Northwest parents fostering a refuge from global conflict

Sarah Zerkel, a parent with Lutheran Community Services' foster care for international kids program, talks with Biel Yuol,  who was her and husband Tom's first foster child. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)

Taking in a teenager from a conflict zone halfway around the world might not be for everyone. But some globally-oriented Northwest families are opening their minds, and homes, to a different kind of foster care.

Sarah Zerkel never considered becoming a foster parent. She assumed that was “for the special folk” who were superhuman parents (and people).

But a random invitation to a potluck fourteen years ago changed everything.

“We were sitting in a circle with these new foster kids and parents,” she recalls, her voice thickening with the memory “And these young people stood up and said ‘we want to thank our American moms and dads for being here for us and we want to thank the United States of America for letting us come and have an opportunity.’”

Zerkel and her husband had already raised four sons, but that night was the first step on a path that would ultimately lead to fostering six teenage refugees from East Africa through the Refugee and Immigrant Children’s Program at Lutheran Community Services Northwest — an experience Zerkel describes as one of the “greatest honors” in her life.

The program, which is coordinated nationally, began here in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s to help provide care for unaccompanied minor children arriving in the United States (mainly from Vietnam and Cambodia at the time) as refugees without parents or guardians.

“These minors had been separated from their families, their parents had died or they were believed deceased,” explains Molly Daggett, manager of the Refugee and Immigrant Children’s Program for over twenty years.

But adoption of refugee children is problematic. In conflict areas and chaotic refugee camps families can be separated and deaths rumored but not confirmed. The solution was specialized foster programs that allow young people to resettle in the United States and build relationships in new communities while “leaving the door open” to possible reunification with their parents or other family members.

In the past thirty years hundreds of children have passed through the Seattle program escaping violence, conflict and persecution in countries like Haiti, Cuba, Rwanda, Sudan and more recently Burma and Democratic Republic of Congo. Right now there are about 60 children that have been placed in foster homes, but Daggett says that number could be much higher if they had more parents willing to take part.

“Our ability to serve children from anywhere in the world is directly tied to having families that are ready and willing to receive children,” says Daggett, who is quick to add that families of all backgrounds and configurations are welcome.

Prospective families must attend a 3-month foster parent licensing program administered by Washington state as well as a certification program through Lutheran Community Services. They also need to provide a bedroom (children can share bedrooms), a stable environment and have what Daggett describes as willingness to “take that leap of faith [and] provide a home for a child.”

That can be a tough sell when it means opening your home to a teenager (the average age in the program is 16) who may have experienced extreme trauma, have limited English language skills and a completely different cultural context than the foster families they are joining.

Zerkel admits it is challenging to include teens from South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia in her already large family — especially navigating cultural differences in regards to family and gender roles.

She adds that bonding took time, patience and a healthy sense of humor — and some help. Lutheran Community Services offers everything from counseling to advice on advocating for foster kids in the public school system, to “etiquette dinners” that accustom new arrivals to American dining mores.

Despite the challenges, when Zerkel talks about where her foster kids are now — one married, another working as a security guard and yet another who received a degree in public health at the University of Washington and has worked in malaria education — the pride radiates from her lively blue eyes.

“We don’t have to be spectacular parents,” she says  “All we have to do is be willing to open up that empty room that is sitting in our house and provide a quiet safe place.”

And according to Daggett, there are always kids that need that safe place. The United States may be receiving a large number of Syrian refugees in the coming year and Daggett says there are bound to be unaccompanied minors among them that need homes.

The next information session on fostering a refugee child is 6:00PM on February 10th at the Lutheran Community Services Office. To find out more email: 

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at
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