Nima Masoumi left the city of Esfahan in Iran because he wanted to be free to choose his religion — even if that meant choosing no religion at all.
Masoumi left behind his parents, two sisters and a brother, hoping to reach the United States. He spent nearly three years in Turkey while being vetted by the U.S. State Department and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Unable to work legally in Turkey, he toiled in the Turkish “underground,” washing dishes, working construction and doing whatever he could to survive.
“It was really tough,” said Masoumi, now 33. “You don’t know anybody. You don’t know the language. You have to pay rent. You have to eat.”
While that was happening, Pope Francis had asked Catholic parishes around the world to take in refugees, especially from war-torn countries.
That call to action also inspired congregations outside the Roman Catholic Church such as St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove.
On sabbatical, the Rev. Wilifred Allen-Faiella, the rector at St. Stephen’s, had traveled to Greece andthe former Yugoslavia. While there, she witnessed Syrian refugees living in camps.
“I was pretty shaken up by this experience,” she said. “When I got back to St. Stephen’s, one of our parishioners asked what we were doing to help refugees.”
Allen-Faiella got in touch with the Episcopal Migration Ministries to set up a partnership between the group and the church.
At the third and final meeting of St. Stephen’s parishioners regarding refugees, Allen-Faiella got a phone call from Father Howard Stowe, a retired priest. Stowe had met Masoumi and wanted to know if there were any chance St. Stephen’s could co-sponsor his resettlement.
“We were deciding on whether to do this, and then I get this call out of the blue, and we unanimously agreed to proceed,” Allen-Faiella said. “In my vocabulary, I can only call that a ‘God thing.’ ”
Masoumi arrived in Miami on Feb. 4, 2016. Today, he has his own apartment, has learned English at Miami Dade College, and works in banquet set-up at the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Brickell Key.
Several other local organizations work to resettle refugees, including the International Rescue Committee, Church World Service, Youth Co-Op Inc., Lutheran Services Florida Refugee Resettlement and Catholic Charities.
Suzy Cop, the International Rescue Committee’s executive director of the Miami and Tallahassee offices, said her humanitarian organization has been active since 1933.
She said she supports “vigorous and common-sense vetting” but added that the U.S. government’s “misguided travel ban” is making family reunification difficult.
In the case of Masoumi, who arrived before the travel ban, he remembers how the folks from St. Stephen’s had set up banners and purple-and-white balloons in his honor at the airport.
“That was the best,” Masoumi said. “There were 10 people waiting to greet me, and I felt super special. I didn’t know them, but they were very welcoming. They invited me to their houses.
“They are my family here, and I’m very grateful.”
Stowe said the people at St. Stephen’s have been very welcoming.
“Their hearts were in it from the beginning,” Stowe said. “And isn’t that the reason we live — to make things possible for others?”
Allen-Faiella said the official commitment her church made to Masoumi was for 90 days.
“After that,” she said, “we could have said, ‘OK, we’ve taken care of Nima. Let’s move on to someone else.’ But Nima is part of our family.”
Welcoming the stranger, Allen-Faiella said, is the “bedrock of faith,” whether the faith is Christianity, Judaism or Islam.
“We were responding to this crisis that was unfolding in the Middle East that I had seen with my own eyes,” she said. “Jesus said to love one another, not just those who think like I do.
“To see Nima doing so well fills me with so much joy that I can hardly express it because it is that profound.”
How to Help
Organizations that help resettle refugees: