Stories of Welcome

With hope for their future, refugee family settles in Indiana

Community supports efforts of private sponsor group

At just 2 years old, Meshack Asende entered his first refugee camp. Aimerance Bilewane, too, became a refugee at the age of 2, and years later, the couple started their married life together as refugees. 

Now, decades later and with children of their own, their son and daughter will grow up with a different, more hopeful experience. The Beacon Heights Welcoming Friends private sponsor group welcomed the family to the United States in September 2023, and they are now settled in a safe and diverse community in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Meshack Asende and his wife, Aimerance Bilewane, spent decades in a refugee camp in Tanzania.

When I was first told that I would be flying to the U.S., I was really scared because I did not know who would welcome me. I didn’t know anybody. So it was like not knowing where you are going, and that’s very scary. But then when I came, the people were very open. They welcomed me with open arms.

Meshack Asende, Congolese refugee
Today, the couple and their two young children are settling in Fort Wayne, Ind., thanks to the support of the Beacon Heights Welcoming Friends private sponsor group.

When Leslie Sperry first approached members of the Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren with information about the Welcome Corps private sponsor opportunity, she said the support was instantaneous. 

“Our church has a long history going back to 1958 or so of supporting refugees, and right away there were several people that said ‘Yeah, I’ve been thinking the same thing, and we want to do that, too’,” she said.

Aimerance Bilewane and Leslie Sperry, leader of the Beacon Heights sponsor group, shop at an African grocery store in Fort Wayne.

The combined expertise of group members contributed skills such as health and behavioral services, nutrition, and vast connections to services and resources in their community. When Meshack and his family first arrived, the group quickly enrolled them in ESL classes, got them connected to WIC assistance, and nurtured their health and well-being.

They also helped the family find temporary housing in an Airbnb and supported Meshack in finding part-time employment opportunities. Carla Kilgore, a Beacon Heights sponsor, said they successfully connected the Asende family to the Congolese diaspora community in Fort Wayne. “It’s been really nice that in addition to our small group, the former Congolese community has also been providing them with some connection and support.”

The family of four settled into a home in their new community with support from their sponsors.

The broader community also has embraced and supported the Asende family. Leslie said the sponsor group had hoped to raise $9,500 to support the family, but contributions helped them to nearly double that amount to $16,800. Community members have donated funds, furniture, time, and resources to help the Asende family settle in Fort Wayne, Leslie said. It hasn’t been all work, though. Once they checked off many of the initial tasks in the sponsorship process, the group set aside some time for fun.

Beacon Heights sponsors also connected Meshack and Aimerance to the Congolese and Burundi community in Fort Wayne, introducing them to Feruzi Ndolo, who happened to be a friend from their refugee camp.

“We were kind of overwhelmed with all the work that it took to get their services during the first month or two. So it’s kind of fun that now we’ve been able to do some more fun things with them,” said Evelyn Kilgore, Carla’s mom and a Beacon Heights sponsor. “We did a Halloween thing and carved pumpkins, and we’ve been able to take them some places and do some more celebratory things. So we had a celebration where they came and talked about their journey…”

After checking off many of the core sponsorship responsibilities, members of the Beacon Heights group set aside time to enjoy the Asende family.

And it has been quite a journey. For decades, Meshack and Aimerance lived in a refugee camp with their families in Tanzania. Aimerance described her childhood as devoid of opportunity. Meshack became a youth leader in the camp, holding several leadership roles. The two eventually met and continued their journey together.

“Meshack was the leader in the refugee camp, at Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, that had about 150,000 refugees there,” Leslie shared. “He was the one that spoke with the dignitaries when they would come, would speak to the people from the embassies. He served on the council that would resolve refugee problems. He escorted Melinda Gates around the refugee camp.”

Meshack holds a photo from the refugee camp where he grew up in Tanzania.

When Meshack and Aimerance traveled to the United States with their children through the Welcome Corps, they left behind their families. Now settling in Fort Wayne—a diverse, international community with more than 80 languages spoken in the Fort Wayne Community School—they are finding a new home, new opportunities, and a new community. Leslie said that Meshack plans to start his own organization that supports refugees. Even though the three-month sponsorship commitment has passed, the group is hopeful that the family will continue to have a community of people surrounding and supporting them.

Sharing a moment of joy, sponsor Kyla Zehr high-fives Romain.

Sponsorship is challenging, but rewarding. Maurice Sperry, Leslie’s husband and a member of the group, shared, “I think since we’ve worked our way through so many challenges, we’ve learned a lot. And if we had to do it again, I think it would be easier.”

The Asende family has been welcomed to Fort Wayne with open arms.

And they might get that chance. The group is considering sponsoring additional refugees, with hopes that Meshack might lead their efforts. “I was picturing that in the future, if we do this again, that Meshack would be on our team and maybe that he will be the lead person on the team because he has a passion for passing along hospitality to others,” Carla said.

Meshack is hopeful for where this new journey in the United States might take them. “I hope to be part of many stories like immigrants who have come to the U.S., to just share the same dream, to live a good life, and hopefully to get a better life for my family and for my children.”