Mentoring One Refugee Family Leads to the Welcoming of Many More Refugee Families to Cleveland
Cross-cultural friendship causes ripple effect of gratitude and blessing

A pairing meant to help Sarpaz Qader’s family resettle in America has flowered into a friendship that spans generations.

Volunteer at The Hope Center for Refugees and Immigrants, Karen Vaughn became the Kurdish family’s mentor about five years ago, helping them navigate the challenges of building a new life in a country where they didn’t speak the language or understand the culture. Over time, that relationship has deepened. Karen describes Sarpaz, his wife Niseeba Yaseen, 13-year-old Meraz Mirhaj and 14-year-old Derbaz Mirhaj as her “second family.” Karen’s own adult children have become part of that extended clan, as is her granddaughter, Athena, a friend of Meraz’s.

They gather for holidays — from Ramadan to Christmas — sharing meals and learning about each other’s Muslim and Christian beliefs. In a recent interview, Karen and Sarpaz laughed with his family over shared memories of outings like the time Derbaz accidentally toppled his birthday cake during a party at Karen’s house. Or their picnic in the park that was “crashed” by an affable Chinese family. Sarpaz calls up a photo on his phone of the celebratory dinner after he was able to buy a cozy ranch house in Brook Park about a year ago. Karen finds pictures of Meraz and Athena, their arms looped around each other’s shoulders.

Sarpaz and his family came to America in 2013, years after he suffered devastating injuries as a driver for American military forces in Iraq. Meraz was just a baby when a bomb exploded under the Humvee her dad was in. Doctors saved his leg, but the injuries he was left with still affect his health. With his life at risk in Iraq for helping the Americans, Sarpaz and the family were relocated first to Erie, Pa., and then to Greater Cleveland. He and Niseeba had to leave behind their parents, siblings and friends, but gained mentors in Karen and fellow volunteer, Alan Richard.

Karen, a retired nurse, said she entered the relationship with the idea that she would help family members learn English. But she soon discovered that the newcomers had more urgent needs such as learning how to pay bills, open a checking account or schedule medical appointments for Derbaz, who has cerebral palsy.

“I would put myself in their shoes,” said Karen. “What if somebody planted me in Iraq? How could I function?” She added that it’s important for mentors to respect a family’s culture and priorities, acting as guides rather than dictating their decisions. “Just be there. See what they need.”

Sarpaz said he thinks having a mentor is a big plus for any refugee family. “Karen helps me a lot, a lot,” he said, adding that The Hope Center itself has been another important resource for his family.  In addition to Kurdish, he now speaks English and has learned Arabic for his job at a market and deli in Cleveland. He also has worked in security, as an Uber driver and for Amazon.

“Sarpaz has the biggest heart ever,” said Karen. She said he and Niseeba, known for her cooking skills, regularly welcome others to their home and help new families adjust to life in America.

“I’ve been more blessed than they realize (by becoming the family’s mentor),” said Karen. “Their world has been expanded, but so has mine and my whole family’s.”

Interested in becoming a volunteer mentor and new friend to a refugee family from the Hope Center?  You can begin the process by attending two required trainings: Building Hope 101 (for new volunteers) and Refugee/Hope Center 101 (for people new to cross-cultural ministry).  Both are required to be paired with a family.  Learn more by contacting Corrie Purdum at (216) 281-4673 or

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