Rancho Cordova church ministers to dozens of Arab immigrants now living in Sacramento
Pastor Raed Awabdeh remembers being one of the first people to greet Firas Saliba and his family after they landed in Sacramento.
“I had never seen Firas or his family before, and I saw this Iraqi person just wandering in the Sacramento airport,” recalled Awabdeh. “And I was able to tell, he’s the one.”
Before their arrival, the International Rescue Committee asked Awabdeh and his wife to serve as an anchor family to the Salibas as they adjusted to life in Sacramento. Part of that job was to greet the Salibas when they arrived in Sacramento after their long journey from Syria. The couple and their family stayed with Awabdeh for a week before finding an apartment of their own.
Awabdeh is a lifelong Christian and pastor of the Arabic Church of Sacramento, which holds services in Rancho Cordova.
Awabdeh knows what it’s like to adjust to life in the United States, although under different circumstances—Awabdeh left Syria in 1985 to study computer science in Iowa and later in Texas. After he and his wife came to Sacramento in 1993, they saw a need to create a ministry for Arab Christians who felt distant to American churches.
Today, besides ministering to their spiritual needs, Awabdeh’s church takes care of about 30 newly arrived Arab immigrants, including families from Egypt and Palestine. Since the Salibas arrived, nine other Iraqi families have found a home at the Arab Christian church.
A handful of church volunteers are happy to assist the new families, but the time commitment alone can be overwhelming; helping a family register all of their children for public schools can take up an entire day.
So the volunteers formed a team to reach out to American churches in the area for more support. Awabdeh was skeptical—he doubted they would want to help out Arab families—but was pleasantly surprised when the churches enthusiastically sent volunteers. One church sent an ESL instructor to teach weekly English classes for the adults. Another church sent someone to teach behind-the-wheel driving lessons.
“I wasn’t expecting that, I was expecting the other way,” he said. “I was impressed with their love and giving attitude.”
But it’s not just about adjusting to a new culture. Awabdeh wants to preserve their heritage. At his Arab American Learning Center, for example, kids can take Arabic lessons so they don’t lose the language.
Even with all the big changes that come with a new life in the United States—new homes, new language, new driving rules—one thing that surprises Awabdeh is how seemingly small things fascinate the newcomers. Take, for example, one Iraqi man’s first time in a grocery-store produce department.
“He saw how the plastic bags work—you take the bag, tear it off, you put the fruit in it—he was amazed at how that works,” he said.