Groups of people have long fled their homes due to war, drought, starvation, natural disasters, political unrest and other forms of persecution. The Bible is a story of refugees, from Adam and Eve to Jesus and the disciples. In fact, we are all refugees from the Garden of Eden, still seeking the restoration of the kingdom of God. The Bible is also full of exhortations to welcome and care for the stranger, as in Leviticus 19:34: "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."
The world refugee population equals over 65 million forcibly displaced people. Of these, approximately 21.3 million are refugees, and half of those are children. The largest populations are from Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan/South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1).
What is refugee resettlement?
Refugee is a legal term defined by the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 as anyone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted … is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling” to return to their home country (2).
Resettlement is the final option for refugees who cannot return home or integrate into the countries that first offered them asylum. Resettlement is difficult, the process takes years and, at current rates, less than 1 percent of refugees will ever be resettled (3).
The Department of Homeland Security confers refugee status on eligible individuals who are applying from outside the United States. Refugee resettlement is the process of bringing them from their country of first asylum to a third country. Asylum seekers apply for protected status from inside the United States or at a port of entry; once approved by DHS or an immigration judge, they are known as asylees (4).
By definition, all refugees who are resettled in the United States, and all asylees, are legal immigrants. Some asylum seekers enter the country without documentation, but they are permitted to remain while their applications are pending, and once they are granted asylum, they are fully lawful residents of the United States (5).
Refugees in Massachusetts
Since 2009, about 2,000 refugees a year have been resettled in our Commonwealth (6). About 47 percent of those end up in eastern Massachusetts, 25 percent in central Massachusetts and 28 percent in western Massachusetts (7). Refugees arrive in Massachusetts from all over the world. Massachusetts welcomed 209 Syrian refugees and 129 refugees from Latin America in fiscal year 2016 (8).
The state government supports refugee resettlement through the Office for Refugees and Immigrants. ORI administers programs that provide direct services to clients through a network of voluntary resettlement agencies (9).
What is the Episcopal Church’s stance on refugees?
From the work of individuals and congregations in our diocese to the ministries of our wider church, the Episcopal Church has a robust tradition of standing with refugees. In the words of our Presiding Bishop, Michael B. Curry: “[W]e welcome the stranger. We love our neighbor. The Episcopal Church has long been committed to resettling refugees in our own communities fleeing violence and persecution.” (10)
General Convention and Executive Council have passed many resolutions over the years in support of fair refugee policy, from general support for “a just system of asylum for persecuted persons” to specific calls for protections for Sudanese, Syrians, Colombians, Haitians and more.
What can we do?
Episcopalians throughout eastern Massachusetts feel called to act. The question is: Where to start? There are multiple organizations in place that support refugees in a variety of ways:
- Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), the refugee resettlement program of the Episcopal Church, which collaborates with local partner agencies in 27 Episcopal dioceses and 23 states to welcome those fleeing persecution
- Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN), a grassroots network of Episcopalians dedicated to the active ministry of public policy advocacy
- Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), the largest organization in New England promoting the rights and integration of immigrants and refugees
- Episcopal Relief & Development, the international relief and development agency of the Episcopal Church
- Refugee Council USA (RCUSA), a coalition dedicated to refugee protection, welcome and excellence in the U.S. refugee resettlement program
- Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency
Most of these organizations provide regular e-mail updates of excellent and timely information.
Individual and congregational efforts can include any combination of the following:
- Some choose a prayer practice. Some examples can be found here, and other liturgical resources can be found here.
- Seeking and sharing information is fundamental to understanding the context of refugees, from their home country to the refugee vetting process to their resettlement. Click here for a suggested reading list, and learn more at the Web sites above.
- Some engage in advocacy work, which generally focuses on contact with your locally elected state and federal representatives. Click here to find your representatives and here for a toolkit containing general and specific resources for advocacy in 2017.
- Organizations that support refugees and provide aid to areas afflicted by conflicts and disasters are always in need of financial donations.
Refugee resettlement as a ministry
Refugee resettlement and asylum seeker ministry are global mission on our doorstep. It is an opportunity to get to know, to share, to accompany and to be reconciled with another of God’s children, regardless of their faith.
Episcopal Migration Ministries’ affiliate in Massachusetts is Ascentria Care Alliance. Other refugee resettlement agencies in Massachusetts include:
- Refugee & Immigrant Assistance Center, Jamaica Plain and Worcester offices
- Jewish Family Service of Metrowest, Framingham
- Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, Springfield and Pittsfield
- Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Boston, South Boston office
- Catholic Charities, Worcester County, Worcester office
- International Institute of New England, Boston and Lowell offices
- Refugee Immigration Ministry, Malden
Check with the individual agency to learn about opportunities for individual and/or congregational partnerships.
There are many ways, big and small, to support refugees in their resettlement process. Something as simple as a weekly visit for tea and conversation, giving time to answer questions and allow a newcomer to practice their English, can be an important ministry to a new refugee.
Congregations that would like to develop a relationship with a local family or community of refugees or asylum seekers can apply for a matching grant that might be used to assist with rent, medical expenses, legal expenses, job training, professional certifications and other one-time, non-consumable expenses beyond the assistance provided by resettlement agencies.
In the end, our diocesan response to the refugee crisis depends on you – the people and congregations of this diocese. Global mission personnel are ready to help with resources, guides, contacts, videos and phone numbers, and are delighted to come out and talk to congregations and outreach committees, to preach, to guide through discernment.
The Rev. Holly Hartman, Deacon for Global Partnerships, at email@example.com or 617-482-4826, ext. 351