Citizenship, Volunteerism and Refugees: My Perspective

I’m not a news junky.  I have enough drama in my own little world with my own little people. Sensationalized media bites put me on adrenalin overload. There are some news stories, though, that surface as part of a larger narrative and can’t be ignored. This past week’s chemical warfare attack on Syrians is that kind of story. The Syrians are not the first to endure the effects of civil war and brutality and they won’t be the last but their suffering is current and widespread and the images of barbaric ruthlessness haunting. If you’re a mom or dad, brother or sister, an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a son or daughter, you are not as far removed from this story as you may think even though the events occurred on the other side of the world. We all share humanity as God’s broken, fallen image bearers by design. We love our people, and we grieve when our own suffer and die. So do the Syrians and they matter to God so they should also matter to us.

Recently, a local media outlet interviewed me about refugees and how they are integrating into our West Michigan communities. It was my privilege to share my observations as a volunteer coordinator for our church, a local partner with Bethany Christian Services assisting refugees with resettlement.

Some Americans express concern about churches investing in international people at the expense of attending to the needs of our own citizens, especially veterans, the homeless and minorities. I can only speak for my church and confidently report that we are intentionally contributing our time, talent and treasure locally and beyond in an attempt to love and serve hurting, disenfranchised and marginalized people, both American and International, though my particular participation in our mission currently focuses on refugees.

This is what I attempted to communicate in that interview.

Church partnerships are key to optimizing successful acclimation of refugees into West Michigan communities. Social service agencies cannot closely attend to the personal needs of these families due to the sheer volume of case loads and appreciate church communities who “adopt” a family and walk with them through the maze of resettlement. My experience with Syrian refugees has been focused on 2 families that our church partnered with Bethany Christian Services to assist in the transition to life in our country and our community.  I have learned about resettlement as a result of walking with these families through that process.IMG_2818

Bethany Christian Services encouraged us to establish a volunteer team specifically focused on these areas of assistance:
Transportation and
Language Learning.
Our team includes about a dozen actively involved volunteers as well as several other families who have extended hospitality and friendship.  For everyone who has been involved, I can confidently say that serving these families has been an absolute delight and the benefits reciprocal.

Most often when refugees resettle in the USA, this is their second relocation.  First, they fled to a border country because of war and made a life for themselves there while waiting to complete the process of legal immigration to the USA. For our families, this process took years. In the border countries, teenagers are often excluded from the educational system and required to work 10-12 hour days to contribute to the family income while extended families are separated from one another and relocated all over the world. I think it’s important to understand that these families would like nothing better than to be reunited in their home nation but that isn’t possible so they’ve taken a courageous step to relocate to a foreign country and culture where they hope to forge a productive future within the confines of a free society that is not under the threat of war and violence. All of the refugees I know have come seeking peace.IMG_2792

As a Christian church, we are concerned about the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of our refugees and I believe that the gospel compels us to participate whollistically in helping them get a fresh start on a peaceful path. In the process, we find that we often receive more than we give because our lives are enriched by the friendships that are established with these international people.

On a personal level, refugees enrich my family’s culutural education. We home school and our friends teach us more about social studies than any textbook could. They introduce us to the customs, history, food, language and geography of their country. One of my daughters tutors them in English and gets Arabic lessons in return. We’ve enjoyed Kurdish dancing lessons and participated in a Kurdish wedding. We’ve shared major holidays together too and introduced them to many of our cultural and religious traditions.

I love the dialogue we share about politics and religion. It provides a magnification lens into the upheaval in Syria and the middle east that world news just can’t offer.  These folks have experienced the effects of a cruel dictatorship and they appreciate the freedoms we enjoy and the comparative decency and morality of our government system.

On a community level, the refugees I’ve been privileged to know have so much to offer to our communities. I’ve been employed as a social worker and unfortunately seen the undesirable results of an entitlement mentality on some American citizens. In contrast, these families come eager to work, even entry level jobs. Some of our resettling refugees have college degrees and were established in professional careers which are not transferrable internationally because of degree disparity and language barriers. They understand that the ladder to professional success will take time and effort and are committed to hard work, patience and education in order to make a better life for their families and pursue careers that match their talents, passions and giftings.

These folks also bring trade skills to the work force that are desirable to local employers. For example, the textile industry is prevalent in Turkey and we’ve been able to connect eager local employers with valuable employees in the market of industrial sewing.

Additionally, the refugee families I know are deeply appreciative of the support they’ve received and eager to pay it forward to the community through volunteerism, especially assisting other refugees in their resettlement.

Americans tend to be rugged individualists by original design and in many ways that has contributed to the success of this great nation but it is also valuable to rub shoulders with a perspective that tempers individualism with a deep and abiding sense of family commitment and loyalty.  Our refugees are people who don’t voluntarily move cross country for more self-actualizating employment.  They make personal choices that benefit the larger family unit. They live amongst their relatives and serve as first repsonders to family needs. They take care of their own elderly as much as is possible. They represent a model distinctly different from our default programs and services provided by the government and the contrast is worthy of our consideration.

The refugee families I’ve been privileged to befriend are deeply rooted in many of the same values I hold dear and this country was based on.
Faith and family and freedom.
They are loyal.
They are generous.
They are grateful.
They are resilient.
They are independent.
They are courageous.
They are hard working.
They are goal oriented.
They value education and are eager to learn.

Most importantly, they’re our friends. All of our volunteers who help them, love them and they love us back. Not only are we providing something crucial for these displaced individuals and families, they are providing something rich and rewarding for us when we take the time to know them and hear their stories.  I am a better citizen because my life has intersected with them.  They are valuable addition to the melting pot we call this great nation.

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