Q&A: World Relief Durham’s Adam Clark engages community to help ‘immigrants thrive’

As executive director of World Relief, Adam Clark organizes programs to advocating for and support immigrants and refugees. (Photo provided by World Relief)

Friday, March 15, 2024

By Danelis Olivera-Herrera

Adam Clark has served as the executive director of World Relief since 2015. The Christian humanitarian organization expanded its efforts in 2007 to aid the local immigrant and refugee community in the Triangle area, mobilizing and equipping churches and communities to support this population. Previously, Clark was a refugee data analyst with the Kentucky Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities, where he led economic research and implemented a statewide refugee database.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham Voice: You are the executive director of the World Relief in Durham. What do you do in this role?

Adam Clark: My job is to figure out what’s the best way we can maximize the mission of our organization in this region of North Carolina. My job is to cover the Triangle, and what we’re doing is trying to see the areas of vulnerability for immigrants in our region that we can help with, and we try to leverage the community support. We get all sectors involved, private support, churches, governments. Our goal is to see immigrants thrive in the United States, because we think the United States is stronger and healthier when we do that. As a faith-based organization, as a Christian organization, we believe that’s what the Bible says we’re supposed to do, is welcome our immigrant neighbors.

When and how was the World Relief organization established?

The organization started in 1944, right after World War II, and it was in response to a war-torn Europe. It was a bunch of churches in the United States that fasted – they didn’t eat for one meal a week – and they took the money that they would have spent on food and donated it to what was called the War Relief Fund. Then other people started contributing, and they raised a bunch of money to support war-torn Europe and help people rebuild after the war.   

That fund got so big, it basically became an organization, and that’s where World Relief came from. And the mission expanded not just from helping people displaced by World War II, but people displaced all over the world for generations to come.

How does your background fit into this idea?

I’m not an immigrant. I went to seminary because I didn’t know if I wanted to teach about theology and the Bible. But I got into this career because the Bible was just so clear about helping immigrants and refugees.

And I felt it was kind of countercultural; not everyone expects Christians to care about immigrants. I thought, well, that’s cool because Jesus was a refugee. And I really liked that.

I also kind of like being not an immigrant myself because it helps people who aren’t immigrants think, oh, this is something I’m supposed to care about, too. Everyone should care about immigrants in our community. I think half of our team are immigrants and half aren’t. So that’s a good mix.

Why was Durham selected for a location of the World Relief organization?

I wasn’t here back in 2007. What I know is that, at least back then, housing was much more affordable than it is now. They were looking for communities that have really affordable housing, that had accessible public transportation and that had supportive churches and other community partners that were going to welcome refugees on a more personal or social level, who are going to extend friendship and open their homes to them and provide a community outside of what a caseworker could provide. And Durham had all those things.

How do you raise the funds to support the organization and its programming?

We are fortunate enough to have federal funding, state funding, county funding, city funding and private funding. The hardest to get money for us is the private money. We have to do all the things you think of in fundraising to do that, to speak in public, to send people letters.

What do you believe the organization does that stands out from others?

Well, we get churches involved in a really deep way. There are a lot of churches in North Carolina that have created whole housing ministries on their property where they provide free housing to refugees who are coming for a few weeks or a few months. Even people open their homes and become host homes for refugees. Just opening up your own home to a refugee is a tremendous sacrifice and a really amazing gift to give someone for a few weeks or again, even a couple of months while they get there under them.

We have mental health services for refugees and immigrants, which is hard to fund and extremely rare, really, to have great mental health services in Arabic or Swahili or Spanish or Kinyarwanda or all the different languages that our clients speak.

What type of marketing do you use in fundraising?

We don’t do a lot of TV ads or anything. We occasionally will put ads in Que Pasa or other local newspapers or websites that we feel immigrants are looking at.

We do a lot of public speaking at the universities and again, at churches or speak in front of City Council sometimes or we have a big event every summer called Durham Refugee Day in Durham Central Park. Usually about 1,000 people come out. The city and the county help us advertise that event.

Is there anything you would want to do if money was no object?

I think public schools, there’s so many immigrant kids in the public schools in Durham and a lot do not have support in the languages that they speak. I would like every kid in Durham public schools to be able to get academic support and social, emotional support in their own language. Right now, we’re doing that in about half a dozen schools. But really in that youth program, we can only help maybe two, two hundred and fifty kids per year. The need is in the thousands.

What are some of your goals for the business in the next five years, in the next 10 years?

We want to explore funding models that will let us serve undocumented immigrants more right now. They can receive services in our legal department or if their children attend a school where we’re working, we could serve them. But we really don’t have a lot of funding to be able to do that work.

I would love to see more groups of immigrants included in what we can offer. We’re looking into different grants that will help us serve unaccompanied minors as well as Medicaid and a number of other avenues.

Within the current political climate, how has World Relief maintained its focus on its goal?

I think World Relief has a very politically diverse set of donors, which is something else that’s very distinctive about us. We had another company look at our donors and said it was one of the most politically diverse groups of donors they’d ever seen. We have tons of Republicans, tons of Democrats and people all over the map that don’t normally fund the same things. They came together and agreed that refugees and immigrants deserve our help and support. It doesn’t matter really what your political persuasion is. If your faith tells you that you want to listen to the Bible, then basically it’s a pretty pro-immigrant book.