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Welcoming newcomers opens hearts, mind

By Virginia de Leon

In her personal and professional life, Linda Unseth has welcomed refugees and immigrants, guiding them as they adjust to a life in the United States, and learning about their values and beliefs to promote a better understanding of people who are sometimes marginalized because of a lack of cultural awareness.

Linda Unseth
Linda Unseth has helped many people find new homes and new lives.

As a longtime director for World Relief, a network of church-based groups that helps resettle refugees, she has dedicated her life to people forced to flee persecution in Burma/Myanmar, Burundi, Bhutan and other countries.

Working with these newcomers to the community has opened her eyes to the plight of the poor and persecuted.

Her friendships with these families and individuals have also made her more aware of the many blessings and opportunities in her life, she said, and of God’s presence in the world.

“Working with refugees changes our perspectives,” she said. “The world has come to us. As a Christian community, we need to reach out to people who have made tremendous sacrifices to come here.”

Linda believes that “we can change the world one person at a time.”

After 26 years of service to World Relief, Linda retires this summer to spend time with her children and grandchildren.

Her work with refugees, however, won’t end. She and her husband, Stan, will continue to welcome refugees into their home and to volunteer with the Spokane Chin Church, a group of ethnic Chin from Burma who gather for worship each week at First Church of the Nazarene.

Linda and Stan, who are members of First Church, transport the Chin and coordinate donations of groceries, clothing and other items to these families.

The Unseths and others involved with World Relief have experienced the world by opening their hearts and homes.

In the early 1980s, they worked with Southeast Asians and Eastern Europeans. Toward the end of that decade, they became involved with many Russian-speakers from areas of the former Soviet Union. Since then, they’ve worked with various waves of immigrants—Iraqis, Haitians, Cubans, Bosnians, Liberians, Sudanese and many others. In recent years, a growing number of refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq and Afghanistan have made their way to Spokane.

Linda has many stories to share of the families they’ve met over the years—people who barely survived the journey to the United States and started with nothing, but now own their own businesses, work as managers and have children whose names appear on the honor rolls at area schools.

“The biggest challenge for many refugees is learning English,” Linda said, “but they work hard. They want to be part of the community.”

From an early age, Linda knew she wanted to work with people from other parts of the globe.

While growing up in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she and her mother attended the Central Church of the Nazarene, Linda felt called to be a missionary, she said. She figured she needed to travel outside the country to do this. She later realized that mission work involving people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds can be accomplished without leaving the United States.

Linda’s mission work with refugees and immigrants actually began in her own neighborhood. After she married Stan, the couple lived in Pasadena, Calif., several small towns in Colorado, Vancover, Wash., and eventually Seattle in 1983.

Stan served as pastor of Highland Park Church of the Nazarene, in a diverse, urban neighborhood south of Seattle. Several newcomers were Cambodian and Southeast Asian families who lived in a public housing development. After learning about World Relief, Stan asked the church board if the congregation would step up to help their refugee neighbors.

“In our ministry, we believe in reaching out to other people,” Linda said. “A church should reflect a community’s faith life.”

As a pastor’s wife who spent many years supporting her husband’s work in small, rural areas, Linda always opened her home to others, especially to those passing through town and needing a hand. Working with the refugee community in her neighborhood was simply an extension of the goodwill and hospitality she always gave to others.

So she and Stan, along with their three sons, took in a Cambodian family—a mother with three daughters who had just arrived in the United States. On the evening they arrived, she wanted to prepare them a special meal but didn’t know much about cooking rice. She bought a box of Rice-a-Roni, prepared it and served it with fried chicken.

“It was exciting but I was also afraid,” said Linda, about hosting her first refugee family.

The mother, Saroeun Ieng, and her children stayed with the Unseths for two weeks. After they moved into an apartment of their own, they continued to visit Linda, Stan and their sons. The Unseths picked them up Sundays for church. During the week, they drove them to English-as-a-second-language classes. They became good friends and have kept in touch over the years.

“It takes a long time to gain trust and learn what people have been through,” she said. “Once we become friends with a refugee, we learn that they think and feel just like we do. They’re hard workers and want to do something with their lives. They want to learn English and are grateful for the opportunities in this country.”

In June 1984, Linda accepted a job offer from World Relief.  Three and a half years later, she became the director of World Relief’s Seattle office.

In December 1987, Linda moved to Connell, Wash., where Stan was called to serve as pastor of the Connell Church of the Nazarene. Linda, who made her husband’s ministry a priority, didn’t expect to continue her resettlement work in the small farming community, but after moving there, they found a growing population of Laotian refugees.

Linda was immediately drawn to these families and started working with them through the church. She wrote a proposal to the U.S. State Department to open an Eastern Washington office for World Relief in the fall of 1988.

The grant was approved three months later during the same period that the former Soviet Union began to open its borders to allow the migration of political and religious refugees seeking asylum in the United States.

When she opened the office, Linda thought she would work part-time, serving about 25 refugees a year. In the first four months, she resettled 160 people who had fled the former Soviet Union. The next year, she helped 330 refugees out of a small office in the Connell church.

Somehow, families in Eastern Washington found a way to contact her. Many wanted to help by sponsoring or hosting a Russian-speaking family.

 “I had no idea that we were going to have so many people resettle here,” she said. “It was only a miracle of God that I was able to find those families.”

As numbers continued to grow, she hired a part-time office worker and enlisted dozens of volunteers to host newcomers. In the early 1990s, she wrote proposals to the U.S. State Department that enabled World Relief to open offices in Coeur d’Alene and Boise.

In 1995, the Unseths moved to Spokane, where Linda and Stan worked for World Relief. A year later, she became area director of 14 World Relief offices in California, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Today, World Relief’s Spokane office has 30 full and part-time employees, as well as hundreds of regular volunteers. The staff speak 25 languages.

“We prayed a lot,” said Linda, who often found people to host refugees through word of mouth. “I tried not to put pressure on people. I only wanted them to host if they believed that this was what God wanted them to do.”

In her work with refugees, Linda often looks to the Bible for spiritual support and direction. She turns particularly to Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Mark Kadel, the new Spokane World Relief affiliate director for the Spokane office, began on May 10, overlapping with Linda, whose last day was May 31.

For 17 years, he has worked with refugees and victims of persecution, abuse, torture and unjust imprisonment.  Working for nine years as missionaries in the Balkan area of Eastern Europe, he and his family provided humanitarian aid to victims of civil war in Albania and Kosovo.  When he returned to the United States in 2002, he started working with World Relief as a case manager.

As affiliate director in the North Carolina office since 2007, Mark has overseen refugee resettlement and human trafficking programs.

For information, call 484-9829.


Copyright © June 2010 - The Fig Tree