A Refugee Family Story

Mountain Shadows Presbyterian Church (MSPC) in Catalina, Arizona, is centered in Christ, caring for community. With that in mind and as part of the church Mission and Outreach team, Elizabeth Houle and Dennis Nelson volunteered to help resettle a single parent refugee family of eight. Momma Sifa fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a teenager and later married her husband in a U.N. camp in Tanzania. All her children were born in the camp; the oldest is now seventeen. The father’s resettlement document has not yet been processed but the family remains in weekly contact with the father through face time.


There is a difference between an immigrant and a refugee. An immigrant is foreign born, a non citizen who enters the country without inspection, or arrived temporarily, overstaying the time allotted by a visa.

Refugees work with organizations to complete applications, with the intention of leaving their homeland due to severe persecution. The process takes anywhere from 18 months to a year, includes interviews, medical screening, security clearance, and the assignment of a US partner to help with relocation. Refugees can be referred by the UN, US Embassy, or a nongovernmental organization (NGO).

In August 2016, The Tucson Refugee Ministry (TRM) helped bring MSPC’S mission team together with Sifa and family. The family was placed in an apartment where they were oriented to appliances, and other ways things operated. They had food and medical benefits but needed to repay a huge travel loan. There is limited cash assistance, bus passes, a work permit and now a green card for Sifa, plus the opportunity to become a citizen of the USA five years after they live and work here.

MSPC members signed on to help with this huge transition. We completed background checks, Refugee Resettlement 101 Training, and started work on TRM’s checklist for volunteers. So many things for us to learn and participate in! The apartment has 3 bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen that extends into a family room. The family had to learn how to cook on the stove, do without a washer and dryer, shop for food, use the bus for transportation, and speak the English language. A welcome basket supplied by people at MSPC contained all kinds of home-based items.

Our job was to help them with English, shopping and apartment living, plus an introduction to Tucson social and cultural life. Some of us even accompanied Sifa and children to medical appointments to help communicate. The children were enrolled in the local school system, daycare options were arranged as needed, and regular visits that were educational and social took place. Trips to area attractions took place, the oldest son balanced education with the need to find a job, and Mom adapted baby breast-feeding and other child rearing skills necessary to get a paying job.

Shortly after her arrival, Momma Sifa announced that she was pregnant! During what was supposed to be a late pregnancy checkup, Elizabeth found herself in the delivery room when her namesake Elizabeth came into the world. That’s a story in itself, but now U.S. Citizen Elizabeth is walking, Mom has secured a job, and the children are doing well.

We enjoyed much fun stuff with the family: Refugee Thanksgiving night at Amphitheater High School, a visit to Apple Annie’s Farm, Christmas at La Encantada and Tohono Chul Park, and much more. Last spring, Denny- now Babu (“grandpa”), took the boys to Biosphere 2. He had quite a time explaining Biosphere 1!

Our time with Sifa and family has been rewarding beyond description. To love, laugh, and be part of a young family’s life is truly a gift from God. If you wish to learn more about this program contact MSPC 520-825-7858 for more information.