Category Archives: Detention Center Ministry

A Happy Birthday of Sorts

The following is a reflection by Liz Hadley, World Relief Employment Specialist. Names have been changed for privacy.

I brought a handful of daffodils to dinner–ones I had picked from the side of the rode en route to the apartment. I wanted to bring something to celebrate.

I knocked on the door, offered my handful of flowers and a hug to my friend, and then watched as her youngest child teetered around the living room. “She’s walking now!” I thought. The first time I had heard about this little one, she was mere months old, in hiding, and living far from her mom.

Our dinner tonight is a birthday dinner of sorts. Sayida calls this day her “new birthday”: it’s the day she was granted asylum and her life started over.

A year ago, I remember seeing her in our office for the first time. I had heard of a female asylee from Afghanistan being released from the Immigration Detention Center in Tacoma…and then I met her in front of the copier and fax machine. She was strong and relieved, but also anxious.

I remember holding in my hands the threatening letters from the Taliban that were posted on Sayida’s door back home. I remember her telling me that while in detention, she prepared her own asylum case by telling her story to an Iranian woman who translated it into English for a Congolese woman who then wrote it down in English. All three of them were awaiting their court hearing, all three of them believing in one another. I remember crying with her as she told me how old her children were, how they had to split the children up for safety, and how the youngest one should still have been nursing. I remember I couldn’t tell her if or when her family would be able to come.


Today I sit at their American-style dinner table and smile at how her husband, Mustafa, is patiently feeding the little one and leaning over to laugh and ask Sayida (again) what I’ve just said. And I’m in love with the joy and positivity of their journey. When I took her to her first job interview, she explained to the manager that she was an engineer in Afghanistan and had worked on water projects to help women in her country grow vegetables. I was so proud of how she communicated her own strength and story.

I remember bringing her a roll of bread while she worked her way through the company’s AutoCAD interview test…she hadn’t eaten all day but was intent on showing the company what skills she had to offer. And this interview turned into an internship, and the internship turned into a job, and now everyday she carpools with two other Afghans to work with the engineering team.

In the Fall I remember meeting her for coffee near her workplace and asking about an update…any news on her family? Nothing yet.

And I remember the text I received 2 months ago that read “I have good news. My family visas  issued” and then a week later a picture of all of them together at the airport.

I met her at our office by the copier and fax machine again, but this time everything was different. Her 1 year old in her arms and the older two in tow, she introduced me to Mustafa: the man who had supported her engineering work all along, who had phoned her to tell her it wasn’t safe to come back to Afghanistan, who had cared for their children while she sought asylum, and who had waited nearly a year to be all together in safety.

And now at dinner Mustafa pulls out a stack of old photos for me to riffle through–small memories of their life before–he practices the little English he knows, and laughs with his children who are all learning to be siblings again. He cares for the two youngest while Sayida goes to work during the week and he’s prepared us dinner tonight. When I ask him how things are, he tells me “America is good!” with a laugh and a smile.

We talk about how much a year has held – how much has happened to their family.

Today marks a year of freedom for Sayida, but only a mere 2 months for her family. “But everything is good, thanks God” she tells me as she pours tea and reminds me that I can sleep on the couch tonight since Seattle is so far away.

I decline the couch surfing option but take the tea, and thank God also for the strength and joy this family has given me.

Join us in Empowering Women like Sayida


Ruth and Lizbeth

When Ruth first met her, Lizbeth was about to be sent to a country that she hadn’t seen since she was seven years old. And she was afraid to go.

US Immigration & Customs Enforcement called it her homeland, but to Lizbeth, Mexico was anything but home. As she awaited deportation, Lizbeth found herself in the Northwest Immigration Detention Center in Tacoma along with more than 1,000 other detainees. Some, like Lizbeth, had been arrested for committing a crime while in the US on a visa. Far more, though, were in the Detention Center because their immigration documentation was insufficient or contained errors.

Lizbeth was born in Mexico and came to the US illegally with her parents as a young girl; they eventually settled in Oregon. America would come to be home and English her primary language.

But when she entered adulthood, Lizbeth’s drug use led her into a long series of problems. By her own estimation, she’s been institutionalized more often than not for the last couple of decades.

Lizbeth’s history and immigration status would eventually land her in Tacoma’s Detention center. She hoped to be released so she could build a life with her new husband in Portland. But in time, Lizbeth’s fate became increasingly clear: like four out of five detainees in the facility, she was going to be deported.

While she waited, Lizbeth found World Relief Immigration Detention Center Ministry. She began to attend one of eight weekly worship services and joined a Bible study group with daily meetings. New in her faith, Lizbeth craved mentorship and friendship from another believer.

This is where Ruth comes in. Ruth had recently returned to the US after living in Mexico for more than thirty years. She and her husband planted churches, and Ruth worked with survivors of domestic violence.

After retirement, Ruth was looking for an opportunity to continue ministry. With a tip from her daughter, Ruth connected with World Relief’s window visit program, which connects volunteers with individual detainees who they can visit. For Ruth, it was a natural extension of her career in missions work.

“In some senses its the same thing,” said Ruth of her work in Mexico and Tacoma. “Being a missionary isn’t just a profession, it’s a decision you make every day.”

In their first window visits, Ruth could tell that Lizbeth was discouraged and depressed. Like many others in the facility who are far from their family and friends, she had few visitors. Through regular visits and notes of encouragement, the two women built a friendship in the months before deportation.

Beyond spiritual and emotional support, the friendship had practical benefits. Lizbeth was going to be deported to Tijuana, a city she knew nothing about. Having lived there for years, Ruth was able to point her to safe areas and refer her to friends living in the city.

Lizbeth was deported in December 2015.

But that wasn’t the end of Ruth and Lizbeth’s story: two weeks later, Ruth traveled to Tijuana to visit friends. Through a series of phone connections, they were able to make contact and they were able to meet up.

Ruth & Lizbeth in Tijuana.After retirement, Ruth was looking for an opportunity to continue ministry. With a tip from her daughter, Ruth began World Relief’s window visit program, which connects volunteers with individual detainees who they can visit.

Ruth & Lizbeth in Tijuana. After retirement, Ruth was looking for an opportunity to continue ministry and began to volunteer with World Relief’s window visit program to minister to immigrant detainees.

Providence was at play: as it turned out, Lizbeth was living just blocks from one of the churches that Ruth and her husband had planted years before. Ruth brough her to the church and introduced her to friends who were pillars in the congregation.

Ruth could see changes in Lizbeth in that first visit to Tijuana. Stuck in a difficult situation where drugs would’ve been an easy out, Lizbeth was firm in her resolve: “I’m not going that route,” she said. “I’ve given enough of my life to that.”

In a follow-up trip in March, Ruth was excited to see that Lizbeth had found a church home and was attending a women’s Bible study there. Ruth brought her friend a bilingual Bible so she could more easily follow the services in her ‘mother tongue’ which she still hadn’t mastered.

I want to give a testimony to the Church how missionaries like yourself can make a difference and have an impact in our lives. I thank God for you and pray that he will send you to more and more women who are calling out for moral support. Glory to the most high–he is working on me. I can feel him. 

-Lizbeth, Mexico

To support World Relief’s Detention center Ministry, please visit our donations page and select Seattle Detention Center Ministry as your gift designation. Through a generous $40,000 matching challenge, your impact in detainees’ lives will be doubled–please give today!

To learn more about how you and your church can get involved in the ministry, contact Jose Bonilla at

Anatoliy: “Go to Your Countrymen in Exile…”

“Congratulations!  You passed!” reported the Immigration officer.

Anatoliy’s broad grin spread out from under his neat brown beard, obviously a happy man. He had just passed his citizenship exam and anticipated that moment when he would raise his right hand and take the oath of allegiance to his new country.   His family’s journey from Former Soviet Ukraine, where Christians faced discrimination, fines, and even prison for their beliefs, was about to culminate in his induction as a new citizen of the land of religious freedom.

But during his background check, a clerical error brought him under a cloud of suspicion.  Instead of being sworn in as a citizen, he was taken into custody and locked away in the Detention Center for “lying to the U.S. Justice Department”.   For a short-lived day he was a law abiding green card holder moving on to citizenship.  When the investigation process concluded, he was deprived of freedom and treated like a common criminal, losing his job and livelihood.

What had happened?  Through the fog of confusion the words of a prophecy spoken over him in church two months before came back to him.  “My son, you will have a big problem in your life.  But don’t be afraid.  You will have to experience these kinds of problems before you can help other people.”

Aching for clarity he opened his Russian Bible for guidance.  His eye fell on Ezekiel 3:11, Go now to your countrymen in exile and speak to them.  Had God, in some way, sent him into this situation?   There were certainly many other Russian/Ukrainians being held in the detention center with him.

Next, verses 17, 18, and 19 sprang out at him:  I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.  When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.  But if you do warn the wicked man and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have save yourself.

In the Detention Center his large physique and loud voice kept him from being intimidated.  His fellow detainees from a dozen countries listed crimes as trivial as his clerical error, and overstaying their visas, to domestic violence, and dealing in drugs.

During his three months in detention, he found solace in attending the Sunday worship services coordinated by World Relief.   Fellow Russian-speakers from familiar local congregations came to minister to him and encourage him.   And Anatoliy found himself ministering to his countrymen in his living unit, seeing some lives changed dramatically.

One Sunday after three long months, as he was leaving the service, he told Cal in his accented English, “I’m getting out but I am going to come back here, with you.”   On the day he was released, he drove to World Relief and presented himself as a volunteer for the Detention Ministry.

Vibol: Pardoned to live

Written by: Mark Cutshall

Do miracles happen, today?

Vibol was only 12 when he left his father behind in Cambodia’s killing fields and found safety in the U.S. with his mother and siblings.

He began a new life in Seattle, where he grew up and later married. But after a dispute with his wife, Vibol was sent to jail for domestic violence. During his incarceration he learned of the Christian faith by watching a Bible teacher on television. Through correspondence courses, reading, and prayer Vibol came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Once out of jail, he was apprehended by Immigration Service officials who threatened to deport him, because despite his years in Seattle, Vibol had not yet become a U.S. citizen.

It was at the detention center during a Sunday worship service conducted by World Relief where Cal Uomoto met Vibol. Cal was impressed by Vibol’s heart for God, diligent study of Scripture and desire to share his faith with others.

Vibol’s attorney appealed his client’s deportation order – and lost. Only the miracle of a Governor’s pardon could allow him to stay in the U.S.  That’s when Cal handed his wife, Ann, Vibol’s file, including photos of his children.

“I know these kids!” said Ann, who had worked as a nurse at the middle school they attended. “I remember them because they talked so much about how they loved their father.”  Ann was sure school staff would write letters confirming how important Vibol was to his children.

After reading the letters, members of the Governor’s Pardon Board saw Vibol’s life in a different light. They reduced Vibol’s original sentence for domestic violence to five months – which meant he could no longer be deported.

Against all odds, Vibol was now suddenly free to live in a country far from the killing fields of his youth, all because of a miracle pardon – and some unforgettable letters of a father’s undeniable love.

Alex: Facing Deportation

Written by: Anonymous

“I used to do bad things,” said Alex as he adjusted his wire framed glasses over his short-cropped blond hair.   Alex had come to the US with his family as religious refugees from Ukraine, where the communist Soviet regime harshly persecuted Christians for routine activities like taking a child to church.  As his parents busied themselves with learning English and looking for work, strapping teenage Alex fell in with the wrong crowd.   Car prowling and burglaries got him several stints in the country jail, mortifying his parents and members of their church.

Now he was sitting behind a glass window in the detention facility in his orange jail coveralls facing a deportation order to send him back to the Ukraine.  Deportation could mean a ten year separation from his family with no certain means of sustaining himself.  In reality, he might never be able to come to the U.S. again.

But four months ago his spiritual life had taken a significant turn.  Just before he was incarcerated in the Immigration Detention Center, he had given his life to Jesus Christ.

Alex spoke in his accented English to Cal with confidence.  “You know, my life has changed.  I know that even if I am sent to the Ukraine, God will go with me and help me with my life there.”   Cal marveled at this young believer’s strength and confidence in God.

“I will try to write a letter for you on your behalf,” Cal promised.  When Cal corroborated his story with Alex’s parents and his pastor they all said that Alex’s life changed from night to day.  Cal hoped his letter would help keep this young man in the country.

When his case came to the judge, against all odds, the deportation was overturned and Alex was released to live in the U.S.; released to be with his family.    “I want to help you with the detention ministry,” he told Cal as soon as he was released.  Now Alex spends his energies with World Relief’s Detention Ministry helping his former fellow detainees.