Mark Akers knew he had to help his community when he walked into the empty house of an Ethiopian refugee family.
“I walked in the door, and it was just hardwood floor, no furniture,” Akers said. “I went into the kitchen––hardwood floor, no furniture. I walked in the bedroom, and there was one blanket on the floor. I said, ‘How long have you been here?’ and they said ‘Six months.’”
When Akers got home, he told his wife their traveling days were over. He bought a U-Haul, started collecting donations and laid the foundation for what is now Oasis International.
Akers worked as a pastor for almost two decades. He started Oasis International with his wife, Joani Akers, in 1989, and the couple traveled around the world as missionaries.
During their travels, the Akers built an orphanage in Uganda large enough to accommodate 300 children, five churches in Indonesia and conducted marriage counseling for underground churches in China.
Mark Akers got sick in 2005. He contracted Dengue Fever in Indonesia as a result of the 2004 tsunami. Dengue Fever is nicknamed “breakbone fever” due to the severe pain inflicted on the person’s muscles and bones.
Mark Akers realized he could help refugees without traveling overseas after his recovery. Joani Akers said they both felt shocked by how little refugees possessed in St. Louis and knew they could find a way to give back to their community.
“It’s almost like God says to you, ‘Well, what are you going to do about this?’” Joani Akers said. “You’re seeing it and just wondering if there’s something you can do to help, and that’s how we started. We knew there would be a way we could bless these people.”
In 2006, the couple bought a building on Gravois Avenue, next to the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce. They put up their house as collateral and started the nonprofit in their hometown.
A ‘revolving door of kindness’
Oasis International is a Christian organization. Refugees come to Oasis from many different countries and a wide array of religious backgrounds.
Mark Akers said while not every volunteer is Christian, they are transparent in their beliefs.
“We’re here to love with the love of Jesus, with the same love for everybody,” Mark Akers said. “We’re not here to coerce anybody to believe what we believe. At the same time, we’re not ashamed of what we believe, so we’re going to be us.”
Aseel Thamer is a board member and volunteer at Oasis International. She said the organization loves and accepts anyone who is in need, regardless of religion.
Thamer left Iraq to escape the dangers of war in 2006. She and her husband lived as refugees in Syria for two years and then moved to Turkey in 2008. While in Turkey, she applied for asylum in the U.S.
Thamer came to America in January 2009 with her husband and two small children. The International Institute of St. Louis provided the family with housing through the Refugee Resettlement program.
“The house did not have anything [in it], and it was winter,” Thamer said. “We were so cold, and we came with a couple of bags. They had two mattresses for us and very thin blankets––like sheets.”
She lived with her family in an empty house for three months. When someone noticed the way they were living, they called Oasis International for help. The nonprofit gave them furniture, bedding and kitchen utensils.
“I could not believe all of that was for me,” Thamer said. “I went outside, and I was like ‘Why are you doing this?’ I was scared kind of, but they told us, ‘This is from God.’”
Thamer said she cried when she saw the kindness of Americans for the first time. She said they hugged her, told her they wanted her to be happy and asked if they could pray for her.
“I was like, ‘All of this is for me for free, and you want to pray for me, too?’” Thamer said. “It was something nobody ever did for me before. Who would not accept that?”
She did not know how to repay the people who came to her house, so when they suggested she volunteer, she showed up at Oasis International the next morning. She still volunteers regularly.
Thamer said she felt God put her in a position to help other refugees. Almost a decade after coming to the U.S., she and her husband have steady jobs, and her children go to school. They are all American citizens.
“I don’t need anything from [Oasis] now,” Thamer said. “I’m working, and my husband is working. We are doing really great. I know how the refugees and new Americans feel when they get all of this help in the beginning when they start from nothing.”
Rachel Rodermund began volunteering at Oasis International almost a year ago. She said former refugees often return to the organization to help others.
“It’s just this big revolving door of kindness,” Rodermund said. “It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.”
‘They’re just people’
Mark Akers said 6,200 refugees from 40 different countries sought help from Oasis International in 2017. This year, the numbers range from 4,800 to 5,000 refugees.
Mark Akers attributed Oasis International’s decrease in refugees to President Donald Trump’s 45,000-refugee limit for 2018. The Trump administration plans to cap the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. at 30,000 in 2019.
“They’re just people, you know,” Joani Akers said. “Our country was built on immigrants and refugees. They’re like us in so many ways, and they just want to start their lives over.”
Fewer than 10 percent of refugees in St. Louis will ever be befriended by an American, according to Oasis International.
Mark Akers said refugees need American relationships just as much as material items.
“We give them the things they need––the furniture and the clothes––but they really need a friend,” Mark Akers said. “They really need somebody to talk to.”
‘Bombs in Baghdad, party in America’
Oasis International offers baby showers for pregnant refugee women. Joani Akers organized 18 showers this year. She recalled a shower she hosted for an Iraqi mother.
“We’re doing the baby shower at her house, and she is Skyping with her sister in Baghdad,” Akers said. “Her sister said, ‘I’m so happy for you. We’re having bombs in Baghdad, and you’re having a party in America.’”
Mark Akers said the goal is to connect a mother with a group of women before, during and after she gives birth. He said other refugees who know the mothers through Oasis International attend their showers.
“A lot of the women don’t have a woman’s support,” Mark Akers said. “Their family is not here. They’re going to a foreign hospital, they can’t speak the language and then they’re alone. So, we want all these women to be at peace birthing their babies.”
Joani Akers said it is important to help these mothers welcome their new American babies into the world.
“[The shower] helps alleviate the stress in their life that they’re having: just adjusting to a new country and everything that’s so foreign to them,” Joani Akers said. “Also, they just love that there are American women who are going to be there for them.”
Rodermund hosted a baby shower in 2017 for Waffa, a refugee from Iraq.
“I can’t describe how grateful their hearts are when help is extended to them,” Rodermund said. “I’ve never met a more gracious and compassionate group of people. They just want people to care about them, too.”
Rodermund received an outpouring of generosity from the community when planning Waffa’s shower. She said people donated clothes, strollers and car seats, among other things.
Akers encourages the ladies to stay in touch with the mother after she gives birth. She said volunteers often go to the hospital with the mothers and visit them periodically after the baby is born.
“I can’t imagine that I would’ve had a baby––had my kids––and had not had anything for them,” Akers said. “It just makes you feel like you’re doing something that’s so important to that new mom.”
The nonprofit also provides free English classes for refugees every Tuesday and Thursday. Mark Akers said Joani Akers overheard a conversation between two refugee women before class one day.
“The lady from Afghanistan [said] ‘Before Oasis, I would stay home and cook and cry and cook and cry,’” Mark Akers said. “There was no place for her to get English with her children in the same place.”
Volunteers provide transportation to the classes, as well as childcare for parents with small children. Classes are held both at Oasis International and the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce. Each class has no more than 10 students, with two or three teachers per class.
Mark Akers said participating in English classes helped some refugee women become less depressed.
“When they first started, you’d never see a smile on their faces,” Mark Akers said. “But they began to see American people caring about them. They saw other people from other countries here and got to know each other.”
Mark Akers said he thinks of the refugees as “forever friends.” He said he tries to make Oasis International feel like a family for everyone who walks through its doors.
“All of these people, they call me Dad. They call me Father,” Mark Akers said. “They see my wife and I as Mom and Dad.”