At Thanksgiving, immigrants & refugees cherish freedom

Rolando Ruiz (in blue shirt) knows what it's like to be a refugee after leaving Cuba several years ago. In keeping with that memory, his Atlanta-area church opened its doors to 100 Hurricane Matthew survivors fleeing the storm's landfall in Savannah in October. (Joe Westbury)Dung Duong remembers the long walk from South Vietnam to Cambodia as he, his father and brother fled life at the hands of the communists who had overrun their nation 15 years earlier.

The year was 1989, but thoughts of that suffering—including losing friends who took to the open sea in small boats and were never rescued—remains with him to this day.

Cuba native Samuel Aleman remembers well the individuals Fidel Castro stationed on every block in his neighborhood, keeping close watch on the comings and goings of every resident. Even a trip to Havana to visit relatives had to be reported, most likely with that information passed along to another block captain in Havana for further scrutiny.

This Thanksgiving they are thankful for all of the freedoms they enjoy in their adopted country.

Tehran-born Kevin Mansoori looks across his congregation as he begins his Sunday sermons and senses the hidden pain of those in the congregation—the pain of physical persecution, of losing family members through death to a godless regime, of wondering what limited freedom would be removed next.

Mansoori, pastor of Georgia Baptists' first Iranian congregation, First Baptist Church of Iranians, identifies with those fleeing to America for freedom-related yearnings. He is thankful to openly minister among those individuals, sharing with them the hope that comes from a relationship with Christ.

Duong, Aleman and Mansoori are just a few of the immigrants and refugees who have fled oppressive regimes to find hope and happiness in America. And this time of year they are especially embracing the tradition of Thanksgiving in gratitude for living in freedom.

"Life was very hard for believers in Vietnam," said Duong, pastor of a Vietnamese congregation in Jonesboro, Ga. "There was no physical persecution for believers, but the economic persecution was very real."

Career mobility was extremely limited for those who checked "Christian" on the religious declaration on employment forms, Duong said. Outright rejection was the norm.

On the trek to leave Vietnam, "I knew that God had a future for me in America, that He was preparing a way for me," Duong said. Others were not so fortunate. Many who fled to the open ocean in rickety boats, hoping they would be found by rescue ships, drowned at sea. Those who did not fall prey to pirates drifted for weeks or longer.

Duong and his family wre rejected at the Cambodian border twice before they slipped into the country under cover of darkness.

"I am thankful for so many things now," Duong said. In addition to the freedom to worship freely in their new country, he said he is thankful for "freedom to be myself, just to be treated fairly. In America you can do anything you put your mind to."

Aleman remembers leaving Cuba in 1989 at age 39. Times were hard because his father and more than 50 other pastors—along with two Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) missionaries—were serving six-year jail terms imposed by the Castro regime. Aleman came to America as an immigrant, his father as a refugee.

Aleman, who first served as youth pastor at First Spanish Baptist Church in Jonesboro, now known as International Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., has been its senior pastor since 1992.

Today he and his wife have a son who has served in the U.S. military in Iraq, a daughter who is a schoolteacher in Atlanta, and a son who lives in Spain.

But realizing the American dream was not cheap. Aleman had to resign his job as an architect and be unemployed for three years in order to qualify for an exit visa.

"As a Christian I was a minority, a second-class citizen," he said. "Even as an architect it was hard to find employment."

But no more.

"I love the way of life my family enjoys today," Aleman said, "and I love the Thanksgiving tradition of showing gratitude to God for our blessings."

At First Baptist Church of Iranians, Armin Milani has been in the U.S. for five years.

"God brought me to America so Americans could introduce me to Him," Milani said matter-of-factly. "Now that I am a Christian I cannot return because it is too dangerous. My family, many of whom are here in Georgia, are still Muslim.

"It is so difficult to learn about Christianity back home in Iran. The government blocks websites and we are told that Americans are bad people. But I see differently now that I live among them. Americans are very nice, very loving."

Also at the Iranian church, Faranak* (last name not given due to security concerns) is equally grateful. "I thank God during Thanksgiving for His coming into my life," she said after a worship service.

"The most important thing about America, for me, is that we are all equal. When I go shopping I don't feel like I am a foreigner, people just accept me for who I am. That is truly amazing to be accepted like that without judgment," she said, adding, "I love America."

Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index (www.christianindex.org), the online news website of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

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