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Evangelical Christians helping Syrian refugees resettle in Georgia

Jim and Jeanne Slaughenhoup had a surprise for Hasan when they showed up at his Atlanta-area apartment recently.

Since he arrived in Georgia amid a storm of controversy in early December, the 4-year-old Syrian refugee had been pestering his parents about going to school. His grin spread from ear to ear when the pair of volunteers from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta arrived and announced they were taking him on a tour of the private preschool they had found.

The Slaughenhoups are among many evangelical Christians — generally reliable Republican voters — who are helping Syrian refugees like Hasan resettle in the U.S., despite objections from GOP political leaders. The Slaughenhoups voted for Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, but they have disagreed with his efforts to block Syrian refugees from coming to Georgia. They also reject GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.

The couple say their Christian faith compels them to help those in need, including refugees.

“Jesus said when you help someone in need… it is like serving him,” said Jim Slaughenhoup, who owns a janitorial business and who has been helping refugees with his wife since 1999. “It is like we are serving Christ when we are helping people — plus building relationships with them.”

Hasan and his parents — Sunni Muslims who asked that their last names not be published to protect relatives still living in Syria — fled their native country’s five-year-old civil war. The fighting has so far killed 250,000 people and displaced 12 million, according to the United Nations. Since 2011 when the war began, 75 Syrian refugees have resettled in Georgia, including a family of six that arrived last month. President Barack Obama — who appeared at a Maryland mosque Wednesday to decry “inexcusable political rhetoric” against Muslim Americans — has pledged to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to relocate to the U.S. in the coming months.

Security concerns surfaced in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist assault that killed 130 in Paris. One of the attackers posed as a Syrian migrant and passed through Greece and the Balkans, though French officials have said his Syrian passport was a fake. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the massacre. The group has a stronghold in Syria.

In the days following the attack, Deal joined more than two dozen other governors — most of them Republicans — in moving to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees, fearing terrorists could infiltrate them. Deal reversed course last month after he received a legal opinion that says he has no power to stop Syrian refugees from coming.

The Dec. 2 terrorist shootings in San Bernardino reignited the controversy. The Islamic State has said that two of its followers carried out the attack. Following the shootings, Trump proposed barring Muslims from coming to the U.S.

At the same time, many faith-based groups in Georgia and across the nation have sprung into action to welcome Syrians. For example, Roswell Community Masjid — a mosque — is supporting Syrian refugees. And seven local churches and synagogues have offered to help future arrivals, according to New American Pathways, a resettlement agency affiliated with Episcopal Migration Ministries and Church World Service.

But Johnson Ferry, a sprawling Baptist Church in Marietta with about 8,400 members, has drawn the most attention since December, when Pastor Bryant Wright, former president of the influential Southern Baptist Convention, confirmed the church was involved. The church’s efforts have drawn mixed reactions. Critics have blasted the church, complaining the Syrians are security risks; supporters have commended the church for its humanitarian efforts.

About 70 church members have signed up to help Hasan and his parents and a second Syrian family of six that arrived last month, said Jeanne Slaughenhoup. The church is donating furniture for them, helping them learn English and paying for Hasan’s preschool program. Johnson Ferry has teamed up with World Relief, a Christian nonprofit group that is helping resettle Syrian refugees in the Atlanta area.

“When I see what Johnson Ferry Baptist Church is doing, it just makes me so happy because I see them raising the name of Jesus high through their actions,” said Joshua Sieweke, the Atlanta office director for World Relief.

Through their volunteer work over the last few decades, the Slaughenhoups have become pros at helping refugees get back on their feet. They have assisted scores of people from many countries, including Eritrea, Kosovo and Iraq. The couple finds the work deeply rewarding.

“It’s a great purpose in our lives,” said Jeanne Slaughenhoup, an office manager for Cru, an evangelical organization previously called Campus Crusade for Christ. “Scripture says what you sow is what you reap.”

She and her husband have been helping Hasan and his parents, Mohammad and Ebtesam, since they arrived in December. His parents said the fighting in their native country killed two of their relatives, destroyed parts of their town of Daraa, wrecked the family’s home and made it too perilous for Mohammad to support his family any longer as a taxi driver.

Mohammad said he considers the Slaughenhoups family.

“Jeanne is my sister and Jim is my brother,” Mohammad said in halting English.

As Ebtesam served tea and cinnamon cake in her family’s modest apartment, Jeanne Slaughenhoup revealed her first surprise for Hasan: A colorful SpongeBob SquarePants calendar. She helped him place glittery star-shaped stickers on the days he will be attending school. Then it was time for him to see the school he will be attending for the first time this month.

They took a short walk to a bustling private preschool nearby. Once inside, Hasan, who is still learning English, curiously eyed the students. He peered inside one of the “Young Toddler” classrooms, where little boys and girls were napping side by side on cots. He walked down a hallway decorated with construction paper cutouts of penguins labeled with the students’ names. Some of the boys and girls were sitting on a bright blue rug, listening to a teacher reading Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.” Hasan smiled and waved at them. They waved back. Then he headed outside to the playground, where he quickly climbed atop a red slide and glided down. Glowing with excitement, Hasan had endured such a long and dangerous journey to get to that point.

“You see?” Jeanne Slaughenhoup said, proudly watching Hasan play. “You want to know why we do this? I wouldn’t miss being here.”

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