Kaitlyn and Cameron Mullen, founders of For the Nations Refugee Outreach in Dallas, Texas, never intended to start an outreach ministry to refugee families. However, on a cold, wet day when one of Kaitlyn’s kindergarten students came to school in tears and wearing no socks, their lives changed forever.
Kaitlyn admits her first thought was, “What kind of mother sends her child to school on a day like this, wearing no socks?” Quickly, however, Kaitlyn realized she had been wrong in her assumption that the girl’s mother had somehow been negligent. Rather, she learned that the girl and her family were Somalian refugees relocated to the greater Dallas area from a country where socks simply weren’t needed.
After realizing the girl lacked adequate cold-weather clothing, Kaitlyn offered to take both her student and a sister shopping for coats. She was totally unprepared, however, for what she discovered when she arrived at their home.
“When they opened the apartment door, I saw eight little faces. There was no furniture — nothing. There was nothing in the pantry. They had electricity and a place to live, and that was about it.”
From Teacher to Full-Time Liaison
As Kaitlyn left with the two girls, she recognized the faces of a number of her other students peering out windows throughout the apartment complex. She learned that most were African refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Congo.
Cameron at the time was finishing a seminary degree and serving as a youth pastor. And, he admits, “I didn’t even know what a refugee was.”
Soon, however, the Mullens and other volunteers from their church began visiting families in the apartment complex and helping the children who lived there in any way they could. Their efforts expanded to include after-school and summer programs in which they worked with students on math and reading skills.
“Whatever we did, we shared the Gospel message,” said Cameron. “Most books and programs tell you you’re not allowed to do that, but it was always OK, so we just kept doing it. We had a relationship with these people and this community, and we saw them every day. That made it easy to share the Gospel.”
And, he added, “It just surprises you, how open they are.”
As Kaitlyn got to know more of the refugee children, she decided she could help them more effectively if she left her teaching job to become a full-time liaison between the students, the school, and community. Once parents began seeing the impact the Mullens were having in their children’s lives, it didn’t take long before they asked for the same kind of help.
How to Navigate Life in a New Country
“Each one could write a small book telling the story of why they left their homes to go to a refugee camp, what happened to them there, what got them to America, and then the culture shock they experienced when they got here. Twenty years ago, refugee families received help for three to five years. Now that’s been reduced to three months,” said Cameron.
When refugees arrive in a new country that doesn’t offer the kind of welcome and support they might have idealized, they are more open to explore questions about God.
Many of those the Mullens serve were once considered very important and influential before having to flee their home countries. Refugees relocated to the Dallas area include doctors, diplomats, and elected officials. Yet, said Cameron, these are people who often find that once they reach the U.S., nobody knows them or seems to want them.
Though many are well-educated, refugees who come to America need the very basics in learning how to navigate life in a new country. Instruction often begins with the English alphabet and extends to teaching refugees their address as well as how to communicate with their children’s teachers.
Cameron sees great opportunity in jumping in and helping these families when they first arrive in the U.S. Otherwise, he notes, they run the risk of falling into generational poverty. And while refugee families quickly learn where they can find food stamps and other resources, Cameron says, “These are people who come over with a middle-class skill set who don’t want to be dependent on the government.”
More importantly, he notes, when refugees arrive in a new country that doesn’t offer the kind of welcome and support they might have idealized, they are more open to explore questions about who God is.
From One Night a Week to For the Nations
The Mullens began opening their home one night a week to provide ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and then spent another night teaching classes and tutoring at a local church. When Cameron graduated from seminary, he recognized that the work he and Kaitlyn were doing among this refugee population could become a full-time job.
“When I stepped down as youth pastor, there were 10 other applicants for my position, but nobody’s applying to do this. This isn’t what I planned to do, but now that I’ve done it, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.
In 2011, the Mullens formed For the Nations as a nonprofit agency and began expanding their services to include English and literature classes, preschool, citizenship classes, kids club, monthly outreaches, GED prep, and acculturation and life skills.
Begun as a single act of compassion to a kindergarten student, this ministry now serves 100 students on each of its two campuses. The population at one campus comprises primarily Middle Eastern and African students, while the other site includes mostly Burmese refugees, approximately 55 percent of whom are Muslim.
Cameron, who has the opportunity to teach the Bible and other subjects, said, “I look at a room full of Muslims wearing head coverings, and I’m teaching them about Jesus. They read in the Bible, ‘before Abraham was, I am.’ I get to teach all the students, Jesus is saying, ‘I am God.’”
Currently there is 30-person waiting list for classes at For the Nations. Sadly, according to Cameron, turning away a single student means that they are turning away an entire family in need of help. “It’s not like there are a lot of other people in our area doing what we’re doing.”
Because transportation is both difficult and expensive for the students they serve, the Mullens have rented classroom spaces close to where many of the families live. They have held classes in apartment-complex basements and clubhouses and currently use space in an existing church building whose owners are preparing to sell it. The Mullens are hoping to raise $1.5 million to purchase the building and turn it into the first Christian refugee school in Dallas.
David Rogers, senior pastor of Town North Presbyterian Church in Richardson, Texas, got to know the Mullens when Kaitlyn reached out to him about bringing a group of kids to Vacation Bible School. Since then, the church has been providing office space for the ministry and sending youth to participate in short-term mission projects at For the Nations. “It’s a fantastic ministry,” said Rogers. “It’s amazing. This story has got to be told.”
“This isn’t what I planned to do, but now that I’ve done it, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” -Cameron Mullen
One of many stories birthed by this ministry is that of a Middle Eastern woman who arrived in the U.S. about a year and a half ago with her husband and son, having left another son behind. Soon after arriving in Dallas though, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although the family had fled a country from which they were relatively safe, they would not have had access to the kind of medical care this woman required. While in the midst of her treatment, however, the woman’s husband decided he’d had enough and returned to the country he’d fled. Eventually the woman’s son moved to another state to find a job, and she then received word that ISIS had executed the son she’d left behind.
The Mullens got to know this woman when she started attending school to learn English. During graduation this past May, after having completed one of the top levels of English, she stood and said, “Before I came here, I didn’t have a family, but now I’ve found one.”
The Mullens report that the little girl who showed up in Kaitlyn’s classroom eight years ago has adjusted well to life in America. Her father has a job in a hospital where he has been promoted to manager, and her mother has a job as well. Her oldest brother is in college, and she and her sisters participate in first-generation college-bound programs.
The family no longer lives in a refugee apartment complex but in a house. Most importantly, says Cameron, “They all know the Gospel well. And I think at least part of the family believes.”
More information about For the Nations is available at http://ftnro.org.