Ananias Mission Provides Hope and Homes for Syrian Refugees
Jan 31, 2018 02:00PM
By Jennifer Monahan
Struggling refugee families hope to make it to safety in Canada with the help of Ananias Mission. Photos courtesy of Maranie Staab
Ed Wethli is a reluctant hero. He never started out trying to save the world, and he does not see himself as the knight-in-shining-armor type. Yet this regular guy from Cranberry Township is saving lives.
Wethli is a successful business leader who owns Kiva Han Coffee Company, based in Cranberry Township. Through his work in the coffee industry, Wethli regularly interacts with companies throughout the Middle East. Until 2014, however, the Syrian Civil War (then in its third year) had little direct impact on him.
In July 2014, Wethli was contacted by a Syrian colleague (name withheld for privacy) in an impossible situation. The man was working in another country in the Middle East but was facing likely deportation back to Syria—and the resulting persecution for his Christian faith. He had a valid travel visa and the financial means to bring his family of four to the United States, but no way to support them once they arrived. Wethli invited the entire family to stay with him until they got settled.
Why did Wethli step forward when many would not?
“When I was nine, my family was camping and we met a Hungarian Jewish mother and her two adult children. They had numbers tattooed on their arms; they were all survivors of Auschwitz,” Wethli explained. “I asked them how something like that could happen. The son said they had kind neighbors, but no one in their village would step up and raise their voice in protest. That stayed with me. I’m not going to be the one who didn’t step up and do something to help.”
In December 2014, the Syrian man and his family made it to the United States. They lived with Wethli for a month. He helped them find employment and permanent housing, got the children enrolled in school, and hired an immigration attorney to assist the family with securing refugee status in the United States.
Because of Wethli’s willingness to help, the family found safety in the Pittsburgh area. Their relatives, however, were still living under horrific conditions in Syria. One nephew was pulled off a bus by Islamic State militants and beheaded when he refused to renounce his Christian faith. A cousin was shot. The man's mother had to hide in the hallway of her apartment to avoid being hit by sniper fire.
As Wethli listened to these tragic stories and to the man’s requests for Wethli to get his relatives out of Syria, he was sincerely sympathetic. At the same time, Wethli saw no way to bring the remaining 23 family members to the U.S.
Right around that time—September 2015—Wethli saw the devastating photo seen around the world of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy. Shortly after, he woke up in the middle of the night with a new sense of urgency about his friend’s situation and the belief that God was calling him to act.
Within a few days, Wethli pulled together a group of friends he thought might be willing to assist, explained the situation and asked for their support. One couple who attended the gathering suggested Wethli get in touch with their niece, Jennifer Allison. Allison, an attorney who specializes in litigation, was not sure that she could be of any help with immigration law but agreed to aid in fundraising.
Between them, Wethli, Allison and a few friends raised about $15,000 to help the Syrian family’s relatives who were trapped in Syria. As news of their work grew, Wethli and Allison started connecting with strangers and speaking at churches to raise the remaining $100,000 needed.
“People had faith in us,” Allison said of the fundraising efforts. “Today we can show people we have a great model for getting the funding to parishes to support resettling efforts for Syrian refugees. At the beginning, though, it was a leap of faith.”
While Wethli and Allison continued raising money, they also had to figure out where to place the 23 members of the extended family who were still facing daily persecution and violence. Relocation to the United States was not an option because of restrictions on immigration.
Wethli learned that private organizations in Canada, such as churches, can sponsor refugee families. The organization must commit to providing housing, finding employment and feeding and clothing the individual or family for a year. The organization also must demonstrate it can supply the $30,000 Canadian dollars (about $22,000 in U.S. dollars) it would cost to bring a refugee family into the country.
After running into a number of dead ends, Wethli and Allison finally connected with a group of Catholic churches in the Diocese of St. Catharines in Ontario, Canada. The diocese had been looking for a way to help Syrian refugees. They had willing sponsors, but no money. Wethli explained that he had funding, but no place for the refugees to go. The match was providential.
In 2016, all 23 members of the Syrian’s extended family were officially declared refugees and immigrated to Canada.
Allison and Wethli were on hand to greet one of the families when they arrived at the airport. She said the experience was a blend of relief and joy.
“It was just surreal,” Allison said. “We had spent over a year working, praying and waiting for them to come, and they had become like family to us. To meet them in person and to know that they were finally safe was incredible.”
In 2016, Wethli established Ananias Mission to formalize the work he began in 2014. Allison works fulltime for the organization. The group continues to raise funds. Two struggling refugee families currently wait to travel to safety; Wethli and Allison hope to bring them to Canada in 2018. They also work to educate people in the Pittsburgh area about the urgent need to help.
“Both the United Nations and the U.S. government have designated the situation in Syria as genocide for Christians,” Wethli explained. “What happened in Rwanda, in Armenia, in the Holocaust—it’s happening right now in Syria,” he said.
“Many people outside the country do not understand the reality of daily life in Syria,” Allison explained. “Bombing and sniper fire are constant in neighborhoods where civilians live. A lot of people—both Christian and Muslim—are trapped, with no safe path out of Syria. People live in constant fear because their family members and neighbors are being shot or kidnapped.”
Allison said that in a situation as overwhelming as the Syrian refugee crisis, it can be difficult to know what to do and how to help. “We feel blessed because we found an opportunity to do something,” she explained.
Wethli understands that people might be reluctant to get involved.
“People are so afraid. I was afraid,” Wethli said. “But it’s amazing what happens when you step out of your comfort zone. I’ve got a new family. Meeting refugees in person changes perspectives radically.”
To learn more, check out www.ananiasmission.org.