The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


From seafarers to detainees

Seafarers International extends its ministry of hospitality

When the first baby was born at Seafarers & International House (SIH) in New York City last year, her parents — asylum-seekers from Mali with nothing to their name — chose to call her Joy.

Annelouise and Mahmoud said the name expresses the joy they felt for the help received at SIH, an ELCA ministry of advocacy and hospitality for asylum-seekers, seafarers and others needing an immediate place to stay.

The couple landed in New York in early 2012. After being in a detention center for months, they were cleared and sent to a shelter.

When their time at the shelter was up, they were referred to SIH. There they received comfort, support and temporary housing at the 84-room guesthouse in the trendy Union Square section of Manhattan.

“Though it was a few months before Christmas, we called them our Mary and Joseph,” said Marsh Drege, SIH executive director and an ELCA pastor, “because they were pregnant and seeking room at the inn.”

The couple fled their war-torn African country, Drege said, because of violence and religious intolerance. Annelouise is Christian and Mahmoud is Muslim — an interfaith marriage that never would have worked in Mali. “Their own relatives back home were fighting each other,” Drege said.

For nearly four weeks the couple called the SIH guesthouse home. Now almost a year old, Joy is living up to her name. The family lives in a transitional housing shelter.

SIH social work intern Jamila Hammami, a graduate student at the Hunter School of Social Work, helped Annelouise and Mahmoud get settled. She also assisted Mahmoud in obtaining work papers. Today he is employed in the computer field.

“They couldn’t be happier,” Hammami said. “They have their own room in a shelter and a kitchenette. Joy has a nice crib. … They come and visit SIH all the time with baby Joy, and they hope she grows up keeping the tradition of calling Marsh Drege, ‘Uncle Marsh.’ ”

Late last year, Uncle Marsh did a baby blessing for the couple.

It’s this type of genuine concern for those in need that distinguishes SIH, Drege said. Besides providing an immediate place to stay, the staff helps asylum-seekers find transitional and long-term housing, get work authorization permits and referrals to other services like Lutheran Social Services of New York, Catholic Charities and others.

Success stories like this aren’t unusual. The agency has nearly a 140-year history of assisting seafarers. It expanded its mission in 2009 to include asylum-seekers, and there has been a rapid rise in those requiring assistance. In 2012 it helped about 30 asylum-seekers with free rooms in its guesthouse.

Didier came to New York City from Rwanda to attend college. He had to work to send money home to his mother and brother, which forced him to drop out of school. His student visa expired. But with SIH’s help, he is back on track and in school again.

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