Gardening with Refugees

By Bill Sparks

Holland is famous for its spectacular fields of tulips, but in one town a Navigator mom is cultivating flowers (and relationships) with refugees from the Middle East.

Burdened about the plight of families who have fled from war-torn countries, Meredith (not her real name) and her husband decided to move into a multicultural neighborhood where they could develop relationships with families displaced by violence and oppression. Meredith and her husband knew that these families needed help to adjust to life in Holland, to feel welcomed, to find friendship.

God moved her heart when she read Matthew 25:35, which says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . .”

“My husband and I asked, ‘Can we let people in who are strangers?’” Meredith said. “We realized at that point that we needed to be living among them in order to invite them in.”

After moving to the new neighborhood, Meredith’s first step was to sign up for a women’s Arabic class offered at a local mosque. The class wasn’t very organized, but after drinking lots of tea with the other women, she gradually gained rapport and friendships.

A natural connection developed between Meredith and a Muslim woman, who was a community organizer, in part because they were both pregnant. Meredith invested a lot of personal time in this friendship, and soon the woman was opening doors for her to meet more people in the immigrant community.

Cultural barriers gradually fell as Meredith listened to them, learned about their lives, and brought food to their social gatherings. They were all legal immigrants. Many were asylum seekers. Some were migrant workers who had settled in Holland decades earlier. But all of these families were from broken nations. They were all looking for a better life.

Meredith, an avid gardener, saw another opportunity to help the immigrants become more integrated into the neighborhood. She decided to start a community garden, blending her own hobby with an outreach effort. Her goal was, in part, to connect the entire neighborhood. She organized some community meetings, worked with local government officials to use a plot of land, and set up a coordinating team.

The garden has served as common ground (literally) for people to get to know each other, and for Dutch residents to get a better understanding of immigrant needs. For the Christians who team with Meredith, being involved with the immigrants has helped them learn how to relate well with Muslims.

From the relationships that blossomed in the garden, Meredith has many opportunities to share her faith in natural ways. In fact, at a multicultural high tea with about 60 Muslim women, Meredith was invited by a dear friend to speak about God’s grace.

“All of this is happening at the Spirit’s pace,” she says. “I’m now a respected outsider.”

Meredith’s heart for Middle East refugees and immigrants stems from birth. When she was two-months old, her family moved to Syria, where her father worked in agricultural education for the Dutch government. At age four, she moved with her family to Pakistan, living near the border with Afghanistan until she was nine.

Back in Holland, Meredith’s family opened their home as a refuge for Middle East immigrants. “Sundays, we always had people at our table,” Meredith said. “Yemenis, Iranians—I always had them with me as a kid. I was also a third-culture kid, which meant that I was like them. I didn’t know where I fit either.”

Today, Meredith says, “I am at home with God. Part of me is Pakistani and Arabic. Part of me is Dutch. But because I am home with God, I can feel at home everywhere.” 

Bill Sparks has been serving as the Navigator Regional Director for Europe since 2016. Between 2009 and 2016 he was director of U.S. NavMissions. He and his wife, Cathy, previously served in Japan and Taiwan. Today they live in England and have two adult children.