February 18, 2016

U.S. Mother Puts Refugee Children Into Adventist Schools

, communication coordinator for Mission to the Cities

Imagine a place where 60 different languages are spoken by people living within just a square mile (1.6 kilometers) of land.

That place is real, and it has a name: Clarkston, in the U.S. state of Georgia.

Clarkston is located on the outskirts of Atlanta and is home to refugees who have resettled from all over the world. It’s a place where life begins again and where long-cherished dreams take root. It’s also an area with huge needs, and with huge opportunities to make a difference — especially with a Seventh-day Adventist education.

Among the people assisting the refugees is an Adventist volunteer, Kelli Czaykowsky, president and executive director of a nonprofit organization called Friends of Refugees Providing Empowerment and Education. Czaykowsky, who has helped dozens of refugee children receive scholarships to Adventist schools and assisted refugee families in many other ways, was recognized this week with a Daily Point of Light Award, an honor bestowed by former U.S. President George H.W. Bush on individuals and groups that create meaningful change in communities across the United States.

“The power of the individual to spark change and improve the world — that’s what the Daily Point of Light Award celebrates and that is exactly what Kelli Czaykowsky does,” the staff of her organization said in announcing the award, which Bush created in 1989, on Facebook.

Until 2010, Czaykowsky had never even heard of refugees. She was content with her quiet suburban life as an occupational therapist, wife, and mother of five. Today she and her family, along with a team of volunteers, have their hearts bound up with the refugees and help them adjust to life in the United States.

“The joy that you get from helping the refugees is priceless,” Czaykowsky said. “Money can’t buy it.”

Refugees' apartments are in tough neighborhoods in Clarkston and some are broken into repeatedly. (F.R.E.E.)

Life of a Refugee

Refugees face a major adjustment. Those arriving in Clarkston are grateful to finally find a home after years of being on the run or of having their lives on hold in refugee camps. In Clarkston, they settle into apartments with electricity and running water. Their children are sent to school and learn English.

But once moved in, they face new challenges, Czaykowsky said. They must learn how to survive in a culture that is unfamiliar and often confusing. Their apartments are in tough neighborhoods and some are broken into repeatedly. Parents work at minimum-wage jobs and struggle to provide the basics for their families. Children who speak little English often face bullying at school and are vulnerable to gangs and human traffickers.

Czaykowsky first learned about refugees when she was serving on the board of a nearby Adventist elementary school. At one board meeting, the regional superintendent told that he had recently met Adventist refugee children in Clarkston who had begged him, even holding his leg, to allow them to attend the Adventist school. He explained to the board that the parents could not afford the tuition, so the children’s requests seemed impossible to fulfill. Still, the burden he felt for the children compelled him to share their need.

His story weighed heavily on Czaykowsky’s mind. But she didn’t have to wait long for a solution.

The next day, Czaykowsky learned of a scholarship for low-income children. She joined the school principal, several teachers, and volunteers in visiting apartment buildings where the refugees lived. For two weeks they spent hours filling out applications for the children to attend their school. They filled out 40 applications. In the end, 12 children were awarded scholarships.

When congratulated for being on the honor roll, Dimi replied simply, “I always pray for my grades. God answered.” (F.R.E.E.)

“There’s no way you can do it on your own,” Czaykowsky said of the scholarships and her other work with the refugees. “I’m learning how to give it to God, everything, and to trust in Him.”

Doing More to Help

The scholarships were an exciting development, but there were still children Czaykowsky couldn’t get out of her mind. There was one refugee girl, Naing, who had grown up in an Adventist home in Myanmar. She arrived in the United States after fleeing her homeland amid threats of violence, including a gun in her face. Her joy at finding a home in Clarkston was dampened when she found herself being bullied at school for her Christian beliefs. She would come home crying every day, and her grades suffered. She prayed fervently for God to work on her behalf.

Czaykowsky was so moved by her story that she set out to find a sponsor when Naing didn’t receive the scholarship. She told and retold Naing’s story until someone agreed to help. Naing was enrolled that year and went on to receive perfect grades, Czaykowsky said. Five years later, she is a third-year student at Atlanta Adventist Academy. She dreams of becoming a missionary doctor and returning to help people in Myanmar.

Like Naing, the other children who were enrolled in the Adventist school flourished, Czaykowsky said. Seeing that, she pressed on, finding even more sponsors. This year, 53 refugee children are enrolled in Adventist schools.

Gratitude from the children comes in the forms of high grades and growing faith. One of the refugee children enrolled in an Adventist school for the first time this year through Czaykowsky’s work is Dimi, a teenage girl who started learning English when she moved to the United States two years ago. At the end of her first semester at the Adventist school, she had perfect attendance and had made the honor roll. She was also voted by her classmates to receive a “spiritual award” for her love for God and her Christian character. When congratulated for being on the honor roll, she replied simply, “I always pray for my grades. God answered.”

Beyond helping resettled refugee children get an Adventist education, Czaykowsky has gathered a team of dedicated volunteers that reaches out to the refugee community in Clarkston. They do everything from driving people to doctor’s appointments to tutoring, baking birthday cakes, filling out forms, and even delivering used sofas and bicycles. They help refugees sort out junk mail from important documents and legal notifications. They visit the refugees’ homes, eating with them, sharing joys and sorrows, and praying with them.

“You don’t have to be a charity. You don’t have to help 50 kids,” Czaykowsky said. “Just help one person — even take them your old clothes. Everyone can help in some way.”