By Dietrich Gruen
Many of the recent election and subsequent executive orders have stirred up significant fear among our fellow citizens. Fear, anger, hate and resentment manifest in social media, street protests, and in not-so-civil family talk. Otherness can stir within us unwelcome feelings that conflict with our Christian values. We struggle enough with people who have a different skin color, political views or religious persuasion. Those things are magnified when someone also hails from a different country and speaks a foreign language.
Refugees On Pause
Our Census Bureau reports that 40+ million foreign-born residents live in the U.S. That number includes naturalized citizens, permanent residents (green card holders), workers and international students with temporary visas, and immigrants without legal status. Also, a limited number of refugees arrive each year—about 85,000. That totals about 3 million who have been granted refuge from documented religious, political or racial persecution since 1980. This year allowed for 110,000. President Trump cut that to 50,000, banning all asylum-seekers for four months on January 27 before a judge suspended the ban.
Many America-bound refugees settle in large sanctuary cities such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. More than 100 asylum seekers were set to come to Madison this year. High Point Church was set to resettle the next family off the plane in February, which was then delayed until June; now, we don’t know when this will happen. This family’s arrival date is a moving target, so watch for continued news updates—for example, a second Executive Order from the President, banning most refugee entry for 4 months, is expected to roll out this week.
High Point Church’s twelve-person resettlement committee is not political or financial; their role is to find housing, as well as provide cultural mentors, drivers, donated furniture and household supplies, friendship and prayer. As our guests are on hold for the moment, so is our work.
Here’s a look at some of the experiences refugees face when resettling in a new country—so that we can grow in our understanding of what real people are going through and know how to come alongside them as they resettle.
The Refugee’s Experience: Screening
For the current vetting already taking place in the refugee screening process, see the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website. Defenders of the refugee resettlement program note that, out of the 3 million refugees granted entry since 1980, not one has been involved in a terrorist attack on US soil. The established decades-long policy already requires biometric and biographical data, multiple interviews of all family members (in different pairings at different intervals over 18-24 months) by several agencies such as the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Defense Department, the State Department, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. All stories presented must sync, or the door is closed. Syrians also go through the Syria Enhanced Review, conducted by analysts knowledgeable about the networks of armed groups in the civil war.
Finally, when this long row has been hoed, the State Department matches refugees with one of nine nonprofit groups—including Lutheran Social Services, the primary refugee resettlement agency for Madison—and gives the groups $1,125 per refugee. Their goal is to place families in an apartment, help them find jobs within 90 days, and become self-sufficient within six months. This is a daunting challenge under any circumstances. Our current situation adds considerable challenges.
The Refugee’s Experience: Finding Work
Even though refugees are willing to do most kinds of work, finding a job that allows for self-sufficiency is still very difficult. Even for those with extensive experience, finding new work is formidable. Many refugees need help writing résumés, learning how to use email, and networking. While they may have been middle managers, skilled technicians or medical professionals licensed back home in Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, their licensing is often invalid here, leaving only unskilled labor open to them until they’re able to go through the US certification process. Whether or not they have the certifications and experience in hand, language is a serious hurdle for most. As one refugee said, “My English isn’t so good, so I’ll do any job.” Hence, for example, they will take minimum wage factory work. Then, after returning home from a long shift of menial work, they tackle the harder task of learning English. It takes great diligence and dedication to do this.
Refugees must adjust to the manners and customs we take for granted. This is why cultural guides are so critical. They can offer all kinds of assistance—everything from learning the bus system, to navigating our healthcare system, to obtaining local identification, to reading letters from landlords, to trusting the local police.
Refugees and the Church
Cultural differences make it difficult to adjust. Going to an English-speaking church helps; so does English-language classes for moms of school-age kids. But I contend that help goes both ways.
Just as Naomi (an Israelite) and Ruth (a Moabite) bonded for mutual support and brought out the best in each other (Ruth 1:16-17), so also we need refugees as much as they need us, if we are to be the church God intended. In the New Testament, it was a Samaritan—someone not of God’s chosen people, not of the same faith or race or state, but a stranger in their midst—who shows us what it means to truly love God and one’s neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). In welcoming strangers, we may be entertaining angels (Hebrews 13:2), or even Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-40). In Christ, we are “no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19).
The Christian Response
Our current crisis is an occasion for us to examine our hearts afresh. Are we harboring fears or resentments that are flying free, untethered by the gospel? In what ways do our hearts, minds and eyes need to be reformed by our knowledge of God’s will and character, his promises, our relation to him, and the role to which he has called us?
Refugee policy will change with elections and a judge’s ruling, but not the calling of the elect: as moral citizens, we duly honor civil authorities who work for the common good, and we always stand compassionately with true refugees.
Regardless of our political convictions or fears, let us be sure to intercede in personal, corporate, and God-sized prayers for refugees, for those serving and loving them, and for the public servants making critical decisions about these concerns. Pray about national policy regarding refugees that is being made as we speak. Pray for the refugees in limbo and their immediate spiritual and human needs. Pray that the Lord would redeem their tragedies by leading them to Him.
And let us form our hearts around the sure promise that the fate of people and nations doesn’t rise or fall based on our efforts. As the apostle Paul reminds us: “God has determined the times set for all nations [ethnos, or ethnic groups] and the exact places where they should live. God did this so men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26b-27). Amen.
When the refugee family assigned to HPC finally gets here, how might you welcome them? For links to helpful resources on the refugee crisis and various Christian responses, visit the We Welcome Refugees website.