Wisconsin affiliate prepares to welcome refugees as Episcopal Migration Ministries expands

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 13, 2024
Afghan refugees

Sanaullah, son of an Afghan refugee and tribal leader Wazir Khan Zadran who had fought against the powerful Haqqani network of the Taliban, converse with his mother Noorina in the kitchen at their new home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in January 2023. Photo: Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Migration Ministries has three new affiliates since the Biden administration rejuvenated the federal refugee resettlement program, and one in Wisconsin is preparing to welcome a refugee family for the first time.

Love INC of Sheboygan County has been working with Grace Episcopal Church, the church’s ecumenical partners and city leaders for more than two years to reestablish a refugee resettlement operation in Sheboygan, a city of 50,000 on the shore of Lake Michigan halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay. A Catholic Charities branch in Sheboygan previously had resettled refugees there but stopped after the Trump administration sharply reduced the number of refugees allowed into the United States.

Syrian refugee

Syrian refugees in Jordan prepare to board their plane to be resettled in the United States in 2016. Photo: Reuters

Episcopal Migration Ministries, or EMM, is one of 10 agencies that have contracts with the U.S. State Department and receive federal funding to implement refugee resettlement through local offices and affiliates. EMM has provided training and resources for Love INC to begin resettling refugees in Sheboygan, and the first family of three is due to arrive there sometime in the coming weeks.

“EMM is extremely committed to the success of this program based upon each refugee’s experience in it,” Tandra Sbrocco, executive director of Love INC, told Episcopal News Service. Her agency – its initials stand for “in the name of Christ” – shares with EMM a desire for “every single person that comes here through the refugee resettlement program to succeed and thrive in their new lives in this community.”

The recent expansion of EMM’s resettlement efforts is a welcome reversal from the contraction experienced during the Trump administration. The former president 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.

EMM’s resettlement work had peaked at 6,600 refugees assisted in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. At that time, EMM coordinated with 31 resettlement affiliates in 26 dioceses, but under Trump, the number of EMM affiliates decreased to 11.

When President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, 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 a year, though it has taken time for EMM and other resettlement agencies to build back the program’s capacity after it was nearly dismantled.

Global resettlement needs, meanwhile, have only increased in recent years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are more than 35 million such refugees worldwide, and tens of millions more people have been displaced within their home countries.

In the 2023 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, EMM was able to help resettle 3,026 refugees, as well as 571 people who came to the country under a separate of special immigrant visa program. This fiscal year, EMM expects to resettle over 6,000 individuals.

During Biden’s term, one former EMM affiliate in Austin, Texas, closed in summer 2023, though it has been replaced by three new affiliates, bringing EMM’s current total to 13. In addition to Love INC of Sheboygan, EMM has new affiliates in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Huntsville, Alabama.

Congo refugees

Children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who have received refugee status, stand outside a temporary hotel residence in Boise, Idaho, in October 2021. Photo: Reuters

Love INC “joins us during a pivotal moment as we are expanding our network so that we may offer welcome to ever-increasing numbers of forcibly displaced individuals,” Sarah Shipman, EMM’s director of operations, said in a written statement for this article. “Episcopal Migration Ministries is excited to be a part of the rich history of refugee resettlement in Wisconsin.”

That history dates back at least to the late 1970s, when Sheboygan was among several Wisconsin communities that began welcoming large numbers of Hmong refugees fleeing persecution in Southeast Asian homelands for their support of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

The Rev. Paul Aparicio, a deacon at Grace Episcopal Church, recalls growing up in Sheboygan and playing with Hmong refugee children whose families were supported by the congregation as they established new roots in Wisconsin. Today, he said, church members recognize that historic support as “part of their identity” and feel called to help resume refugee resettlement in the city.

“We are recognizing Christ being embodied in all of these refugees,” Aparicio, who also serves as Love INC’s board chair, told ENS. “When they come here, they are very much needing God’s love.”

Since the 1980s, EMM has helped more than 100,000 people establish new homes in the United States after fleeing war, violence and persecution in their home countries. EMM affiliates, with support from local congregations, offer a range of federally funded services, including English language and cultural orientation classes, employment services, school enrollment, and initial assistance with housing and transportation.

“If you don’t have buy-in from your local community, the resettlement is going to be nothing but an uphill battle,” Aparicio said, but the community of Sheboygan has rallied around welcoming these new arrivals.

Love INC already has three refugee cases assigned to it, including the family of three due to arrive soon. Sbrocco said she is not allowed to say which countries they are from, though lately, the largest numbers of refugees served by EMM are coming from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria.

Refugee resettlement aligns naturally with Love INC’s mission of developing relationships with neighbors in need and serving them “in the name of Christ” while respecting their dignity as individuals, Sbrocco said. “If we’re not going to ultimately take the opportunity to showcase the love of Christ to an unbelieving world, then who will?”

Love INC was approved for federal funding to facilitate refugee resettlement in the initial phase, the first 90 days after the refugees arrive. It and its ecumenical partners expect to continue supporting those refugees informally after that time expires. Grace Episcopal Church is one of 37 partner churches across 18 denominations involved with Love INC.

“We don’t exist without them,” Sbrocco said.

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