World Refugee Day a chance to highlight church’s resettlement work

By Lucy Chumbley
Posted Jun 20, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] On the eve of today’s observance of World Refugee Day, about 150 people gathered in a U.S. House of Representatives conference room to honor the legacy of Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) for working to bring attention to the plight of displaced people and refugees, and to celebrate those who continue such advocacy.

Five members of Congress spoke at the event, of which Episcopal Migration Ministries was a sponsor, and former New Jersey Assemblyman William D. Payne offered an emotional tribute to his brother, who died March 6.

But perhaps the most moving testimony came from a man who never met Donald Payne, yet whose life was profoundly affected by him: Darfuri human rights activist Abdalmageed Haroun.

Haroun described how, while in prison in 2009 for his involvement in human rights work in Sudan, the guard who usually came to torture him arrived in the middle of the night with a letter in his hands and asked, “Who is Donald Payne?”

That letter set off a chain of events that eventually led to Haroun’s arrival in the United States as a refugee and inspired his continuing advocacy work on behalf of Darfur with the Human Rights and Advocacy Network for Democracy (

“I went to his funeral in March,” Haroun said. “I didn’t meet him, but I still keep his letters with me. There’s a lot of people … they don’t know you, but they’ll help you.”

It’s work the Episcopal Church has engaged in for years, from resettlement efforts across the country overseen by EMM and its partners and affiliates to the advocacy work of the church’s Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C.

Resettlement efforts
Episcopal Migration Ministries, based at the Episcopal Church’s New York offices, is one of nine national agencies working in partnership with the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Resettlement Program.

Supported by the Episcopal Church and a range of government grants, EMM – which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2013 – works with 31 affiliate offices in 22 states and 28 Episcopal dioceses. Its primary function is to provide support and assistance to help new arrivals find their footing during their first, critical days in the United States.

“We have a very diverse and broad-ranging network, geographically widely diffused,” said Daniel Trudeau, a program manager for EMM. “We assist thousands of refugees annually, working together with faith groups and volunteers to help these newcomers find work and adjust to life in their community.”

The U.S. State Department defines refugees as those who have fled their home country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately 10.5 million refugees in the world today. Of these, most will remain in the country where they sought refuge until they can return home safely. A small number will be granted citizenship in the country to which they fled, and less than 1 percent – those at the highest risk – will be resettled in a third country.

Since 1975, the State Department reports, the United States has welcomed close to 3 million refugees from around the world. This accounts for more than half of all third-party resettlements.

In 2011, EMM and its affiliates assisted more than 3,600 refugees from 34 countries by providing hospitality, housing and help with finding everything from medical care to language classes and employment during their first 90 to 180 days in the country.

EMM’s work begins, Trudeau said, when it receives word from the State Department that refugees who have requested asylum have been evaluated, screened and declared ready for travel, and confirms an office is ready to accept them.

“Each agency has a different profile and a different ability to receive and resettle,” he said. “Some are able to deal with multiple groups, while others focus on helping refugees from a particular place.”

Placement decisions are made through a collaborative process with the State Department and are based on factors such as family reunification, employment opportunities and the availability of social services, Trudeau said. Once they are on U.S. soil, refugees are free to go where they choose, he added. “It’s a very complicated process.”

Along with adjusting to differences in language, culture and cuisine, many refugees also are dealing with the absence of family members and sometimes psychological trauma.

“In the first days after their arrival, people are at their most vulnerable and in need of support,” Trudeau said.

Arriving in America
Refugee populations served by EMM include Eritreans, Somalis, Congolese, Cubans and Colombians, Trudeau said. But the largest number currently come from Burma, an ethnically diverse country where numerous groups are being persecuted by the government; from Bhutan, where ethnic Nepalese were forced out 20 years ago and have yet to see their situation resolved; and from Iraq.

New arrivals are met at the airport by a case worker, taken to an apartment equipped for their arrival and given a culturally appropriate meal, said Molly Short, executive director of Journey’s End Refugee Services, an EMM affiliate partner in Buffalo, New York.

Often they arrive after midnight following a grueling journey, so refugees are left to sleep after a brief safety orientation (what to do in case of emergency). A case worker visits within 24 hours – typically to take the refugee family to the bank and the grocery store. In the days following, they are walked through a series of appointments, such as registration for Social Security, social services and school enrollment.

“It can be overwhelming,” Short said. “There’s a lot of information, and it’s so different.”

Each case is different, too, she stressed. “Every population is different. But, more importantly, every individual is different, and that’s why we focus on giving them individualized care. In the same day, we could welcome in a farmer and a scientist from the same ethnic background.”

It typically takes families about five years to adjust fully to their new life, Short said.

Sometimes – as in the case of one Somali woman – a refugee’s previous life leaves a long shadow.

A year after arriving and getting settled, Short said, this woman came into the Journey’s End office to fill out her U.S. Immigration Green Card application and broke down in tears. For the first time, she described how, when soldiers invaded, she gave her baby to her two older sons and told them to run. She was raped and tortured, fled and became pregnant in the refugee camp. Eventually, the pain of being separated from her children and not knowing where they were had become unbearable.

“She went through what for a woman is the worst form of torture,” Short said.

Following her painful revelation, Journey’s End helped her find mental health services. Eventually, it located her sons.

“They aren’t here yet, but they’ll come,” Short said. “She talks to them on the phone, has photographs.”

A new life emerges in layers. “It doesn’t happen right away,” Short said. “It takes time for people to tell their story. But when they’re ready, they do it.”

Advocacy work
For Katie Conway, immigration and refugee policy analyst for the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, World Refugee Day is a chance to reflect on the end result of the Episcopal Church’s advocacy work – resettling refugees.

“I think it is an opportunity for education, but also for celebrating,” she said of the day the United Nations established in 2000 to honor the courage, strength and determination of those forced to flee their homes. “It’s about celebrating the successes, because that’s really what the program is about at its end.”

Conway’s advocacy work is rooted in Executive Council and General Convention resolutions relating to refugees and immigrants.

“I am not involved at all in suggesting resolutions,” she said, adding that she is keeping track of proposed legislation for the 77th General Convention, set for July 5-12 in Indianapolis. “It’s my job to represent the church and provide expert opinion, but it’s up to the people in the church to decide what they want their priorities to be.”

The 20 or so resolutions that currently inform her work run the gamut from very specific regional requests to broad-based ones, such as advocating for a just system of asylum.

Conway’s work takes many forms. She serves on an advocacy committee for the Refugee Council USA, a coalition of organizations committed to welcoming and protecting refugees that works to shape legislation. She attends hearings for relevant bills or watches them on CSPAN, occasionally submitting a statement from the Episcopal Church into the record. She keeps an eye on appropriations markups (the process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend and rewrite proposed legislation). She sometimes puts out an alert via the Episcopal Public Policy Network and also produces a monthly newsletter on immigration and refugee issues, which includes legislative updates, news articles and resources.

Deborah Stein, director of EMM, chairs RCUSA’s Resettlement Committee, and Conway said she works closely with EMM to have a unified message and goal.

“They’re the people implementing the refugee resettlements, so I like to talk to them as often as I can,” she said. “Also, if I hear of anything I like to keep them informed.”

She currently is tracking bills in New Hampshire and Tennessee that aim to reduce the numbers of refugees resettled in those locations. “The conversation on immigration has gotten so ugly, it’s extending to refugees as well,” she said.

At the Refugee Council, Conway said, a chief concern is clearing security-check backlogs, which are causing a bottleneck in the refugee-resettlement process, particularly for Iraqis. Because of these delays, the numbers of refugees entering the United States, set each year by the administration in consultation with Congress, has dropped in the last few years and now hovers at around 80,000.

How to help
Parishes and individuals, Trudeau said, are encouraged to co-sponsor refugees through EMM’s affiliate offices, increasing the program’s capacity and success through financial or volunteer assistance.

“There’s a lot of really inspiring things that take place when a congregation gets together and commits themselves to a family,” he said. “And there’s a lot of different ways of doing it. We’ve seen a lot of different models.”

Not used widely outside the Episcopal Church, the co-sponsorship model distinguishes the program as it offers refugees a greater level of support and connection, he said. “It’s the difference between having a great start and taking time to get your bearings and struggling a little more.”

He’d like to see every refugee family and individual have a co-sponsor, he said. “Co-sponsorship is great for refugees and for the church as well.”

“I think it provides a common sense of purpose, and it can really bring people together, and that can really be a very tangible and direct way of feeling like they’re contributing to God’s community.”

EMM’s 31 affiliate offices are all within the bounds of Episcopal dioceses, Trudeau said. “What we really want most is to connect those dioceses and churches with our offices. We want the church to be as involved as possible, on the local level and elsewhere.”

•    To learn more about co-sponsoring a refugee, visit here.
•    One of these short videos filmed at EMM affiliates around the country can be used as the topic of a Sunday forum:
•    To receive updates on refugees, immigration and other areas in which the church has an interest, join the Episcopal Public Policy Network here.
•    Bulletin inserts, updates and other educational materials pertaining to refugees and immigrants can be found here.

— Lucy Chumbley is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.