Over the past few months, we have borne witness to a heartbreaking refugee crisis in Ukraine. We’ve seen families forced to make life or death decisions in a matter of hours. We’ve watched as mothers and grandparents crowd into trains, cars and buses to cross borders with their children, unsure of where they will go next or when they will be able to return. Ukrainians of color as well as immigrants and refugees who had made Ukraine their home have shared in the trauma of fleeing violence but have often received a hostile reception in comparison to the open arms that Ukrainians have received from the larger European community.
Sadly, this refugee journey is not unique to those fleeing Ukraine. According to the United Nations, there are more than 26 million refugees throughout the world who have been forced to flee their communities, and that number is growing. This fact can be paralyzing, and the constant reports of violence and persecution can numb us to the suffering of others. There are, however, practical ways that we as a Christian community in the United States can walk alongside refugees seeking safety and wholeness for their families and community.
One opportunity to practice hospitality is to welcome and advocate for refugees who are resettled throughout the U.S. Since 1980, the U.S. has provided permanent refuge to more than 3 million refugees from more than 60 different countries, and the church has played a pivotal part in advocating for, learning from and empowering refugees.
U.S. resettlement process
Although there is a great need for resettlement, less than 1 percent of all refugees worldwide will have the opportunity to resettle in the U.S. The resettlement journey typically begins years before a refugee family arrives on American soil.
When refugees are forced to flee their country, most first seek asylum in a nearby country. There, families register with the government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to receive refugee status. This designation may provide them protection and access to limited support since many refugees do not have the right to work in their country of asylum.
From there, UNHCR identifies especially vulnerable individuals and families for resettlement to the U.S. After being recommended for resettlement, the U.S. vets each refugee with additional security checks, medical screenings and interviews.
To resettle refugees, the U.S. government partners with nine different non-profit organizations: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), Church World Service (CWS), Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), World Relief (WR), U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), Ethiopian Community Development Corporation (ECDC) and International Rescue Committee (IRC).
These organizations offer leadership to the more than 200 local resettlement agencies that operate in every state except Wyoming. Through a variety of programs, these organizations often not only serve refugees but also asylum seekers and immigrants.
Once a family has been approved for resettlement, these organizations receive the family’s information and meet to identify where the family should be initially resettled. Agencies do their best to place refugee families where close friends or family are already living.
If family reunification is not possible, the agencies try to place families in cities where the family will have the opportunity to connect with others who share their language and culture. After the family is assigned and approved, it may take weeks, months or even years for a family to arrive in that city.
Resettlement in action
Once the family’s travel is finally booked, the local resettlement agency is notified, and they begin preparing to welcome the family. The U.S. government provides a one-time fund of up to $1,225 per person to cover the first three months of expenses including rent, utilities, furnishings, clothing, food and pocket money.
In addition to meeting the family’s most basic needs with very little resources, resettlement agencies act as the bridge to longer-term services and needs. Often resettlement agencies are staffed and led by incredibly talented and hardworking former refugees who not only help the larger community understand the refugee experience but also intertwine competency, pragmatism and empathy into their daily work with families.
They help families access public benefits, English language learning, employment services, school registration and medical care. In addition to initial resettlement support, these agencies also typically provide long-term integration support like employment services and English classes.
These agencies are the backbone of the United States’ resettlement program, but they cannot do it alone. Refugee resettlement agencies’ funding fluctuates based on refugee arrival numbers, and the U.S. president decides how many refugees can be resettled in the U.S. each year. From 2017-2020, this number was whittled down to the point that resettlement agencies throughout the country were forced to lay off most of their experienced staff or, in some cases, close entirely.
In September 2021, however, the U.S. called upon resettlement agencies to help resettle more than 76,000 evacuees fleeing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In a matter of weeks, these hollowed out agencies were asked to help resettle more people within six months than they had resettled in the past four years combined.
Churches mobilize to welcome
This past year alone resettlement agencies across the country have worked heroically to increase their capacity to serve refugees and Afghan evacuees, but the lack of investment from 2017-2020 has caused undeniable and lasting harm. Regardless of political affiliation, the Christian community must join in advocating for fair and consistent refugee resettlement policies to ensure that the resettlement community is well equipped to welcome families.
In addition to advocacy, there are many ways the church can mobilize to welcome refugees. Before families arrive, churches can partner with resettlement agencies to help secure affordable housing, collect housing supplies and furniture, raise funds to provide the new family an emergency fund to supplement the limited support the government provides or assist in setting up the family’s new home.
After families arrive, churches can partner with resettlement agencies either by welcoming one specific family through co-sponsorship or by volunteering in specific roles to help many newly arrived families. The church can accompany families as they go to appointments, sort and understand their mail and encounter their many firsts.
Beyond meeting the practical needs, the church is needed to show hospitality by simply being present with families and offering friendship. Unlike resettlement caseworkers, members of the church can visit with their new neighbors, accept offers of tea, coffee and hospitality, listen to stories, and laugh and stumble through the awkwardness of language or cultural miscommunication. Churches have an essential role to play in welcoming newly arrived refugees and have the opportunity to be transformed through the act of hospitality.
Charity Stowell is the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. newcomer connections coordinator.