The faith-based not-for-profit Welcome House Knoxville will provide affordable short-term accommodations to refugee families who come to Knoxville. But what founder Cindy Hood really hopes to give our new neighbors is a caring community and a demonstration of a “ministry of hospitality” in action.
Welcome House Knoxville’s pilot guesthouse will open this summer for its first families, who will be placed there by Bridge Refugee Services. Hood explains that when refugees are resettled to the United States, they don’t choose the city where they are going and may end up somewhere where they know no one. They may have little interaction with anyone except their agency caseworker. They may have to use scarce resources to pay for hotels while waiting for long-term housing.
At Welcome House Knoxville, these families or individuals will enter their new lives in a home-like environment. Bedrooms will be private, and kitchen and living space will be shared. They will pay a nominal day rate, and there will be a live-in host, perhaps a prospective missionary or a graduate student. The guest house location is private, but it is close to the city center and on the bus line. Volunteers will be at the airport to greet the families and bring them to their new home, and volunteers will also provide food and fellowship.
Cindy Hood says her hope is that a volunteer will connect with the people they meet and want to be a bigger part of their life here.
“I would be thrilled if that volunteer became their Knoxville family,” she says.
Hood is actively seeking volunteers and sponsors. She speaks to churches and other groups all over the area, trying to paint for them a picture of the daily lives of the refugees who settle here.
For many families, she says, the man becomes employed, and the children enroll in school, but the mom gets left behind, still unable to speak the language.
“I can’t imagine my 12-year-old bringing home a note from school that I can’t read,” Hood says. “If she’s not working, she’s isolated,” she says of the moms. “And if she has preschoolers, she’s really isolated.”
About 15 years ago, through her Sunday school class at Central Bearden Baptist Church, Hood became involved with a Turkish family through Bridge. She immediately felt called to a ministry with internationals, and she began organizing language camps and family events in the Norwood community, which has the area’s highest concentration of international residents. Three years ago, her family relocated from West Knoxville to Norwood.
“I wanted that diversity for my daughter,” she says. She now works as a community partner with Norwood Elementary and Northwest Middle School. Through the month of July, she ran a once-a-week family “summer camp” at Norwood United Methodist Church.
Welcome House Knoxville is a partnership of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Central Bearden Baptist Church and Knoxville Internationals Network (KIN). Marc and Kim Wyatt of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have set up Welcome Houses in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Hood heard them speak and asked if her family could stop and tour one of the houses on their way to their annual beach vacation last summer. She and her husband were both moved by how warm the reception was for the resettled internationals.
Within a few months, the local not-for-profit was being established. Hood says she can envision more Welcome Houses beyond the Knoxville pilot house, perhaps stretching all the way to Memphis.
For the refugees, she says, Welcome House “is a launching pad” into the community.
For the people helping, and for the community, it’s a chance to resist the fear and negativity that sometimes surrounds talk of international resettlement.
“We all have all this fear,” Hood says. “It’s hard to fear a people group when you know them.”
For more information, visit the Welcome House Knoxville Facebook page. To volunteer or donate, email Cindy Hood at firstname.lastname@example.org.