Seattle was an exciting place in 1979. The Supersonics took a championship title. The city's unique music scene was beginning to garner national interest. The tech boom that would make the city famous was just around the corner. Meanwhile, unrest in Southeast Asia had been building for over a decade. Failed governments in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos landed millions in uncertain or brutal circumstances and caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
World Relief had been working with these populations overseas, and so was perfectly positioned to become a welcoming presence when Southeast Asian refugees began to pour into US cities. Seattle, already a diverse city of immigrants with a growing economy, was a prime location to receive these newcomers. Mobilizing quickly, the local Church began to meet the immediate needs of incoming Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians…and World Relief Seattle was born.
Within just a few years, World Relief Seattle more than doubled in capacity. People were responding to the vision by opening their homes and lives to newly arrived refugees. “Traumatized people were coming into the homes of strangers, and 95% of the time, it worked. They would develop very meaningful relationships,” says then director, Alec Hill. Empowered by the structure of World Relief Seattle, volunteers were quickly, creatively, and sacrificially responding to the needs they saw in the lives of their new neighbors. Apartments would be furnished by donations. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes began. Jobs were found for refugees in the community.
Lives were transformed. Over the coming decades, World Relief Seattle remained in high gear. Following eras of trouble and persecution in various countries, refugees came in waves. First the refugee waves from Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Then in the early 1990’s there were waves from Bosnia, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union.
The late 1990’s brought Kurdish refugees from Iraq. Later, newcomers arrived from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. One year, almost 2,000 refugees were welcomed to Seattle in the span of 12 months. "That meant finding churches and individual sponsors for a lot of families, which was a testament of faithfulness both on the part of the small WR staff and the churches who volunteered,” says Karleen Kennedy, a long-time volunteer. Since beginning operation in 1979, there have been some changes. Housing and employment opportunities slowly shifted south, so in 1994 World Relief Seattle moved its office to Kent, WA.
The increase in immigrant detention led to informal care of immigrant detainees and later a formalized NW Immigration Detention Center Ministry in 2003. As former refugees became settled in a new life, many returned to volunteer at World Relief Seattle; dozens even returned to serve newcomers as staff. But even as World Relief Seattle grows and changes, there are many constants. Refugees and immigrants continue to face extraordinary hardship and overcome impossible barriers.Volunteers continue to share their lives with their new neighbors. And God’s heart for the foreigner, the displaced, the stranger remains the same.