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A Complex Filled with Hope

Refugee Hope Partners helps hundreds of vulnerable refugee families in a Raleigh, NC, apartment complex providing doses of educational, practical and hope-filled help since 2007.

Bethany Starin

Just north of Raleigh, N.C, there’s an apartment complex with a majority population of refugees—about 80 percent. In 2011, when the refugee population tally came in closer to 20 percent, two identical 15-passenger white vans pulled up one summer evening. Almost simultaneously, two women got out and headed for the stairs.

One of the women was Michele Suffridge, a mom of five, and the other was 30-year-old Amy, a single woman who had recently moved to the apartment complex. Suffridge was there to take a group of refugee children to the swimming pool, while Amy had plans to take the same children to the fourth night of vacation bible school. The duo looked at each other.

“It was really awkward,” Suffridge said with a laugh. “We were at a crossroads and realized we were serving a subset of the same children.”

The next day, Suffridge reached out to Amy and they set a coffee date. The two began brainstorming, realized their dreams mirrored each other’s, and prayed about creating a partnership. Their friendship and collaboration officially launched as Refugee Hope Partners (RHP) in 2018. Currently, RHP is a nonprofit that serves more than 600 refugees in the Raleigh area from more than 30 countries.

“Our mission is to love refugee neighbors with the hope of the gospel,” Suffridge said. “We want to see churches working together as a mechanism to help vulnerable people in the community.”

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Currently, the volunteer team includes several hundred individuals with 12 partner churches. The majority of the refugees they serve live in the same apartment complex Amy and Suffridge met in—and more than 10 of the volunteers moved into the complex to keep a daily pulse on needs. RHP programs include after-school tutoring, ESL for adults, medical ministries, a mentorship program for high school students, and Bible studies.

When COVID hit, RHP had to pivot to meet the growing needs of the refugee community, Suffridge says. Lost jobs and lack of access to digital learning were challenges RHP couldn’t directly assist with during the statewide stay-at-home order. Instead, RHP met needs by delivering food.

“We initiated the ‘Love Your Neighbor’ project where we met struggling refugee families with church members who sponsored families for 10 weeks,” Suffridge said, adding that 175 families received a box of food as well as educational materials such as books and toys weekly.

Rasha (named changed for privacy reasons), an Afghani refugee, said that her husband lost his job due to the pandemic. “Refugee Hope Partners helped my family and my children,” she said. “We are just one example. There are a lot of immigrant people. They helped all of them because they are brave people, because they are kind people.”

As soon as COVID protocol allowed, RHP staff started door-to-door visits to find out what each family’s pain points were, to make sure no man was left behind, Suffridge said. As unemployment and stimulus checks were kicking in, the one-size-fits-all food boxes were retired and the team rallied to meet a greater need: educational help.

They hired six college interns, secured additional space so students could spread out, contacted schools to find devices, and expanded the RHP educational program in late spring 2020. To date, four spaces are running at 13 hours a day to serve more than 250 refugee children.

“COVID-19 has really changed how we do things—temperatures are being taken, masks are being worn and cleaning procedures are being perfected,” said Amanda Herbert, RHP’s program director, during a video interview. “Even though everything has changed, our goal was and still is to engage, equip, and encourage our refugee neighbors so all may thrive.”

It turns out, the pandemic has led to their programs reaching more refugees than ever before. “Even though COVID and 2020 has thrown all sorts of curve balls our way, our programs are bigger now than they have ever been,” Suffridge says.

Suffridge’s passion to help refugees began with the adoption of their youngest son from Guatemala in 2005. It was the first time she was confronted with poverty, Suffridge says, and it stayed with her ever since. Standing on the street in 2005 in Guatemala City, she pulled out dollar bills and just kept handing them out.

“The mission trip participant you would have least wanted to have on your team—that was me! I had no idea, I just wanted to make things better,” she says, explaining the swarm that came with her dollar bills. “I really struggled when I got back, wrestling with what it looked like in north Raleigh to be a white woman with education, a family, and house. That was what God used to draw my heart towards vulnerable people.”

About two years after her son’s adoption, a Karen refugee family walked up the hill to her church, Christ Covenant Church of Raleigh. “When I saw them, my heart was stirred and beating,” Suffridge said.

With other volunteers at her church, Suffridge started to help this family from Burma, and that family soon connected them with 12 more newly arriving refugee families.

Their help was very practical at first—teaching them how to register for school or use basic American appliances. “They were storing meat in closets because they had never used a fridge before,” Suffridge said.

It was 2007 and this was the very beginning of what would become RHP. The church volunteers formed reading groups, arranged Wednesday night dinners, and tutored. They listened to refugees’ stories of living in refugee camps, sometimes for as long as 15 years.

“These families come pretty desperate,” Suffridge said. “Our ministry is a relationship-based model with an intentional mindset. This is essential to Refugee Hope Partners’ mission—loving refugees and helping them become self-sufficient.”

Suffridge laughs when she talks about her original dream in 2007. “None of us ever thought of starting a nonprofit when it started.” She laughs. “It’s been very organic ministry growth. Running into Amy and serving side by side with very similar desires the Lord had given us in partnership was an incredible experience. I wouldn’t have traded that for the world.”

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