Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guest Post: Refugees: The Strangers Among Us

This post is part of a series called, "Caring for the Poor While Living in the United States."
Not everyone has to leave home to care for the least of these.
Links to all the posts in this series can be found at the bottom of this post.

{Guest Post}
Danielle Mayfield lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, baby, and cat. 
She writes about living in an international community at her blog, Little Somalia.
Danielle is making her email address available for people who want further information 
about how to love and care for refugees.  daniellelmayfield@gmail.com

A question that has been asked on this blog has been this: who are the poor in America? I am assuming that many readers live in various places throughout America, and we want to get in on what the Bible says is our duty: to take care of the least of the these, the widows and the orphans and the strangers in our midst. The tricky thing about America is that these people are everywhere you look—you just have to know where to find them. Today I want us to look at and consider the situation of refugees, a group which with I have been working in Portland, Oregon for over seven years.

Refugees are people that have no home. Most of them have spent upwards of ten years in a refugee camp, a place of little information or opportunity, waiting for the chance to rebuild their lives. Even though I know refugees from many different countries, the stories are all the same: they are people that have experienced war, terror, death, and have been forced to flee their homes permanently.  Finally, they are people that through a long, often convoluted process, were told they could find sanctuary in America.

One distinction I find it is important to make is that refugees are not immigrants. They did not come to America with the sole purpose of bettering their lives, of taking a plunge in the capitalist system on the chance that they would live out the American dream. Refugees are stateless wanderers, people who have been told that they can never go back to their homes, their old lives. Refugees have no choice in their future, and no chance of changing the past.

Once this distinction becomes clear, it is easy to see why many refugees experience great difficulty upon coming to America. The trauma of a loss of a home country is compounded by the lack of opportunities in refugee camps, especially for adults. Many find themselves in America with no way to earn a living and very little English skills. They are battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) while struggling to provide for the basic needs of their families, often while watching their own children cast off the old cultural norms in a quest for Americanization.

All this is to say that many refugees find themselves in a precious situation in America.

And we can help.

As of now the U.S. Government gives refugees 8 months of financial assistance, at which point they are expected to be self-supporting. While this is sufficient support for some, many refugees find themselves at the end of the 8 months with no way to support their family. Can you imagine trying to learn English, navigate American customs, finding and securing a job, and becoming financially stable in 8 months? Neither can I. Add to this mix the realities of dealing with trauma, as well as the low levels of education and health problems that can accompany people who come from war-torn places.

Where there is a lack of support at the governmental level, the church can step in.

While not all of us can (or should) give money to refugee families, there are opportunities for support in a myriad of ways. First and foremost, refugees need friends. They need ambassadors for a culture that is rarely welcoming, and they need guides to navigate all of the radical changes that they are facing. When I started working with refugees I was placed with a family from Somalia. When the family first arrived in America, they had never seen a light switch, flushed a toilet, or even gone up or down a flight of stairs. There were many practical needs that I could help with, such as filling out forms, calling banks, making sure the children had their shots for school. These practicalities can be soul-crushing to people who are still in survival mode, and it is such an easy way to be a blessing.

I started working with refugees over 7 years ago, and they have become some of my best friends. They have been in my wedding, I have been to births and deaths and middle school soccer games and science fairs and through it all I have been enriched in so many ways by our friendship. This type of relationship is so much more beneficial than any sort of mentor/tutor/benefactor dynamic, because it is based in mutuality. Friendship, as you might suspect, requires quite a bit more time and effort than simply dropping off a bag of food or a check.

Two years ago, my husband and I moved into the low-income housing complex where many of my Somali friends live. While it hasn't always been perfect or easy, our ties to the community have only become stronger. While this may seem like an extreme example, I would propose that all of us have the call to become intentional neighbors wherever we are. And in many neighborhoods, there are refugees that are in desperate need of relationship.

Refugees also need English skills. Most of us reading this blog probably do so with a minimal amount of effort. You probably can also carry on a decent conversation, buy your groceries without worries, and express how you are feeling in any given situation. This is not the case for many refugees. Those who come from especially traumatic experiences often have little to no formal education, which makes learning English that much more difficult (the number one contributor to becoming literate in English is being literate in your native language—and vice versa).

Becoming an English tutor is one of the easiest ways to help a refugee. I was paired with a Somali family for this express purpose, and it opened the doors for real relationship to be established. After several years of working with Somali refugees I became passionate about the opportunities that English language and literacy skills could bring to my refugee friends. I became so inspired, in fact, that I went on to get my Masters in TESOL and now teach classes in my apartment complex and at the local community college, focusing on literacy. For all my education, however, I have realized that being a patient friend and a kind listener are two of the best skills for an English teacher. By the sole fact that we are native speakers, all of us can help refugees in this extremely tangible way.

Refugees need community support. New challenges come up all the time that me and my husband simply cannot handle on our own. Getting our friends, family, and church involved in working with refugees has been a vital part of our success. In many cities (like Portland) there are no evangelical organizations working directly with refugees. This is the perfect opportunity for churches to step up and care for the aliens in our midst. One of the more inspiring models I have seen is that of churches actively “sponsoring” several newly arrived refugee families and taking over all of their needs. From providing furniture for bare apartments to finding winter coats for children to helping navigate the bureaucracies of public school and health insurance and bank accounts—the church is that family's first experience with America. How wonderful is that?

There are so many more stories I could tell you, stories that are heartbreaking, inspiring, and devastating. But I would rather you find out these stories for yourself. If you need more of a theological push, look no further than the Old Testament commands to befriend and take care of the strangers and aliens in our midst, or the fact that Jesus himself was a refugee, or the myriads of times that the New Testament shows us a church that shares what they have in order that none might be in need.

If you would like to get involved in working with refugees in your city, here are a couple of organizations that I endorse whole-heartedly, and can help you get started:

1. World Relief. World Relief is the largest Evangelical organization that helps with refugee resettlement in the U.S. While they don't have branches in every state, if they are in yours—make sure to contact them!
2.  Catholic Charities. For more reading on the current U.S. Policies on refugee resettlement and ways to advocate for reform, I love Catholic Charities position.  For states and cities that don't have a World Vision office, I highly recommend contacting your local Catholic Charities branch. I have been volunteering through CC for over 7 years now, and it has been nothing but a positive experience.

3. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Another great organization. Check out their website and click on ways to get involved.

For those who nerd out over statistics, these are two great sites detailing U.S. Policies and other
information regarding refugee resettlement: The UN Refugee Agency and Almanac of Policy Issues: Refugee Assistance Programs.

For those of you living in a city/rural area that might not have refugees, I would encourage you to investigate other avenues to advocate for refugees. Many organizations like World Relief and Catholic Charities depend on donations in order to do their ministries. If you are unable to commit to the amount of time it takes to truly invest in a friendship with refugees, there are plenty of other creative ways to support this work.

Other posts in this series on "Caring for the Poor While Living in the US":

Caring for the Poor While Living in the Good ol' U-S of A?

Who Are the Poor?

Looking for the Poor 

Hi, My Name is Heather and I'm a Modern Day Slave Owner

Helpful Links

Barn Burning 

First, The Purging 

The Better World Shopping Guide 

More Really Great Shopping Resources 

Running Hard After Redemption 

Seeko Sandals 

Batik Boutique 

Be Informed 


Shop for Clean Clothes

Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part one

Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part two 

Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part three 

Refugees, Part 1


mandi said...

This is a great post! Thank you for sharing about your own experiences and pointing us in a direction! I am blessed by the work you are doing. And the smile of that precious child in the picture with you!

Sara said...

I so understand the opportunities of living life in the US and interacting with refugees...my life is blessed by them...check it out: http://sophiesara.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/opportunities/ and
http://sophiesara.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/you-just-never-know/ Thanks for sharing and broadening the view of life for so many!

LD said...

Love this post! I just started working with a refugee organization here in Dallas (www.freecity.org) and so far it has been great! I have 3 Somali sisters who have been living in an Ethiopian refugee camp almost their entire lives. They don't speak any English and they have no skills... and are expected to have jobs within 3 months! Such a crazy system. There is such a need for volunteers and really anyone can do it.

Jess said...

When I was going to college in Minneapolis my small Christian school was in the middle of a neighborhood full of Somali people. It was so frustrating to me that our youth ministry majors were traveling to the suburbs to hang out with youth while there were dozens of teenage Somali boys playing basketball at the park in our neighborhood every single night. Youth aren't just white and in churches.