When Sudanese refugee Marwah Kuku learned in 2019 she was going to be resettled in Chattanooga, she had never heard of the city.
At the time, she was living in Amman, Jordan, and working for the global humanitarian organization World Relief to serve other refugees from various countries.
“I did not know where this is,” she said of Chattanooga.
The idea of relocating, alone, to a place so far away from her family, many of whom still lived in the foothills of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, and friends frightened her.
Then an American she had met in Jordan years earlier returned to Amman for a visit. Marwah learned that Jessie LaPlue had relocated to Chattanooga after leaving Jordan and was working as an English teacher there.
Marwah would know someone in Chattanooga after all.
Jessie, a native of Morristown, had worked for five years in Jordan as an English teacher for a relief and development organization and the British Council. During that time, she attended the same church as Marwah and the women had gotten to know one another through prayer meetings and fellowship.
“We became friends in church,” Marwah said.
Jessie had learned Marwah was a refugee from Sudan who was studying theology at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary and serving fellow refugees being assisted by their church. But she hadn’t known many details of the circumstances that brought Marwah to Jordan.
At the age of eight, as civil war within Sudan reached her village, Marwah had been sent to live with her uncle in a safer part of the country while her parents stayed behind to care for her siblings, one of whom could not walk.
“It was really hard,” Marwah said. “I missed my family.”
Marwah lived with her uncle for a decade, attending the school affiliated with the church where he worked. While she returned home to help her family during a lull in the conflict, they encouraged her to complete her education at her uncle’s church.
Following her return to school, however, she contracted malaria and her uncle arranged for her to go to Jordan for medical treatment. After spending a month in the hospital there, she recovered in the home of a pastor who knew her uncle.
“When she comes to Jordan, she really gets the medical treatment she needed,” said Marina Peshterianu, associate director of Bridge Refugee Services’ Chattanooga office. “She survived and was adamant about going back to her mother and siblings. But the war’s uncertainty in Sudan leads to the pastor advising her to get an education first and then go back.”
With their help, Marwah received a student visa to remain in Jordan and study theology with the hope of returning to Sudan to help not only her family, but the community at large once she had her degree.
In 2014, after an attempt to visit her family in Sudan resulted in her being briefly arrested and abused, Marwah returned to Jordan and applied for refugee status. As she waited for her application to be approved, she completed her studies, earning her degree in 2016, and became active in assisting refugees from Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere.
Marwah had learned of her application’s approval shortly before Jessie returned to Amman for a visit.
“She was the first person I saw when I walked in, and I gave her a hug,” Jessie said. “After the service, we started chatting.”
During that conversation, Marwah learned that Jessie had relocated to Chattanooga after she left Jordan and was working as an English teacher there for the Chattanooga School of Language.
“One of the limitations in my friendship with Marwah is the language barrier,” Jessie said. “We communicate in Arabic and my Arabic is limited.”
So, she thought she had misunderstood when Marwah told her she was being resettled in Chattanooga.
“It took three or four times of her telling me before I understood that she was moving,” Jessie said.“I felt it was almost an unbelievable coincidence that I found out she was moving to my same city of all things.”
Marwah said learning that Jessie lived in the city that was to become her new home eased many of her fears.
“I’m not too scared when I know Jessie is here,” she said. “There was a little relief because I know someone here.”
As soon as Jessie returned to Tennessee, she contacted Bridge Refugee Services to become a volunteer so she could officially assist Marwah with her adjustment to the new community.
“I learned about Bridge while I was still in Jordan,” Jessie said. “I had heard about them then, but I didn’t have any involvement myself until Marwah became my reason to learn about it.”
The women remained in contact as both prepared for her arrival in Chattanooga.
“There were a number of reasons why I was personally excited for Marwah to come to Chattanooga,” Jessie said. “In the church in Amman, she was a person who was very well respected and very loved within that community because people knew she was very warm, very compassionate, very social and good at connecting with people and making people feel seen and helping them feel wanted and included.”
Jessie went with other Bridge staff members to the airport to welcome Marwah when she arrived in November.
“When I see her, I am very happy,” Marwah said of their reunion at the airport. “When I see Jessie, I feel relieved and okay, and I’m not discouraged.”
As Marwah was introduced to fellow Sudanese refugees who had resettled in Chattanooga before her, she also reunited with a couple she had helped while serving refugees in Jordan.
“Really, they are my family here,” she said.
Since arriving, she and Jessie have visited with one another, and she has enrolled in English classes at the same school where Jessie teaches.
“We have quite a few Bridge clients who take English at my school,” Jessie said, adding that a grant allows the school to provide free classes to them.
While Marwah has also started working as a housekeeper at Memorial Hospital, she hopes to share her experiences in cross-cultural ministry with outreach workers and educate Americans about the circumstances refugees face and how to support them.
“I like to help people,” she said. “In America, many don’t understand exactly what’s happening in Sudan or any place in the world (in similar circumstances). Sometimes, it’s not easy to understand how people live until you go there. …Sometimes, you don’t know how to help, but I think if you believe and you help, that is good.”
Jessie said she finds Marwah’s courage and compassion inspiring, and she’s grateful to be part of the team supporting her through her journey.
“I feel a lot of respect for her,” Jessie said. “In Jordan, she did have a close community that was very tight, very supportive, with people deeply committed to her. It was a very familial experience and for her to leave that and have to come across the world by herself to a place that didn’t have that or where she didn’t have family was a very difficult thing to do …. But even as the process has been challenging, I have always had a lot of confidence she would be able to adapt and adjust well to the life she can have here. … I feel so confident that people here in Chattanooga will be as blessed by her as the community in Amman was.”