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Welcoming Refugees: From Compassion to Action in 4 Steps

I remember the excitement I felt when our refugee friends walked into the waiting area at O’Hare. The little group from our church did not know how to speak to them, but we had attempted some signs in Arabic and brought small gifts and flowers to try to show them a warm welcome.

We were cobbling together relationships through Google Translate, sweet treats, thick Syrian coffee, small gifts and shared meals.

Over the next few months, we visited with the family weekly, attempting to meet simple needs and working with the resettlement agency to meet bigger ones. More than that, we were cobbling together relationships through Google Translate, sweet treats, thick Syrian coffee, small gifts and shared meals. I don’t think any of us knew what to expect going in, but God blessed us all with friendship.

So how does a church or a family come to a point where they move from concern about refugees to taking steps to welcome them?

1) First, we need to correct a few misconceptions about refugees.

Here are a few basics:

  • Who is a refugee? According to UNHCR, “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” This website includes some helpful distinctions between refugees and other groups of displaced people.
  • How does someone qualify for resettlement? Receiving refugee status from the UN Refugee Agency (the UNHCR) is only the first step of the process—there are (at least) 10 steps in the vetting process after this point! It usually lasts between 18 months and 3 years. (Learn more about the vetting process in the U.S. or Canada on the OSJ website.) Very few refugees are ever resettled. Of the 22.5 million people with refugee status, the U.S. has historically accepted between 50,000 and 80,000 refugees each year.
  • The global refugee situation is unprecedented. According the UN Refugee Agency, at the end of 2016, 65.6 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. This number includes 22.5 million refugees (the highest number the Agency has ever seen), 40.3 million internally displaced people, and 2.8 million asylum seekers.

These basic facts are a necessary foundation for compassion, action, and advocacy.

2) Refugees are people created in the image of God.

This is a call to empathy. It can be easy to gloss over a statistic like 22.5 million refugees. By definition, all refugees have feared for their lives enough to leave their homes and flee across a border. Many cross on foot with very few possessions or prospects for shelter, food, and safety for themselves or their families. The family we greeted at the airport did just that a few years before we met them.

We often need Jesus to challenge our notion of who our neighbors are.

In an increasingly globalized world, it’s important for us to recognize that the biblical command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” applies to everyone to whom we have the opportunity to extend a hand. Like the expert in the law, we often need Jesus to challenge our notion of who our neighbors are with a story of strangers helping strangers and command us to, “Go and do likewise.” Perhaps our church’s refugee story will be that challenge for you today. 

3) We need to get up close and personal with refugees.

Once you begin to see refugees as image-bearers, it’s natural to feel called to act. Our first instinct is often to donate, and that is a good instinct. God does call us to give generously to those in need, and our church benefitted greatly from the generosity of our friends and families as we sought to support the Syrian family we sponsored.

However, I would like to suggest that the most impactful next step is to get to know a refugee. Whether that involves building relationships through the sponsorship program, working with a refugee aid organization, volunteering as a tutor, using your business to provide employment to refugees, or teaching ESL classes, the key is to put in enough time and effort to develop meaningful relationships. This allows you to listen to and learn from your neighbors and to begin to see them as friends. These types of relationships change people and churches.

4) Speaking out

For our church, becoming friends with a Syrian refugee family personalized the challenges refugees face and drove us to share some of what we had learned with friends, family, and eventually our government representatives. We chose to speak out.

We started small: sharing our story on blogs, in this CRC Facebook series, and in conversations with friends and family. But when faced with the staggering numbers of refugees, we also felt called to bring our message to more powerful people.

It’s difficult to follow the biblical call to welcome refugees here in the U.S. when our government has dramatically reduced the flow! Resettlement limits are at an all-time low (just 45,000), despite unprecedented need and actual resettlements are even more tepid. As of February 28, just 1,927 refugees had actually arrived in the United States since the limit was set 5 months ago (October 1, 2017). Recognizing that this response stood in opposition to our biblical calling to welcome strangers, members of our church organized meetings with our representatives.

It’s difficult to follow the biblical call to welcome refugees here in the U.S. when our government has dramatically reduced the flow!

Another simple but effective way to act on behalf of refugees is to use this action alert from the Office of Social Justice to send a personal email to your congressperson or representative. Political engagement on this issue may feel foreign to some Christians. But for us, our love for our Syrian friends overflowed into the way we considered our government’s policies and pushed us to advocate for a more welcoming society.

In the Body of Christ, we all have different callings. Our church has been deeply blessed by the opportunity to welcome and befriend a refugee family. Our relationships with them continue to motivate us to learn and speak out.

Whatever your calling is, pursue it faithfully. Don’t be afraid to move from compassion to action. This is part of what it means to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness!

Urge your U.S. representative to speak up for refugee resettlement

If you're in Canada, watch for an opportunity to take action next week for Refugee Rights Day!



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