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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Florida: 'So thankful'

"We've sponsored three [refugee] families in the last five years," says John Hillmer, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Tampa, Fla. Most recently the congregation sponsored the Gasics — Predag, Diuka and their three children — who arrived from Bosnia in April 2002.

"We met them at the airport, and all their worldly possessions were carried in one bag apiece," Hillmer says. Grace gave the family about $1,000 in contributions and assistance from member volunteers, he says, adding, "We couldn't have done [the sponsorship] without the help of key players like Barbara Toepke and Eileen and Don Anderson."

Toepke, a junior high math teacher who occasionally uses her two-car garage to store donated household goods for refugees, literally opened her door to the Gasics. They lived with her for six weeks until their apartment was ready.

"They want to work hard and earn money," she says, "but it's not easy to find jobs, especially now, or a place to live they can afford."

With their house in Bosnia destroyed and Predag's two brothers killed in the war, the Gasics applied for asylum in the United States. More than four years later the family welcomes guests to their home in Tampa. "[Grace members] take us to the dentist, the hospital — I'm so thankful," Diuka says, encompassing the family's combination living/dining room/kitchen in a wide-flung gesture. She describes how her new friends contributed all the furnishings, along with assistance in everyday matters.

Eileen Anderson, a former volunteer coordinator for Lutheran Services Florida until funding for her position ended in December 2002, taught the Gasics English for more than two months after they arrived. Now, Dragana, 14, who makes almost all "As" in her eighth-grade classes, frequently acts as translator for her parents.


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