Norma Nashed

Dialogue with the president and founder of Restore a Child

To meet Norma Nashed is to enter the eye of a hurricane. As the founder of the nonprofit organization Restore a Child, Nashed has an all-consuming passion for serving orphans around the world, and she’s not shy about enticing others to join her cause. Our initial introduction is barely completed before the rapid-fire questions begin: “Are you married? Yes? Do you have children? No? Good! Then you should have free time to volunteer with us.”

Such audacity goes a long way toward explaining how Nashed has managed to coordinate Restore a Child’s outreach to thousands of children virtually single-handedly for the past 13 years. This is a woman whose own life has dramatically changed course and faced daunting challenges numerous times, yet she has steadfastly maintained an unshakeable faith in God and His leading.

Norma was born in Palestine, but her family soon moved to Jordan, where her father found a job. Their resources were very limited, and nine family members lived in one room. A few years later, her father died of cancer, leaving her mother penniless, at age 37, with seven children. To earn some money, Norma’s mother borrowed a neighbor’s sewing machine at night – the only time it was available – and took on sewing jobs. Unfortunately, she became blind a few years later.

Norma’s mother had become an Adventist years earlier, and an Adventist missionary family took Norma into their home for six years while she attended school. After completing two years of college, she found a job so that could help her mother and siblings. Actually, the job turned out to be of some status, although that wasn’t important to her. She worked for a man who founded Jordanian Airlines and became its president and chairman. He was also an advisor to the late King Hussein. The king occasionally passed through the airline’s office with his bodyguards, and Norma could hardly believe that she was in such close proximity to the king. She, a simple orphan girl! Since then, Norma’s life and ministry have been devoted to the less privileged in society.

Over the years, her service touched the lives of young people both within the church and outside. Eventually, her interest in children, especially orphans, led her to establish Restore a Child. Based in Maryland, U.S.A., Restore a Child’s mission is to provide basic care to children: food, water, medical care, education, and in some cases shelter. It began informally with educational support for students in Jordan and now serves children in 13 countries: Bolivia, Chad, Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, the United States, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Let’s begin with your first job. How did you land such a plum job?

Yes, it was a plum position all right. But I never expected to get that job. When I interviewed for the post, I had two hurdles. Jordan is a Muslim country, and as a Christian I did not expect to get the appointment. Then there was the Sabbath. I told the interviewing manager that I could not attend work from Friday afternoon to Sabbath sunset, and that time was necessary for me to keep the Sabbath. But to my surprise, I was selected. When the manager was asked later how he could manage without an assistant on Saturdays, he replied, “To get someone like Norma, I can go one day without help.”

But then your life took a turn, and you began working for the church.

My foster parents – especially my dad – and my mother are my greatest inspiration. Even though my mother was a widow and poor, she always shared what little she had with the poor and the needy. Even if she had just a loaf of bread to feed her family, she would readily share that with someone who knocked on her doors. My mother was a woman of faith. She always told me, “Norma, leave your job and work for God, and He will take care of you.”

I heeded my mother’s counsel and started working for the church. For several years, I worked in various positions at Home Study International [in the U.S.]. When I was the student accounts manager, I developed the belief that children should not be punished because of poverty. We weren’t able to release students’ grades until their accounts were paid, which of course limited their ability to continue their studies.

I transferred to the General Conference youth department, where I was also able to work on behalf of young people. Then I got cancer, and that was a turning point.

How did that become a turning point?

Quite simply, I felt God calling me to a new direction in my life. I quit my job and started a ministry for children.

Just like that?

I was living in an apartment in Takoma Park, Maryland. It was not a poor area, yet in those apartments were children who would ask me for food when they saw me coming home with grocery bags. I could not believe it! I started buying a bit extra to share with them. Their mothers were suspicious of me, so at first I couldn’t go to their homes. When I was able to visit, I saw that inside their apartments they had no furniture, just carpet, and very little food.

I went to grocery stores and talked to the managers. They would give me store credit to buy a supply of food, which I would then distribute. I was also allowed to collect donated food items in a cart displayed with a sign in the store. I did this for more than six years. It was a lot of food, so I had to store it at different people’s homes.

How did your international work for children start?

When I had cancer, I went on a visit back to Jordan. There I visited an Adventist school I had attended. The school was about to send two children home because their parents were poor and couldn’t pay the fees. I saw how humiliating it was for the children, so I asked how much they needed. It was $500 each, which I was able to arrange.

On my way home, I knew that if these children were being treated like this, there must be many more like them out there. I strongly believe that we must make sure that kids get a good education. It’s the key to their future: to get good jobs, to improve their lives, as well as the lives of their families and the whole community. Girls in particular are not given opportunities in developing countries. They are going to be the mothers of the future; if we train and equip them with a good education, the impact will be seen in their children.

So how does a person go about starting up a charitable organization?

I reached out first to people I knew and could trust with funds. I had lived in Egypt and had friends there, so I helped send children to Nile Union Academy in Cairo. One of my brothers was a diplomat stationed in Pakistan, and through him I started helping students at an Adventist school in Karachi. From there I made contacts in India, then Thailand (helping Burmese students from a refugee camp), and it just grew all over, including Africa.

Now we are working in 13 countries, helping around 3,000 children, generally between the ages of 4 and 10. I haven’t counted everyone we have helped over the years, but it would be a large number. Last year alone, we fed 5,000 kids. We are funding whole schools in Haiti and Ethiopia, paying for teachers, uniforms, and books. In Indonesia, we started helping children seven years ago; in the last three years, 143 of “our” youth there have been baptized. Our aim is to care not only for the physical needs of children, but also for their spiritual needs.

Where do you find the strength to do this enormous work?

When I had cancer and was going for treatment, everyone around me asked, “How are you so happy?” A year before, I had recommitted my life to God, and He had given me peace in my life. Cancer turned out to be a blessing, because it drove me closer to God and put my trust in Him. I didn’t question God or cry – not once. I knew that if He were with me, whatever He brought my way would be because He had a plan. What it was, I had no idea. Now I know: it was this ministry. I focused on these children, not on myself, and God gave me the strength.

The peace and joy I have is inside. I can’t express it. You’ve just got to have that relationship with God to experience it. I truly believe that “all things work together for good.”

When I came back from my visit to Jordan, I knew I should start this ministry, and I did – immediately. The first three years, I used my own savings, and then as it grew, my family helped me. I started talking to my friends, and then began fundraising officially.

I first worked on providing education, but many orphans are also homeless, especially girls, so we began to build orphanages. Every two seconds, a child is orphaned. At any time there are 145 million orphans across the globe. They are in desperate need of love, care, education, and dignity.

How do you view your ministry as being different?

God has endowed us with various gifts, but when it comes to the poor it’s not an option, it’s a commandment. In Deuteronomy 15, God says, “thou shalt” lend the poor sufficient for their needs. If you want pure religion, look at James 1:27, which states that pure and undefiled religion is caring for the orphans and widows. You may tell a child, “Jesus loves you,” but that statement means nothing to a hungry and homeless child. Through our humanitarian work, children can see that Jesus cares for them. When Jesus was on earth, He was always mingling with the poor and the sick, the hungry and the lame.

Have you ever wavered in your commitment to your mission?

There were times when I almost felt like quitting. But when I was at my lowest ebb, God would send somebody – either a donor, or somebody to help with the work. Three years ago, we were building an orphanage in Ethiopia. I got an e-mail from a television station in Maryland saying, “Your apartment building is on fire. We Googled your address and found you through your charity. We want to interview you. If you go to our website, you will see your home in flames.” It was true. I lost nine years of documents, my ministry was gone … that time I cried. I felt, “I love God, I’m doing His work, why would He allow this?”

But I stayed in Ethiopia. I had a mission, work, things to do. When I returned, three TV networks were at the airport to meet me. Because of that fire, a Jewish doctor from Washington, D.C., saw me on the news. I was an Arab woman, but that didn’t prevent him from reaching out to me. Eventually he gave our ministry $200,000 and said he was committed for life. God doesn’t waste tragedies; something good always comes out of them.

What have you learned about how God works?

When God calls a person to serve Him, He will always provide the skills, the opportunities, the resources. He did that for me, and even though I am human and do get discouraged, the truth about God is that He will always provide, in His time. At one time we had less than $2,000 in the bank, but some people who read an article about my work were impressed to help our ministry, and they sent in $150,000. Other people heard about that gift and sent sizable donations too.

I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, and people respect that. I always say I’m an Adventist. I’m proud to be a Seventh-day Adventist.God has given each person three T’s: time, talents, and treasure. What we do with these gifts sets us apart from other people. Do you use them on yourself or share them?

Can you share the story of one particular child who has been helped through your ministry?

Seven years ago, in Tanzania, we took a boy literally from the street. Samuel Atupele was age 12; he had no shoes, no money, no schoolbooks, and no home. We sent him to an Adventist boarding school. I met him last year when I visited Tanzania, and he’s an amazing gentleman. I asked what he would like to do when he finishes high school, and he said he wants to be a pastor. Imagine if we had left him on the street. What would have become of him? He could easily have turned to crime or drugs, but instead he wants to be a pastor and help the children in his country.

These children are going to be the future leaders of our church! Giving them a chance to become good citizens is not just a good investment for them, but also for us. We are all connected, not isolated. If you give orphans a chance, they can become leaders and do great things. All children need a hero, somebody to care for them, to show them respect and restore their dignity. That’s our responsibility.

Shelley Nolan Freesland (M.S.M., Johns Hopkins University) is communication director for Adventist World Radio. E-mail: nolans@gc.adventist.org.

Norma Nashed can be contacted at president@restoreachild.org or www.restoreachild.org.