I first signed up to volunteer to help resettle a refugee family from Somalia at the tender age of 19. Little did I know that this experience would alter the course of my life.
The family I was placed with were Somali Bantu–a minority group that was considered by many to be second-class. The Somali Bantu worked the fields and practiced Islam that was mixed with animism. When civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, they were some of the first to feel the effects. Fields were burned, women were raped, men were killed. There was famine and sickness, and children and infants died due to preventable diseases. Forced to flee for their lives, entire communities picked up and ran to the Kenyan border in search of safety. The family I worked with in Portland, Oregon, had spent almost a decade in a refugee camp in Kenyan, anxiously awaiting the chance to start their life anew.
It wasn’t until I’d spent several years with the family that I understood the central tragedy of the refugee experience: how much they longed to return to their home, and how that would never again be a possibility. They weren’t immigrants, hewing closely to the origin stories we like to tell ourselves, clamoring to be in America. They weren’t here to take our jobs or try and jump in and make something of themselves. They were people who had barely survived the end of their world.
I watched as their resiliency shined in the midst of difficult circumstances. They were non-literate and non-English speaking, coming from a communal and tribal way of life, and I saw first-hand how my country was neither welcoming nor accommodating to these differences. It was a sobering realization. My belief in the need to welcome refugees became stronger than ever, but I was also beginning to understand what an incredibly complicated task resettlement is.
Because of my relationship with this family, I eventually got my MATESOL and specialized in teaching literacy. I have taught recently arrived refugees for almost a decade now, and each person I have met has continued my education in profound ways. Each and every person–from Somalia, Oromia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and many other places–had their own story of trauma and suffering, the reality of which I cannot fathom. And yet I’ve watched them them, day in and day out, taking the dogged steps of trying to rebuild their lives: learning English, going grocery shopping, cooking food, applying for jobs, showering me in hospitality. What a gift, to see such resiliency in action.
If there is any silver lining to the current political situation it will be this: that citizens who are concerned by our current climate of fear towards Muslims–and Muslim refugees in particular–will be motivated to take pragmatic actions towards making America more welcoming. Churches, non-profits, neighborhood associations, local politics–all can be mobilized to support the refugee resettlement process. As it is, we cannot expect the government to shoulder all the burden of the myriads of challenges that face those who are being resettled. Our new neighbors need relational, emotional, and systemic support that extends far beyond the eight months of assistance provided by the government. This is where the individual citizen has a role to play. You can, like me, easily find ways to donate your time and/or resources–and you yourself will be changed in the process.
I do not know who I would be without my refugee and immigrant neighbors. I do not know who I will be if future new neighbors are not allowed into my country. And I can’t bear to think about what will happen to the men, women, and children affected by war and terrorism and trauma if the doors to the world continue to close in on them. I pray this does not happen. And in the meantime, I will work harder than ever to be welcoming to the small percentage of stateless wanderers–the poor and huddled masses, yearning to be free–who make it onto our shores and into my neighborhood.
What can you do?
There are seven countries under the ban that the Trump administration is fighting in court to implement: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Find refugees from these countries (and others!) in your city. Locate your local refugee resettlement agency and ask how you can volunteer. Currently, places like Arrive Ministries in St. Paul have seen an uptick in both financial donations and volunteers due to the increased spotlight on refugees. The ways to help are endless—from sorting donated items to tutoring to family mentoring. Beyond the initial re-settlement period, many refugees remain culturally isolated. Coming from communally-based Muslim cultures, they find the busyness and individualism of America especially hard to adapt to. Jump in and share your life! My personal favorite agencies are World Relief, Catholic Charities, and Lutheran Family Services (but there are many more).
- Call your local representatives and tell them you do not support the restrictions as outlined in the new Executive Order, and that you do not believe in discrimination based on religion.
- Go to restaurants from the 7 countries mentioned in the EO (listed above) in your area. Eat delicious food. Thank the owners and staff for being there.
- Go visit your local mosque with a simple card that says they are welcome. (You can literally quote the Bible on this). Ask if they are in need of anything or if there is any way you can serve them and their community.
- If you are a Christian, ask your pastor/the head of your denomination to publicly address the Biblical call to Christians to welcome refugees from the pulpit. According to one study, only 35% of US churches have talked about the current global refugee crisis. Is your church part of the silent majority? Put pressure on to change this!
- Two of the sectors that disproportionately bear the brunt of refugee resettlement are public education and healthcare (specifically hospitals). Find people in your life (church, etc.) who work in these settings and ask how you can help support them as they encounter and love refugees. Volunteer at your local school tutoring English Language Learners.
- If you are a business owner, consider ways you can employ refugees and/or create positions that do not rely on English-only literacy.
- Donate your financial resources to places like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family Services, World Relief, Preemptive Love, SARA, and other resettlement agencies/non-profits that work with refugees both here and abroad. Ask that these organizations be vocal in their support of continuing the refugee resettlement program for everyone. If you currently donate to an organization and they are not public about their support of refugee resettlement programs continuing on (without bias towards religion) then pull your support.
- There is no grand gesture you can do. There is no Muslim registry you can sign up for. There is just rampant Islamophobia in your friends and community that you will have to push back against constantly, for the rest of your life. Have discussions about refugees (and Islam) with your people. Gently correct misinformation, every single time you see it. Be vigilant against hatred, specifically Islamophobia. Specifically ask Christians to live up to their beliefs when it comes to loving our neighbor (and our responsibility to them).