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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 14 years ago changed everything.

“We were sitting in a circle with these new foster kids and parents,” the Seattle-area woman 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 that 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 minor children arriving in the United States (mainly from Vietnam and Cambodia) as refugees without parents or guardians.

“These minors had been separated from their families, their parents had died or they were believed deceased,” says Molly Daggett, manager of the Refugee and Immigrant Children’s Program for more than 20 years.

But adoption of refugee children is problematic. In conflict areas and chaotic refugee camps, families can be separated and deaths rumored, but unconfirmed.

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 family reunification.

In the past 30 years hundreds of children have passed through the Seattle program escaping violence, conflict and persecution in countries such as Haiti, Cuba, Rwanda, Sudan and more recently Burma and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Right now, there are about 60 children who have been placed in foster homes, but Daggett says that number could be much higher if they had more parents.

“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 three-month foster-parent licensing program administered by Washington state, as well as a certification program through Lutheran Community Services.

They also must 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 teen (average age in the program is 16) who may have experienced extreme trauma, have limited English-language skills and a completely different cultural context from 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 regard to family and gender roles. She adds that bonding took time, patience and a 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 and “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 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 who need homes.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist,, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: Twitter: @SeaStute