Episcopal Church to reach 100,000 people served in 40 years of refugee resettlement services

By David Paulsen
Posted Dec 8, 2021
Ali Al Sudani meets with refugees

Ali Al Sudani, chief programs officer for Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston in Texas, meets with some of refugees served by the organization, an affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries. Photo courtesy of Ali Al Sudani

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Migration Ministries is nearing a milestone in the church’s 40-year history of participation in the U.S. refugee resettlement program: Sometime this month, the church will have helped more than 100,000 people establish new homes in the United States after fleeing war, violence and persecution in their home countries.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many of those refugees came from East Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe. In recent years, the new arrivals most commonly have been displaced by turmoil in Burma, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to State Department data. And in the past four months, Episcopal Migration Ministries, or EMM, and its affiliated local organizations have scrambled to welcome thousands of Afghan evacuees who were allowed into the United States after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August.

While each new neighbor has a personal story to share, all 100,000 have benefited from the support of local Episcopalians and a range of federally funded services provided by EMM’s affiliates, including English language and cultural orientation classes, employment services, school enrollment, and initial assistance with housing and transportation.

“They all have one underlying common thread, and that is they are people who needed protection. They were seeking safety and security,” EMM Director of Operations Demetrio Alvero told Episcopal News Service. He estimated that the church would pass the milestone in the week leading up to Christmas. “The 100,000 represents 100,000 lives that have changed; they found security in this country, they found hope, opportunities.”

EMM’s work is historically rooted in the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief, which began assisting people from Europe fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. After World War II, The Episcopal Church partnered with 16 other Protestant denominations to create Church World Service to provide overseas aid and resettlement assistance for displaced people. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, thousands of Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in U.S. communities with The Episcopal Church’s help.

The current federal refugee resettlement program was created in 1980, and The Episcopal Church participated from the start, through the Presiding Bishop’s Fund. EMM was established in 1988 as a separate agency to coordinate The Episcopal Church’s resettlement work.

Ali Al Sudani is one of the nearly 100,000 people who have received assistance from The Episcopal Church to resettle in the United States. He was 36 when he arrived in Houston, Texas, as a refugee in 2009. Al Sudani told ENS he had fled his native Iraq over threats to his safety because of his work as a translator for the U.S.-led coalition of troops stationed in his country.

Al Sudani now serves as chief programs officer for Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, the EMM affiliate that helped welcome him to Houston 12 years ago. He praised the Episcopal agency’s continued commitment to serving refugees as the church approaches its resettlement milestone.

“As a beneficiary of The Episcopal Church’s support, I think this is beautiful,” Al Sudani said when asked about the significance of 100,000 people resettled. EMM and Interfaith Ministries not only eased his transition into the Houston community, he said. They also helped him find a sense of purpose through his work helping other refugees start new lives there. “I will always be grateful for this opportunity.”

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention regularly expresses its support for refugee resettlement, most recently in 2018, when it called on governments “to expand refugee resettlement as a humanitarian response that offers individuals safety and opportunity.” Its support for immigrants dates back at least as far as 1883, when it created a Committee for the Spiritual Care of Immigrants. Subsequent chaplaincies were based in New York and ports on the West Coast to minister to immigrants coming from Europe and Asia.

Most of the 100,000 people resettled by the church in the past 40 years have come to the United States as refugees. EMM also assists recipients of special immigrant visas, which the government typically offers to people who have worked with the U.S. military overseas.

This year, EMM was asked to assist about 3,200 Afghan evacuees as they arrive in cities like Houston. Some may be able to apply for special immigrant visas, while others will apply for asylum. They are among the 50,000 Afghans who were welcomed into the country under a humanitarian parole program tied to the end of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Though not classified as refugees, they will receive services similar to those provided to refugees by EMM and the other eight agencies with federal contracts to carry out the resettlement program. The other agencies are Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the International Rescue Committee, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and World Relief Corporation.

Syrian refugee

Syrian refugee Ahmad al Aboud and his family members, on their way to be resettled in the United States as part of a refugee admissions program, walk to board their plane in Amman, Jordan, in 2016. Photo: Reuters

Helping refugees “is a tangible way of living out our commitment to be a church that looks and acts like Jesus, sharing his way of love with all, especially the most vulnerable among us,” the Rev. Charles Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond The Episcopal Church, said in a written statement to ENS. “While EMM is one of the smaller of the nine official resettlement agencies for the United States, it has been acknowledged as a model of excellence in this vital work.”

Alvero, EMM’s director of operations, said the agency typically resettles about 5% of the total refugees brought to the country through the federal program. Historically, EMM has served about 2,000 to 3,000 refugees a year, with a peak of 6,600 resettled in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. At that time, EMM oversaw the work of 31 resettlement affiliates in 26 dioceses.

Refugee resettlement plummeted during the Trump administration, as President Donald Trump pursued policies to restrict both legal and illegal immigration. Trump slashed the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States to a historic low of 15,000 a year, down from a norm of between 70,000 and 90,000 during the previous two decades.

The diminished resettlement activity forced the nine resettlement agencies to end their work with about 100 local affiliates, Alvero said, and EMM’s number of affiliates has since decreased to 11.

Global resettlement needs, meanwhile, have only increased in recent years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are 26 million such refugees worldwide, and tens of millions more have been displaced within their home countries.

With President Joe Biden taking office in January, his administration pledged to work with EMM and other resettlement agencies to restore a spirit of welcome to refugees fleeing war and persecution in their home countries. Biden increased the resettlement cap to 125,000 for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, though it remains uncertain how soon EMM and the other resettlement agencies will be able to ramp up their operations to accommodate additional refugees awaiting resettlement.

“This country is big enough and rich enough really to assist 125,000,” Alvero said, but the government needs to restore its overseas processing operations to full capacity while the resettlement agencies rebuild networks that were decimated under Trump. EMM has not yet added new affiliates, though it is researching options in Kansas, West Virginia and Wyoming, a state that has no prior history of refugee resettlement.

For the Afghans who arrived in the United States under the humanitarian parole program, EMM has invited Episcopalians and their congregations and dioceses to support the resettlement work by making donations online to the Neighbors Welcome: Afghan Allies Fund and by volunteering in other ways, which they can do after filling out an online form.

Donations to the Afghan Allies Fund have topped $500,000 so far, Alvero said.

Afghan refugee girls watch a soccer match near where they are staying at the Fort McCoy U.S. Army base in Wisconsin on Sept. 30. Photo: Reuters.

The Afghans initially were housed at U.S. military bases. Many of them now are making their way to Houston, where Interfaith Ministries is in the middle of welcoming an estimated 1,300 individuals, Al Sudani said. About 730 already have moved to the city. Most of the remaining are expected by mid-February.

The number of arrivals is unprecedented in such a short period of time, he said, but the community and The Episcopal Church are stepping up. “We have seen an outpouring of support during this crisis in a manner that we haven’t experienced it before,” he said.

He recalled a similar experience when he first arrived in Houston in 2009, not knowing what to expect. “My perception about Houston was about oil and, you know, the Wild West, cowboys. But I was surprised how welcoming and generous and supportive the people of Houston are. It’s a great city to be in.”

Now, with Interfaith Ministries and other EMM affiliates about to begin welcoming the church’s next 100,000 refugees, Al Sudani, who became a U.S. citizen in 2014, said the underlying mission endures. “We are creating new Americans,” he said. “We are helping these people to become new Americans and support them as they contribute to their communities.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.