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Three Stages of an Immigrant’s Experience

Global migration is happening at an unprecedented rate. Did you know that one in every seven people living in the US is foreign born? In Canada, As of 2019, there were just under eight million immigrants with permanent residence, roughly 21.5 percent of the total population. These numbers astound me. These internationals include those who come with higher needs– refugees, asylees and undocumented people. No one in these categories leaves home because home feels safe. For all of them there are unique challenges and needs. At the same time there are amazing opportunities for us as Christ-followers to come alongside them in their journey. The world is on the move, and we get to love and share the gospel with our new neighbors. Acts 17 talks about God determining where each person should live, it is so good to know He is sovereign over immigrants’ lives! Learning how to share the gospel with them involves understanding the stages of an immigrant’s experience and what they likely need.

Terms like refugee, asylee and undocumented can be confusing, here is what they mean:
A refugee is someone who is forced to flee their country due to war or persecution. When they arrive in their new country, they have legal status and are eligible for assistance.
An asylee is a person who meets the definition of refugee but is already present in the new country or is seeking admission at a port of entry. Their claim is yet to be evaluated. As such, they’re left in limbo.

An undocumented immigrant is a foreign-born person who doesn’t have legal documentation or right to be or remain in the country they are residing in.

Because of limited time we will focus on the refugee experience, but for asylees and undocumented the stages and needs are similar.

My journey engaging with refugees started ten years ago, when our daughter began working with a refugee resettlement agency. I visited her and my heart went out to her new friends and the challenges they faced. Later, I was heartbroken as I watched the news about the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2016, I decided to get personally involved and did a birthday fundraiser through my daughter’s agency, to anonymously help settle a Syrian refugee family in their new home. Little did I expect, but my heart was captured by Hala, Yusef and their family, and we have been friends ever since. I am convinced that there’s an incredible exchange that happens as relationships are built between newcomers to our country and ourselves. Yes, it’s wonderful to come alongside them but we are also changed as we hear their stories, experience the hospitality that they extend, and are inspired by their incredible resilience. It’s a privilege to have these new neighbors as friends. The world has come to us as the refugee crisis and border crisis have unfolded. The question is, will we respond with love and share the gospel with our newcomer neighbors?

As we think about reaching immigrants with the gospel it’s helpful to understand that their transition to life here is a journey. They have various needs: physical/practical needs, emotional/social needs and spiritual needs. They are journeying through three stages: the arrival stage, the long adjustment stage, and the acculturation stage. How long this takes will be different for each person.

I am going to share about this three stage journey primarily through the stories of several of my refugee friends, Hala, Patrice, Ahmed and Anna.

Arrival Stage: first 3 months

The arrival stage is when the refugee or asylee arrives and begins to get set up in their new city and home. Refugees are typically met at the airport of their new city.

One resettlement staff person shared:

“One of my favorite parts of working at World Relief was airport pick ups. I have sweet memories of arriving at the airport and greeting tired, anxious, relieved refugees to my city. Some of these people I am still friends with. Some people came with just the clothes on their back, others, those that were lucky, shoved every valuable item that made them think of home and their history into one or two tiny bags.

Here is my friend Hala’s story of her airport arrival…

“At first, my husband and I were afraid and worried, especially since we didn’t know where to go and we didn’t know anyone. When we landed at the airport, we were looking at people with fear and I just wanted to cry, I felt ashamed, and I was asking myself, is there really someone waiting for us?
But the feeling of anxiety and fear disappeared as soon as I saw someone waving at us.

After arrival at the airport the refugee family is brought to their home that has been furnished by a refugee resettlement agency. A meal and food staples are provided.

One volunteer said about her Iraqi friends’ arrival:

“My Iraqi refugee friend still talks about walking into their apartment 12 years ago. When they arrived at their apartment she told me that we “walked inside and my daughter just started crying. It was bare. There wasn’t even enough furniture to live. We were depressed. For days we cried and we asked my husband to go back to Iraq, even though we knew we couldn’t go back.”
New arrivals need touches of welcome, something beautiful, something that makes it feel like home.”

One of my refugee friends shared an experience with me about using the bus system 4 days after they arrived. It was a snowy day and he and his wife and young son headed out for what was to be a nine minute trip. Eight hours later they finally found their way home. They had taken the wrong route, trekked through the snow without proper clothing and asked for directions but no one helped them. This was so traumatic that once home, Ahmed cried, which is taboo for Middle Eastern men. He longed to return to his country.

So, you might wonder, what practical help is needed for new arrivals?
There are many ways Christians and churches can help. Newcomers need help understanding the mechanics of their new apartment or house—including the kitchen appliances. They need help understanding the mountains of paperwork they have to complete, setting up English classes, and how to pay bills. They need to know the closest resources such as stores, phone shops, walmart and the library. Finding a job is crucial.

Imagine how overwhelming this would be after traveling so far, across time zones and all in a new language and culture! Often resettlement agencies have volunteers who help newly arrived families.

But even more important than all of this, new arrivals need genuine friendship. It’s important that they know that they are not alone.

Spiritual needs in this stage vary depending on their faith. They need prayer. They need others supporting them to follow Christ if they are believers. If they are not yet believers, you can have gospel conversations when appropriate.

A co-worker shared this story with me about her refugee friend’s spiritual questions…

Asma arrived here confused and concerned about negative influences of a society that seemed rather “godless” As a practicing Muslim, she was trying to figure out the religious factors that influenced her new surroundings. Within the first few weeks of our friendship she asked, “There are many Christians in America?” I said, “Well, many more than in Burma, but not all Americans are Christian.” She asked “Buddhists?” “Some.
“Muslims?” “Some. “What about ’no God people?’” I answered, “Yes, we definitely have a lot of those people.”

She said with a sigh, “So, sad.” I agreed and shared what belief in God meant to me. That set a foundation for many spiritual conversations about Christ. She felt safe with me and was so grateful that her new friend believed there was a God and that I was living my life trying to obey and follow Him.”

So it might seem that this all is hard enough and things will certainly get easier for our newcomer neighbors. Sadly that is often not the case.

Adjustment Stage: Let’s call this the first 4-5 years.

A volunteer shared, “From my experience, the adjustment stage lasts much longer than people expect or hope. Refugees need stable jobs that provide for themselves, their families, and the people they need to send money to back home. Refugees need community, people who understand where they have come from, the food they miss eating, the confusion of their new culture, and the grief of living far from family. They need to find a way to re-create their culture to carry them through the grief of life in their new country not being all that they hoped for.”

You might wonder what this feels like. Hala who has been here since 2017 reflects on the early months in America:

“In the first six months, everything was strange and new. I used to cry every day, because we are so far away and we have no family or friends. For the first time, we saw strangers from different countries and different races. My children were afraid of different people.

We used to think that when we take the bus to go to the market, we will be lost, and we were ashamed to ask people, we thought they would be angry or laugh at us.

When we arrived in America, we only had 10 dollars, and this was really scary, but the World Relief staff quickly removed this feeling from us when they brought us into a well-equipped house, and when they paid us the rent for six months, and also found a job for Hasan.

In the beginning we were also afraid of people being upset with us or angry with us because we were refugees and that we did not know the language. We were ashamed to speak or ask for something, or we might make a mistake, so they would get angry, but we have encountered many people who are very nice.”

When asked about Practical needs during the adjustment stage, these were things that came up over and over again:

My friend Ahmed said to me that he needed help understanding our systems. In his country all transactions are done in person but here everything comes in the mail or via email or even via a note taped to an apartment door.

Many families are still in poverty and struggle to find adequate employment.

Language is critical for a refugee or asylee to move through the adjustment stage. Acquiring proficiency in English can be especially hard if someone is dealing with trauma from war, loss and grief.

Reflecting on the past four years, Hala shares how it was for her:

“I decided to go to school. At first, I thought I wouldn’t learn, but I did not give up. Just getting to school was difficult, as I had to take my baby with me and go and come back by bus, waiting for the bus in the cold and heat. Sometimes I missed the bus and had to walk instead. My children now master the English language and I have improved a lot and now English is my fourth language and I do not need a translator. I can’t believe that I am now translating for all Syrians here. I also can’t believe that soon I will apply for the American citizenship.

Additionally, our friends need help navigating the school system for their children, learning to drive and getting a driver’s license. They also need help discovering fun things to-do, and building connections within their own cultural community.

Our friends need emotional support…

I asked my friend Patrice what she needed during this time of adjustment. She said she needed people to really listen to her as she processed the trauma of war and leaving her family behind in Central Africa.

Loneliness is the most common emotion felt across this stage and the arrival stage. This is also the place Christians can have the greatest impact. Helping to form meaningful relationships is the best avenue into deeper conversations.

A co-worker shared, “They also need space to miss the life they left. One day at our women’s tea I asked the women what they missed about their home country. They started answering in English, but quickly switched to Arabic, and then all of the sudden— all 8 women were crying! They said that they had left so much behind and they often don’t talk about it. When they do, they feel the weight and ache of leaving their home.”

Another volunteer said “all of the women I have met talk about depression. They miss all that is familiar. They really miss living in a communal culture where their home is always open. Many could benefit from some kind of trauma therapy, but this is challenging because most come from cultures where therapy is not acceptable.”

Those who have left war-torn countries sometimes struggle with anxiety and survivor’s guilt. Anna told me that it was hard for her to talk about but she finally confided in her American friend who encouraged her with Scripture and prayed with her.

Spiritually, our new friends need Jesus! Many newcomers seem to believe that all westerners are Christians, but they know little to nothing about what we believe. Using cultural traditions and holidays is a wonderful “in” to sharing the Gospel. As we invite our friends into our lives this is a natural way to share the gospel with them.

Acculturation Stage:

To become acculturated means that a person is making their new country truly home. They’ve navigated the difficult adjustment stage and are beginning to understand more about the new culture, but they still need help. An important goal of this stage is self-sufficiency.

My friend Anna is an example of someone who has navigated the acculturation stage. She has been here 16 years, owns her home and car, teaches French at a local high school and is sending her daughter off to college this fall. She attributes her success to a group of believers in town who mentored her, prayed with her, and helped in many tangible ways.

Navigating this stage is not easy and not all immigrants are successful, some are stuck in the adjustment stage or the early part of acculturation even after many years. We as Christ-followers have an amazing opportunity to offer a place of belonging and integration to them—belonging in our communities, churches, schools, workplaces and families so they are not marginalized in our culture.

So how can we help newcomers navigate this stage of their experience?

They still need to practice English with a local friend! One way to get involved is to be an English mentor, visiting a refugee’s home regularly to practice conversational English. An added bonus is they love expressing hospitality to local friends.

They need genuine friendships with native English speakers. During this stage they need a friend to truly be a support and a good listener and help when new issues come up like studying for a Citizenship test or moving forward in education. And still taking opportunities for spiritual conversations and inviting them into more with Christ.

They may need help navigating the complexities of family life in their new country. The unique circumstance of refugee resettlement is difficult for children. Because of the intensity of the parents’ transition emotionally and socio-economically they often don’t have time or energy to help their children. The children are often caught in role reversal because they learn the language more quickly than their parents and end up being the family spokesperson wherever English is needed. Inevitably the children straddle two social worlds.

Children also need a link to their home culture. Parents are often concerned that their children maintain their mother tongue and this can be challenging.

They still need practical help. In this stage people are often on their own to figure out many things as refugee cases are closed by the agencies after five years. They need friends who are still walking with them. They are vulnerable to scams as well as getting stuck in a dead end, low paying job that does not maximize their interests or skills. They also need help with understanding educational systems for their children.

My Central African friend Patrice summed it up when I asked her what she would need to feel that she is fully integrated and acculturated to this culture. She wants to be comfortable speaking English so she can have genuine friendships and navigate life here, have a calm place to live and have a good job. Currently she is a cleaner on a military base though she has a college degree from back home. She has been here 4 1/2 years and is about ready to purchase a car and is applying for a Habitat home. She highly values friendship and can’t wait to become an American citizen. And I can’t wait for the day when I can attend her citizenship ceremony! It is not hard to be Partrice’s friend–it only takes an open heart and the gift of my time.

The journey from arriving here to adjustment and then moving into acculturation is challenging but with help this will happen. Four and a half years after arriving, my friend Hala said these powerful words to me:

“With the passage of this time, I discovered that in America you do not feel that you are a refugee, and this is a great thing. I have gone from feeling fear and shame, to feeling confident and strong.”


I hope that understanding the stages of the immigrant experience as well as what they need at each stage of this journey, will encourage and equip you to enter into relationships with these new neighbors. The opportunities are endless and most are eager for friendship with us. We have included resources in the material tab below to help you get started.

Three Stages of an Immigrant’s Experience


Creating a life in a new country is neither easy nor fast. While everyone’s experience will look different there are general stages most move through: arrival, adjustment, and acculturation. Each stage has different struggles and needs. Donna shares the stories of her immigrant friends to show how we can best love and serve those that are settling in our communities.

Creating a life in a new country is neither easy nor fast. While everyone’s experience will look different there are general stages most move through: arrival, adjustment, and acculturation. Each stage has different struggles and needs. Donna shares the stories of her immigrant friends to show how we can best love and serve those that are settling in our communities.