Voices: Reflections on Fear and Hope in Refugee Resettlement from the Frontlines

Bhutanese refugees take ESL classes with World Relief

By Susan Sperry, executive director of World Relief DuPage/Aurora in Illinois and member of New Community Covenant–Bronzeville in Chicago. The opinions expressed here are her own.

For 15 years, I have helped refugees resettle in the western suburbs of Chicago through World Relief. Refugees of diverse backgrounds, from all walks of life, and from dozens of countries. They have all fled war or persecution, and they all share a common experience of being given legal admittance to the United States after an often 18- to 24-month security screening process.  Their survival and journey here reflects a profound depth of courage and hope.

On January 27, the president signed a new executive order that will dramatically reduce the number of refugees able to be admitted to the United States each year from 110,000 to 55,000, suspend refugee resettlement for 120 days, and indefinitely stop Syrian refugee resettlement.

I understand why people ask what is wrong with suspending resettlement for three to four months if it means we will be safer. But security clearances are good for only a limited period of time. In the Middle East, they are good for only three months. Delaying resettlement means that everyone who had already been vetted will have to go through the process again from the beginning. That could take anywhere from several months to years.

The policy expressed in the executive order comes at a time when the world is facing the greatest refugee crisis in recorded history—with more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes because of persecution and conflict.

In the media attention and court cases that have ensued since then, work in resettlement agencies has only intensified as people come in with questions, stories, and fears. Refugees from Syria wonder if they will ever again see loved ones, who are still in dangerous situations.

Many eligible immigrants are rushing to apply for citizenship, concerned that permanent residency may not be so permanent. Religious minorities are realizing that the reduced refugee admissions ceiling may delay their persecuted family members from joining them here.

And I’ve heard over and over the painful question, “Are we still welcome in America?”

A Congolese mother hugs her long-time volunteer at the arrival of her high school son from Congo, after many years of separation.

Before the courts temporarily stayed the executive order, during one of our adult English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, the teacher gathered refugee students from many nationalities together. They were given translated summaries of the order, and the teacher gently walked the students through its meaning.

The group of Syrian students sat at the same table together. And as they read in their own language that Syrians were no longer being welcomed into the U.S., tears fell from their eyes.

Fear

The emotion I am hearing so often, from both Americans as well as refugees and immigrants, is the same—fear. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve felt fear too.

I’ve heard fear in the concerns that terrorists might sneak in with refugees, aiming to hurt our children, families, and our way of life. But many of us aren’t aware of the extreme vetting process that already takes place before refugees are admitted to the United States. And our fear is all too easily perpetuated by media soundbites and sensationalist reporting.

I’ve heard fear voiced by refugees who question whether they are welcome and safe. By Middle-Eastern refugees who are fearful to leave their homes. By immigrants of many backgrounds who worry about the risk of travel.

And fear has crept into me. Fear that I or my co-workers will become a target for hateful language or threats, as other colleagues across the country have been in the last year. Fear about the next difficult conversation. I feel supported by my congregation, but I fear that the broader evangelical community I belong to will reject me because of my commitment to stand with all refugees, including those of other faiths.

Fear is powerful. It is unpleasant. I can easily get lost in it.

These weeks I am learning that if I sit in fear for too long, I can give way to the world’s wisdom to self-protect, rather than the wisdom of God to love. And I can forget the larger kingdom I belong to.

We worship a God of the perfect love that can cast out all fear. We worship a God who commands us, “Do not fear” because he is with us. We worship a God who commands us to welcome the stranger and foreigner, and to care for the widow and orphan. And we worship a God who works through the movement of people around the world to build his kingdom.

Hope

Recently, nearly 1,000 people packed out a church in Wheaton for an information and advocacy night in response to the immigration-related executive orders. It quickly became an incredible display of welcome for refugees. And it filled me with hope, as I saw followers of Jesus demonstrate that they want to be the hands, face, and feet of Christ to neighbors near and far.

Hope is what sustains us. Hope that God is at work, redeeming and working through the evil in the world. Hope evidenced in the people of God speaking out against injustice, speaking up to say that refugees are welcome, and proclaiming that the good news of Jesus is available for all.

After our ESL students read the translated versions of the executive order, they heard from a teary teacher words of welcome and love and affirmation. She led them to stand up together, form a circle, and link arms. And everyone looked around at the beautiful array of cultures and languages and backgrounds joined together in a local church. People who were once strangers, scattered across the globe, could see an image of hope and God’s love in one another.

These days, I must consciously choose hope over fear. I must consciously choose to look for signs of God’s grace and presence. I must choose to act, to confront fear and turn it to God, and to take conscious steps to follow the way of Jesus, even when the path forward feels uncertain.

Far too often we are asked to pit one group of vulnerable people against another, or to value our own safety as more important than another’s. That may be our country’s values, but as people who belong to another kingdom, it cannot be ours. God has laid before us different values, centered around a worship of him that is reflected in how we treat others, fight injustice, and care for the vulnerable.

May I choose, every day, to embrace these kingdom values and live in hope, not fear.

A Way Forward

What are some ways we can love and welcome refugees during this time, and move toward hope rather than fear?

  1. Be present to refugees and immigrants in your life—whether family, friends, church community, or neighbors. Listen to, support, and love each other.
  2. Learn about refugees and the resettlement process, and seek reliable sources to answer questions. Seeking Refuge by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Issam Smeir, is a great resource, and includes a downloadable small group study guide. The book answers many practical questions about the security screening process and provides biblical insight for responding to the refugee crisis.
  3. Speak UpReach out to your federal representatives and the president to ask that the U.S. remain committed to resettlement as one solution to the refugee crisis. Ask your state and local leaders to continue to be welcoming to refugees.
  4. Give—Donate funds and/or volunteer time to agencies like World Relief who are serving refugees and immigrants in our communities and around the world. Our organization, like others, has had to lay off staff and cut salaries for some employees due to the lower number of refugees who will be allowed into the country. Share your time through volunteering with a resettlement agency or ESL program.
  5. Pray for an end to the conflicts that are creating refugees. Pray for families who are separated, that they will be brought together. Pray that God’s people will be known for showing love to all our neighbors next door, a mile away, a city away, a country away. And pray that God will continue to grow and build his church here and around the world.

 

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