Christmas season sparks increased support for refugees

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Dec 18, 2015

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the response to the global refugee crisis by The Episcopal Church and its ecumenical and interfaith partners. Other articles in the series are available here.

[Episcopal News Service] With the Christmas season at hand, some refugee resettlement ministries across The Episcopal Church report they have received more food, clothing and other donations for refugee families than in previous years, but their leaders say year-round connection is also needed.

In Lexington, Dabney Parker of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, who matches local communities of faith with newly arriving families, said the agency has received many donations and offers of help. “It’s all very good.”

Similarly, ministries in Minnesota and Massachusetts that help to resettle refugees and asylum-seekers say the Christmas season often sparks increased assistance but they hope that support and engagement will continue beyond the holiday season.

“I will never negate donations, because they benefit refugees directly … but the greatest impact anyone can have in the lives of refugees – and in their own lives – is to get to know someone who has arrived as a refugee,” said Laura Svoboda, assistant director of Refugee Services for the Minnesota Council of Churches, an affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries, The Episcopal Church’s refugee resettlement agency.

“In no way will you not be impacted if you open your life to that,” she said. “It’s wonderful and great to buy a jacket or to do those things, but what’s going on in the world, all the rhetoric and negativity, is most combated by relationships.”

Several ministries throughout the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe have grown or adapted in light of the refugee crisis that has seen some 2 million people escaping civil war, religious extremism and persecution in Africa and the Middle East.

Love in a Box, a ministry of the American Cathedral in Paris, has for more than a decade distributed gifts at Christmas time for orphans and disadvantaged children throughout Europe.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, several packing shifts are organized with volunteers from local schools and scout groups loading boxes and backpacks with practical gifts, toys and candy.

This year, the ministry is heading to “the jungle,” the nickname given to the refugee camp in Calais, France.

American Cathedral Dean Lucinda Laird and Convocation Bishop Pierre Whalon will visit the camp in the days before Christmas.

Laird said that from what she has read about “the jungle” she is expecting the worst, in terms of squalor, poverty and despair. “Paris is wonderful at Christmastime; it would be so much easier not to go to Calais,” she said. “But as we prepare to celebrate the birth of one who had no place to lay his head, and whose birth was in a stable, nothing could be more clear: here is the Christ, and we serve him in these people. ‘For I was a stranger and you welcomed me…'”

In Munich, Germany, St. Nicholas paid a visit to the former Bavarian army barracks that has become the home of 1,400 refugees, many of whom have arrived in the past few months. The refugee center is run by the Innere Mission and the Asylum Seeker Center, the latter founded 30 years ago by the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Munich and its Roman Catholic and Lutheran partners.

The Rev. Steven Smith, Ascension’s rector, has played the part of St. Nicholas for the last seven Decembers. In his first years as St. Nicholas, most of the refugees were from Eastern Europe. But that changed: More and more refugees were from Afghanistan and Iraq, Smith said, and now almost all of the refugees are from Syria, with a few from Afghanistan.

“I do not go as Santa Claus; I go as the Christian saint, St. Nicholas. There is a Christmas tree, and traditional German Christmas cookies and treats,” he said. “So it is sort of surreal to be dressed as a Christian saint, sitting next to a Christmas tree and handing out gifts to Muslim refugees. It is surprising how many of the kids and their parents know St. Nicholas.”

Smith said there is “something special about sharing human contact, food, time and gift-giving between Christians and Muslims.” He added that the ministry is “based on the Anglican understanding that as Christians we are called to be the human voice and hands of the God who came to earth in the incarnate babe in the manger. We carry on the mission that began at the Nativity. Christ’s mission crosses all boundaries, including religion.”

Whalon said it has been “so heartening to see how, across the board, our 21 churches in Europe have responded to the current refugee crisis. Even our smallest have been raising funds by hosting dinners, visiting camps with goods and food, and showing the love of Christ to all they meet. As I visit the terrible camp in Calais with Dean Lucinda Laird and cathedral parishioners, it is once again an occasion to rejoice for what God is able to do for ‘the least of these’ in Europe, through the Episcopal Church.”

Back in the U.S., in the Lexington area, about 40 percent of refugees resettled through the Kentucky Refugee Ministries are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to executive director Barbara Kleine.

Overall, the agency resettled about 278 people last year from Iraq, Bhutan, Burma and Afghanistan, and is “heavily reliant on volunteers and church partners” to help provide much-needed English tutoring and other services.

“If you can imagine being a family and arriving with very little more than the clothes on your back, a couple of suitcases and not knowing the language, it would be quite a shock,” Kleine said. “We provide all of the services to help them become as self-sufficient as quickly as possible.”

Parker said the Christmas season has brought financial contributions and an abundance of donations of food, clothing and personal hygiene items – generosity that she hopes will continue into the new year.

Several new partnerships are planned in 2016, she added.

A Dec. 19 party for about 40 children of refugee families is a yearly event organized in Atlanta by the refugee resettlement ministry of All Saints Church, which partners with New American Pathways, an Episcopal Migration Ministries affiliate. (Separate story here.)

In Boston, the Rev. Ruth Bersin, executive director of the Refugee Immigration Ministry, said the agency will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. The agency provides community-based services primarily to asylum-seekers, uprooted and often isolated persons who “are afraid to go back home … and don’t get the benefits that refugees get when they arrive.”

She works to develop “clusters of volunteers” across faith lines that help integrate the newly arrived into the greater Boston community “and help them heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.” RIM assisted about 25 people last year, Bersin said. “We have 13 on the waiting list right now and will place them as soon as there’s an opening.”

The clusters raise money to pay for expenses and other necessities of life for those they are assisting, Bersin said. The agency also offers English-language tutoring, case management, housing, financial, medical, dental, and other support, mostly with the newly arrived from Afghanistan, Nigeria, Congo, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Sudan and Uganda and, eventually, Syria.

“It is very good for members of our congregations to be engaged with people in other faiths, other denominations, because it’s enriching to them,” said Bersin.

“Working with people, whether refugees or asylum-seekers who have been through so much and come through with so much resilience is an inspirational and strengthening thing. When we welcome the stranger, it’s for our benefit as well as theirs. It strengthens our faith, our own resiliency, and it’s an honor to work with them.”

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

Resources for education and response

  • The most recent updates from Episcopal Relief & Development about its response to the refugee crisis, as well as ways to donate, are available here.
  • Episcopal Migration Ministries, the refugee resettlement service of The Episcopal Church, works with local resettlement partners, congregations, and individual volunteers, to welcome refugees to the United States from the world’s most war-torn places.