Sandy Khabbazeh lit a single candle and took out her Bible. Opening to Luke 2, she began to read, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn…”
When she finished the chapter, she blew out the candle and went back to sleep. It was Christmas, but with ISIS threatening to kill anyone who honored the holiday, this was the closest she would come to celebrating.
A few hours later, Khabbazeh awoke to the sound of shooting and men yelling, “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! [Allah is greatest! Allah is greatest!] We’re coming to kill you!”
Since the Syrian civil war began, the streets of Aleppo, Khabbazeh’s city, had become a combat zone.
“It was not safe to walk on streets because of the missiles or snipers on buildings,” Khabbazeh says. “When I am going on normal days to school, a sniper shot at me three times. And also, another day, when I’m walking to school, a missile hit the streets and killed 20 people in front of me.
“It was horrible.”
Khabbazeh feared that the next time she came under attack, she would not be so lucky. And with stories circulating about ISIS beheading Christians and kidnapping young women, her parents shared those fears. Determined to protect their daughter, they sold their car to pay for her passage to Lebanon. From there, she traveled to the United States on a student visa and enrolled in the American studies program at Rutgers University.
“The first time I come here, I had a good night’s sleep,” Khabbazeh recalls. “No bombing, no shooting, no ‘Allahu akbar.’ I felt so relaxed. And I enjoyed it. Like, lights! Electricity! Water! Shower! Those kind of things, that you feel here in the United States is normal, in my country, it’s like a treat to get a shower.”
But America brought a different set of challenges for Khabbazeh. She moved in with an uncle who was living in Oakland, New Jersey, and had agreed to sponsor her visa. But her relationship with her uncle was troubled, making home life difficult. She often sought refuge in the Oakland library, where she would go to study English.
It was on her walk to the library that she found Ponds Reformed Church.
Feeling drawn to the church, she decided to stop in to pray. She also asked for a Bible. Khabbazeh left hers in Syria, worried that if she got caught with it on her way to Lebanon, she would be killed.
“I started getting curious,” Nathan Busker, the pastor of Ponds Reformed, says. “I mean, we have other people that would come in and ask to pray, but now she’s asking for a Bible? I had to come in and meet this woman who wants a Bible. That started our friendship.”
At the same time as Khabbazeh’s friendship with Busker grew, her relationship with her uncle crumbled. A few weeks before Khabbazeh was supposed to start school, he told her that he wasn’t going to sponsor her visa anymore—it was too expensive. Without a sponsor, Khabbazeh would be sent back to Syria.
Khabbazeh was devastated. I ran away from there. How can I go back there? she thought. Remembering that Busker told her to let him know if she needed anything, she turned to him—and the church—for help.
“She was so emotionally distraught,” Busker recalls. “And one of my deacons was here, talking with her and me, and just said to her, ‘Pack your bags. You’re going to move in with my wife and I.’ So they literally went over to the house, packed the bags, and that’s what happened.”
The church became Khabbazeh’s sponsor, pulling together the money to pay her tuition for the semester. Busker’s family took Khabbazeh in after the deacon and his wife moved away. Another church member gave her rides to school.
“It truly has been a church effort,” Busker says. “When [Sandy] needed rides, or people to help her understand different legal issues, or whatever it may be…the church has stepped up.”
Khabbazeh has embraced the church, too.
“She’s become a member of Ponds Church, joined the bell choir—has just fully jumped in with both feet. [She] ushers, greets, and does whatever needs to happen,” Busker says.
Ponds Reformed helped Khabbazeh gain temporary protected status, which is offered to people from unsafe countries who have already entered the United States legally. This change in status allowed her to get a job. She now juggles working at Subway with a job testing concrete at construction sites.
And she’s saving up the money she earns to help her family. Her mother and brother remain in Aleppo. Her father died of a heart attack in Aleppo in January.
“Now all the time I’m concerned about their safety and how I will get them out from the war zone,” she says.
Conditions have worsened in Syria since Khabbazeh left. At one point, ISIS blocked the roads into Aleppo, and her family didn’t have access to clean water, electricity, or food for ten days.
Ponds Reformed and Khabbazeh are working to bring her brother to the United States on a student visa. But it’s not easy.
“The process to get in here costs a lot of money…I need help. And I’m blessed because I found Ponds Church.” Other refugees do not have any support, she says. “They need more help.”
Ponds Reformed is in conversation with Church World Service about how churches can do more to support refugees. A group of people from the congregation also meets regularly to discuss ways to help Khabbazeh and other refugees. The key, Busker believes, will be to engage with them.
“As we’ve engaged Sandy, we’ve helped her grow in her language abilities, she has assimilated culturally, and she’s grown in her faith,” he says.
Ponds Reformed is already looking to connect with one refugee family that settled nearby.
“We’d like to start befriending them,” Busker says. “You know, I got Sandy here who can translate. So let’s get over there. Let’s meet them. Let’s help them. Spend time with them. That’s the way that this is all going to be successful.”
Consider opening your home or your church to someone in need of support.
Read a letter from Sandy Khabbazeh to the 2016 General Synod.
Donate to RCA Global Mission efforts to aid refugees: www.rca.org/refugee.