Living by a higher code

On the first day of her college internship in the late summer of 2007, Jenna Liao waited amid the baggage carousels of O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Just 21 and newly assigned to an agency that helps refugees, she had been told only to expect a family of 10 from Myanmar. She and a caseworker were to drive them here to the first temporary home of their new lives.

The family trudged into Ms. Liao's view after 19 years in a refugee camp and 30 hours of trans-Pacific travel. All their belongings fit into two plaid plastic bags, and in that moment, as Ms. Liao recently recalled, she winced at the memory of starting college with four times as much luggage.

No sooner did the family squeeze into the caseworker's van than several children began crying. Soon a few others vomited with motion sickness. Seated among them, with no relevant experience and no common language, Ms. Liao wondered what she could do.

Then she remembered that someone had given her a Slinky for the Burmese children, and she began to coax its coils into undulating waves. The impromptu show stilled the tears and stomachs alike.

That night, Ms. Liao called her mother. "I know what I want to do when I grow up," she recalls telling her. "I want to work with refugees."

Two years later, Jenna Liao works full time coordinating volunteers for World Relief, the same agency for which she interned. In a given year, she has a hand in resettling upward of 400 families, with nearly half of the most recent arrivals Iraqis.

"I feel like God is in this work, and I want to be there with him," Ms. Liao says.

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