by Laurie Kraus (with Susan Krehbiel and Teresa Waggener)
The world is the midst of the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, with 65 million women, children and men on the move as they flee violence, deprivation and war. The last time there was a crisis of this magnitude, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) responded with the creation of new relief ministries, and in the six decades since, Presbyterians have been leaders in their communities to welcome refugees — providing welcome, legal aid, advocacy, support for resettlement and sanctuary.
Among those forcibly displaced from their homes are families from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Central America, the Middle East and North Africa, including 5 million Palestinians. At least 20 million of them will qualify as refugees — people forced to flee their countries due to war and persecution. In these circumstances, international humanitarian aid is critical to meeting the most basic needs: food and water, sanitation, shelter in addition to resources to secure education for their children and access to the legal services that may open the way out of displacement, detention and deprivation. Demonstrating solidarity with those who are suffering as “strangers and aliens” among us, whom the Bible repeatedly commands should be welcomed and treated as neighbors, is our privilege and Christian responsibility. But the heartbreaking fact is this: Less than 1 percent will be resettled in a third country they can call home (according to the UN Relief Agency).
Most Americans learn about refugees and the situations that force them to flee through the news and social media. Indeed, it was the massive media coverage of the death of a young 3-year-old, Aylan, found on the shore of the Aegean Sea last September that sparked many Presbyterians and others to find out how they might help. Refugee resettlement organizations were quickly overwhelmed by public inquiries even as the actual resettlement of Syrian refugees was stagnating. Not all the phone calls, however, were supportive. Refugee resettlement offices have also become a target for those who want to close our nation’s borders and to keep refugees out, particularly those from the Middle East or who practice the Islamic faith.
There is intense public and political debate these days about how welcoming or not we should be as a country. In times such as these, the warm welcome that many congregations are extending to refugees and asylum seekers takes on special significance.
The Syrian war, entering its sixth year, is the single largest humanitarian crisis in the world today: 13.5 million Syrians are in need of assistance within the country — half of whom are internally displaced, while another 5 million are living as refugees in the surrounding region, and over a half-million have fled to Europe in search of asylum. This denomination and our global partners are stepping up to assist as those affected exercise their agency in the midst of upheaval.
In Lebanon this year, the PC(USA), through its partnership with the National Evangelical Church of Lebanon and Syria, was able to open four refugee schools in the Bekaa Valley, Tyre and Minyara so that Syrian children who had not been to school since their families fled the country are finally able to attend school and have some sense of hope for the future in hard circumstances. A few hours north of the border, 46 families committed to supporting religious pluralism and civil society in Syria have had their homes in the city of Homs rebuilt so that they can join with the Presbyterian congregation there in restoring community to a city still shattered by the effects of war. PC(USA) gifts and the extraordinary commitment and faith of our partners in Syrian made this visionary effort possible — a genuine vision of the tree of life in the midst of the city, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
Other families are tired of waiting for peace in Syria. They are on the move. During Holy Week, former moderator Heath Rada, Derek Mcleod of Myers Park Presbyterian Church in North Carolina and representatives from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance were part of a delegation that traveled the migrant trail, encountering countries in Europe who exercised welcome in a way that made us long for the same kind of welcome in our own nation. Germany alone received nearly a million refugees.
Just as in the U.S., many Europeans are pressing their governments to welcome refugees. But Europe is closing its doors. “Whenever refugees start arriving in the wealthy countries, governments get nervous.” These words were spoken by an international leader in refugee relief speaking at a meeting of refugee relief organizations in December 2014. Refugees, already making a perilous journey, are now forced to choose even more dangerous paths. Those who survived passage over the Mediterranean were stunned and dismayed to learn in March that Europe was closing its doors.
During Holy Week this year, open reception centers in the Greek Islands became prisons overnight, as refugees were denied a chance at resettlement and asylum. Between January and May of this year, over 2,500 people died or went missing in the seas surrounding Europe. Compared with having accepted 200,000 refugees in a single year a few decades ago (according to the Pew Research Center) the government is only accepting 85,000 this year and is far behind in reaching even that modest annual goal. Whenever we fail to meet these goals, there are potential lives lost.
Through advocacy efforts supported by the PC(USA), people across the U.S. are remaining steadfast in their dedication to this humanitarian effort, advocating for higher refugee arrivals and letting the government know about it by using the hashtag: #WeChooseWelcome on social media.
Closer to home, there is still a critical refugee crisis on our own borders. More than 60,000 children arrived alone in the U.S. from Central America in 2014. Another 60,000 arrived as members of family units traveling to seek protection. The numbers declined in 2015, but are on the rise this year. When moms and children are being locked up, in brand new privately-run detention centers, Presbyterians are visiting them and protesting their detention. When families are released, Presbyterians are a vital part of the faith-based communities providing shelter and safe passage to their next destination. When asylum-seekers arrive in towns across our nation, Presbyterians are accompanying them to court. When they do not receive fair hearings and are at risk of getting picked up and deported in raids, churches are offering sanctuary.
Keep it up and keep one another and the world informed through social media using the hashtag: #WeChooseWelcome. We need each other and we need each other’s stories to keep the faith and to be the welcome of Christ to strangers who are our neighbors.
Laurie Kraus directs Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the national and international response agency for the PC(USA). Susan Krehbiel is Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s catalyst for refugees and asylum. Teresa Waggener is coordinator of immigration issues in the Office of the General Assembly.