What comes to mind when you hear the term “refugee”? If you’re like most people, you probably picture the poor and outcast of society. Today, we are speaking with Chelsey Howden, who has learned through experience that this is not usually the case. Chelsey shares with us her beautiful story of meeting Ganga, a refugee from Nepal, and the friendship that has ensued.
4word: How did you meet Ganga?
Chelsey: Ganga and I met in 2012 at a sewing group called Vickery Threads, held weekly in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood of Dallas. For those who aren’t familiar with Vickery Meadow, it is one of the most overlooked and ethnically-diverse neighborhoods in Dallas. It is home to immigrants and refugees from over 31 different language groups.
The Vickery Threads sewing group was created by a woman named Amy Kahn, who had a vision of reaching out to refugee women by teaching them how to sew. The hope was that the refugee women could use these sewing skills to make some extra income for their families, while creating an atmosphere where lasting friendships could be formed and the love of Christ could be shared.
The night I met Ganga almost two years ago, I actually had other plans with a girlfriend. My friend asked if I would be willing to come with her to Vickery Threads and then grab dinner afterwards. I decided to tag along. Ironically, my friend was only able to come to Vickery Threads one more time, but I kept coming!
4word: What was that first meeting like?
Chelsey: At that first meeting with Ganga and some of the other refugee women, I was intimidated. I didn’t know what to talk about or how to pronounce their names. I wondered what they thought about me. But the more I got to know these girls, the more I came to respect them and the way that they survive in a land where everything is foreign. I marvel at the incredible stories they have to tell. They have generous hearts, incredible potential, and beautiful dreams.
4word: What was Ganga's greatest need when you met her and how have you helped her assimilate to life in the U.S.?
Chelsey: When I met Ganga, she was a senior in high school and had only been in the U.S. for two years. Having spent the first 16 years of her life in a refugee camp in Nepal, Ganga faced all kinds of challenges in her new life in Dallas.
She knows the value of education and was attending high school, while also learning a new language, running a household, and caring for a husband and a six month old son. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the many obstacles this young woman faced, but when Ganga asked me to edit her scholarship essays for college I agreed at once. I thought, "This is something I can do."
From there, our friendship bloomed and God continues to provide unique ways for me to be a friend to Ganga on an almost weekly basis. Sometimes it’s a ride to the grocery store or an invitation to hang out. Other times, it’s interpreting a legal document or bringing her a donated couch or bag of children’s clothes. Every Sunday, I swing by Vickery Meadow and pick up Ganga and her now 2 year old son and bring them to church with me.
Ganga returns the friendship 10-fold by inviting me into her life. She often cooks something delicious for me or invites me to a Nepali birthday party or wedding. She has blessed me with her trust and has shared her story with me. My faith is encouraged as I witness God’s beautiful provision for her through the body of Christ.
4word: What has building a relationship with someone society considers an outcast taught you?
Chelsey: I would describe this experience as incredibly rewarding and also as an adventure in faith. I am just a regular person and often feel ill equipped to help with some of the obstacles that refugees face.
Many times I am tempted to stay safely planted in my comfort zone, but through my relationship with Ganga, I am learning to say yes to God and to be desperately dependent on Christ for the wisdom and courage I lack. My faith grows deeper as I watch God prove His faithfulness and sufficiency time and time again.
God is teaching me that faithful investments over time yield amazing results. Though I am not specially qualified to reach out to refugees, He is showing me that “long obedience in the same direction” is far more valuable than always knowing the right thing to say or do.
4word: Diversity is a beautiful thing, yet there are obvious challenges when ministering to someone from another culture. What challenges did you and Ganga encounter and how did you overcome them?
Chelsey: The biggest challenge, in my opinion, is the language barrier. Even though Ganga’s English is pretty good, especially compared to her parents’ generation, miscommunication still happens all the time. Just making simple plans to meet up can involve many layers of communication. I wouldn’t say that we have overcome this obstacle, but I am learning to be flexible and to keep my expectations in check. I am also learning to over communicate everything. I’ll send a message on Facebook, then later follow up with a text or a call. I ask lots of questions to confirm that we are on the same page. Face to face in-person communication is always best - all in order to communicate as effectively as possible.
4word: How would you encourage women wanting to reach out to those from other cultures, but feel that they don't have the skills or the knowledge to do so?
Chelsey: Kindness, a warm smile, and respect transcend all cultures. Educate yourself by asking sincere and thoughtful questions. Don’t get discouraged, but give yourself credit for trying! It really means so much that you care enough to try. View each interaction as a chance to learn. You may not know much about a culture now, but just think of how much more you’ll know in a month or even a year.
Your greatest gifts are your time and your friendship. Don’t feel like you are only there to meet physical or financial needs. Hold your plans in an open hand and be open to how God might redirect.
For women that feel called to love and serve the refugees right here in Dallas, I would recommend getting involved with one of the amazing groups already at work in Vickery Meadow. Below is a list of several ministries and organizations doing great things in this neighborhood:
Northwest Bible Church
Vickery Kids Club
Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow
Have you ever reached out to someone of another culture? What was your experience like? Tell us in the comments!
Chelsey Howden is a native Texan and a resident of Dallas, TX. She is currently the Senior Real Estate Analyst at UCR Asset Services and offices at The Shops at Park Lane, a short walk from Vickery Meadow. Chelsey is a member at Northwest Bible Church and is excited about her church’s desire to serve the refugee community in Dallas and transform Vickery Meadow with the Gospel. Chelsey volunteers as a budget counselor with New Friends New Life, a local organization that helps restore and empower sexually exploited women, and she is also an active member of Bible Study Fellowship.