person you are. So take the step to volunteer, do it not only for your new friend but for yourself.”
Through Maria’s experience as a foreigner in another country, she understood that some refugees and immigrants are looking for someone to reach out to them. They want someone to love them, not because of where they are from, but because of who they are.
Feel a call to volunteer like Maria and want to befriend refugees like Liubov? Learn more about volunteering with World Relief Spokane at worldreliefspokane.org/volunteer.
Zak Sommers, World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Intern, wrote this blog post.