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Getting Here is Just the Beginning

Lutheran Services Florida, led by COO Christopher Card, PhD '10, helps refugees build new lives

By Kim Franke-Folstad

Sadiki Bertin relaxes during a meeting with other Congolese refugees in Tampa

Sadiki Bertin relaxes during a meeting with other Congolese refugees in Tampa. He arrived here about seven months ago and works as a dishwasher; in his former life, he was a teacher and social worker.  Photo: Jay Nolan

 You expect to see gratitude, and you do.

These young men, five refugees from the Congo, are grateful to be in the United States and safe. They're happy to be in Tampa, particularly, where the weather and the people are warm and welcoming.

What you don't expect – at least not to this degree and not so soon after their arrival - is their determination to make the most of the chance they've been given. To build a community that contributes and someday produces leaders. To remember their home even as they make a new home here.

"We are looking to do our best in Tampa," Sadiki Bertin says. So he and his friends and fellow refugees – five on this night, but sometimes more – gather often to discuss their challenges and how to overcome them. In a tidy Tampa home filled with children and the smell of something delicious on the stove, they crowd around a single laptop to work out their plans.

They got here and that was, of course, the major hurdle. To be approved for resettlement in the United States was a dream come true.

But language impedes them now. It slows them down. More importantly, it slows down their children, who can't do their schoolwork and can't turn to their parents for help. No one speaks any of the languages they know except, maybe, French. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country with more than 200 languages and dialects, but few people learn English.

"We have a lot of talent, and we cannot show our talents because of the language barrier," Bertin says.

That's not a complaint, though. It's a goal.

Lutheran Services Florida gets about two weeks' notice to find a place for a refugee or a refugee family to live. In that time, the non-profit agency must help find work, a school, and to check off a long list of necessities required by the federal government – everything from a sofa and mattress to light bulbs, pens and paper.

Then a representative meets the family at the airport and takes them to their new home (or sometimes, temporarily, a hotel) and helps them settle in. The organization continues its support as they become a part of the community, assisting with medical referrals, cultural orientation, language tutoring and other social services.

Issa Saidi, Patrick Bulambo and Sadiki Bertin listen during a meeting at Jerome Swedi’s Tampa home.

Left to right, Issa Saidi, Patrick Bulambo and Sadiki Bertin listen during a meeting at Jerome Swedi's Tampa home. The group of men and their families are Congolese refugees. Photo: Jay Nolan

Bertin, the four men meeting with him and their families have all been served by this Tampa-based agency. The organization has been doing this work officially since 1982, when it was established as Lutheran Ministries of Florida. But unofficially, Lutheran churches here have been assisting refugees since 1975, when the Vietnam War ended and thousands sought safety in the U.S.

Congregations in Florida reached out with food, clothing and temporary homes. As time passed, their efforts became more organized, with the churches sponsoring employment programs to help refugees build better lives. In 1980, when thousands of Cubans arrived during the Mariel Boatlift, the churches stepped in again.

Since 1982, Lutheran Services has served more than 150,000 refugees fleeing religious and political persecution in oppressed and often war-torn countries. Ninety-five percent of the refugees it works with come from Cuba, with the balance from Central America, Haiti, Bosnia, the Congo and elsewhere. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is one of nine partner agencies chosen by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants to assist refugees upon their arrival in the country, and Lutheran Services is one of its affiliates.

Christopher Card, PhD ’10, chief operating officer for the nonprofit Lutheran Services Florida.

Christopher Card, PhD '10, is chief operating officer for the nonprofit Lutheran Services Florida, which has served more than 150,000 refugees since 1982. Card also teaches at USF's School of Social Work.  Photo: Courtesy of Lutheran Services Florida

"These are people who have seen a lot of pain, chaos and disruption in their lives," says Christopher Card, PhD '10, president and COO of the agency. "We get to sort that out. And it works most of the time."

An important part of that effort is providing high-quality services in a collaborative manner, says Card, who came to Lutheran Services in 2012 and also works as an adjunct instructor at USF's School of Social Work in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.

Over the years, the organization has built strong relationships with local charities, churches and employers, adds Lourdes Mesias, director of LSF Immigration and Refugee Services.

Churches and charities help with bike drives, and provide bedding, household and hygiene supplies. Housing can be challenging since landlords must accept tenants with no credit history or references. Transportation options for refugees are usually limited to the bus, a carpool or a donated bicycle, but employers know the workers come with energy and strength, she says. "Business owners come back and say, 'Let me help.' "

Most get entry-level jobs. Bertin, a teacher and social worker in his homeland, has been working as a dishwasher. Others land on assembly lines, or in the hospitality and landscaping industries.

A lot depends on the economy and the current job market but outreach coordinator Greg Musselman, '77, is always out there "making miracles," Mesias says.

Like Bertin and his friends, Lutheran Services aims to build a foundation for refugees that leads to their success in the community, and to create citizens who will someday vote and lead. "They want to be self-sufficient," Mesias says.

It's a plus to be in Florida, which is truly a melting pot, she says. "This is a country of immigrants. Florida believes that and supports that. This is refugees helping refugees."

Even with their limited English, Bertin and his friends spend much of their time translating for others. They go to schools to help parents communicate with teachers. They go to clinics to help interpret conversations between doctors and patients. Their phones ring constantly and they always take the calls, they say, even if it means getting little sleep.

"We will teach each other how to change and live as Florida people," Bertin says. "This is a place for opportunity."

It's this kind of ambition that fuels the volunteers and employees at Lutheran Services – and it's what they see in most refugees, Card says.

"There's a lot of tragedy and heartache in this work. What keeps me coming back are the success stories. A lot of the media talks about failures – crimes or things that didn't go well. But those who work at it see the success."

How to Help:
Lutheran Services Florida appreciates donations of money, furniture, bicycles and household goods. Volunteers are also needed.

"What do you like to do?" asks COO Christopher Card. It can be anything from teaching children about your hobby to practicing English with a refugee. "If nothing else, you can pray for the organization and the staff that serves us," he says.

For more opportunities to help, go to or contact Terri Durdaller at