Leisa McDonald  ·  United States

Matthew House Creates Community Where Community is Missing

Leisa McDonald and her Welcome Teams fill the Gaps with Friendship and Housing

Interview by Sherianne Schow
Edited by Nicole Taylor
Leisa McDonald Executive Director
Leisa McDonald Executive Director of Matthew House

I’m Leisa McDonald. I’m the co-founder and executive director of Matthew House.

In 2012, I had the opportunity to travel to Lebanon, and had my first adult experience interacting with refugees.

As a kid I helped welcome a family at an airport. They had arrived from Vietnam. I didn’t really know why it was happening. I just knew that these people were coming from another country and we were greeting them at the airport. And then they were going to go to their new home, but we were there to celebrate them. That stuck with me.

In 2012, as an adult, I was sitting across from a family from Iraq that had fled to Lebanon and were seeking safety, registered as refugees. It was the first time I realized that these were people who were more like me than I thought. I had this perception that refugees were people who were living in poverty and were coming to the United States because they were looking for a better life. I didn’t understand the system at that time.

So sitting across from an educated family who had run a business and had to flee because of their Christian faith was a new perspective. I realized as we talked, they had help in Lebanon that was in their language. There was a similar culture, but they were getting ready to leave and come to the United States.

I, as a new person in Lebanon, a new person in an Arabic speaking world, and in a Muslim culture, was dealing with a little bit of culture shock even on that short visit. I wondered, how these families were going to survive in Texas? Who’s going to welcome them there? It just started weighing heavy on my heart.

In 2014/2015, I had the opportunity to work for Central Christian Church, and they had a refugee program. They partnered with resettlement agencies to welcome families. It was through that activity that I got involved and started to see the gaps. What I had anticipated as gaps from my time in Lebanon, and then what I saw on the ground here in Arizona, is what spurred the vision and dream for Matthew house.

The biggest issues are:

  • In Arizona, people are resettled in the most impoverished part of our city.

  • People basically get settled into cultural enclaves. And in some cases, we even refer to them as refugee camp 2.0. The people that are around them are the same community and culture that they came from, but they don’t necessarily have American friends who are helping them navigate life in the United States.

  • They are far away from the church communities in the east valley of Arizona, which is where we live and work. Lack of proximity makes it hard to build really good relationships. We’d love to come support but it’s hard to get to central Phoenix. Traffic is difficult, our kids are not in the same schools, etc.

Then in 2016 we had the opportunity to work alongside some families from Syria who’d arrived in our community. Finally we had proximity. They were dependent on English speakers - those who could help them with DBS benefits and finding next step housing.

At the same time, some of the families in central Phoenix were experiencing evictions. They weren’t necessarily gaining the English skills needed to be placed in a job, they weren’t thriving per se. Distance was creating barriers and we wanted to reduce them.

How do we create space and opportunity for families to come into the East Valley, where there are resources as well as individuals and communities that say, “hey, we’d like to have you as our neighbor and we’d like to walk with you and get to know you”?

So that’s what we helped create Matthew House.

In 2021, the Afghan crisis hit, just one month after we had launched Matthew house as a formal entity. We worked alongside the resettlement agency in supporting a group of pilots at a hotel in Chandler and helped build housing bridges. We had 26 welcome teams, alongside those families to help them navigate life as they left the hotel and moved into their new neighborhoods.

A welcome team is a big group that comes alongside a family and is first and foremost responsible for friendship. Secondly, they connect them to resources.

For example, if your home country and culture was a Muslim based culture and everybody took breaks during Ramadan - it may not work that way here. We can help people communicate with employers and understand the cultural reality of what life in America might look like as someone practicing Islam.

It’s our desire to help create a community where the community is missing.

We have four values: relationship, community, compassion, and education. But all of those values are reciprocal, meaning that I’m not only providing you with relationship, but I’m receiving relationship. I’m not only bringing community to you, but I’m receiving community. We’re providing education on life in the United States, but we’re also learning about different cultures, learning about different religious backgrounds, learning about how life can be too busy and too fast paced here sometimes in the United States and what it looks like to slow down and really care for family well.

I’ll give the example of my dad. He tripped and fell one day and the family that his welcome team had walked alongside brought him chicken noodle soup, because they were devastated that he had tripped and hurt himself. They just wanted to love on him.

Another time, a husband and wife were team leaders on a welcome team and they ended up in the hospital with Covid. The family they were in partnership with showed up at the hospital and brought them food when they came home from the hospital.

Matthew House also helps bridge the housing gap. We provide funding for families to be able to rent if they don’t have the means yet or they don’t have work authorization yet.

The idea is to help break a cycle of poverty. When families get placed in poverty, and they don’t see any opportunity on the other side of that and there’s no one helping them–figure out what self sufficiency outside of poverty might look like– They tend to stay in poverty, which means they stay on benefits, they stay on government systems. Our goal and objective is to try to help people get beyond that.

Right now the vast majority of families that we have served over the last year and a half, no longer need our support, and most of them are not in government subsidized housing. They’re independently managing on their own, which was our goal.

What I have seen and experienced at a very practical level, is that our refugee friends make us better as a community. They help us fill gaps that we might have in our own culture.

I truly believe that because over the course of the history of the United States we’ve had people from different cultures come in, we have such a rich and robust society today.

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Our team members obtain informed consent from each individual before an interview takes place. Individuals dictate where their stories may be shared and what personal information they wish to keep private. In situations where the individual is at risk and/or wishes to remain anonymous, alias names are used and other identifying information is removed from interviews immediately after they are received by TSOS. We have also committed not to use refugee images or stories for fundraising purposes without explicit permission. Our top priority is to protect and honor the wishes of our interview subjects.

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