For about 3 years while Bobby attended seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, we partnered up with a handful of peers to live among refugees in our city.
At that time, they were placed in the worst apartment complex in town, since it was the only housing the refugee stipend could afford before they needed to fully support themselves.
Cockroaches infested most apartments, and crime was rampant. A deaf refugee woman was gang raped while we lived there, and gunshots echoed off of the bricks. Police cars couldn’t freely roam through the “private” community, but when their lights cast eerie flickers against our windows, we felt scared.
Several refugee resettlement organizations’ complained about the apartment management’s gross lack of security, so the apartment administration sent out a letter explaining they were not responsible for any tenant’s safety.
In response, some refugees planned ways to protect themselves. Some moved to safer cities with stronger culturally similar communities. Others were crippled by culture shock, asking to be sent back to their camps.
After I moved overseas, when I didn’t experience culture shock in my new country, I reflected how that could be possible. I realized I had significantly more culture shock in my own country in that neighborhood surrounded by so much crime and poverty. The refugees had their issues, but they weren’t the cause of my culture shock.
I have a sick feeling in my stomach understanding some refugees are going from war-torn countries to another dangerous home. One refugee family from Cote d’Ivoire saw their father and uncle murdered with machetes. The son was forced to walk across burning coals. He was made fun of at his high school because of his limp and accent. Without a “man of the house” they did fear living in our neighborhood and were among the most vulnerable. A haven country is supposed to be a haven. At least, that’s where logic would leave me to believe.
The Church’s Responsibility to God for Loving Foreign People
Though many refugee resettlement programs are more comprehensive outside of the US, for the most part in the US, refugee resettlement agencies need the support of compassionate churches to make sure that these sojourners make a successful transition. It’s a wonderful opportunity for service and outreach, as refugees, and even legal immigrants, need a huge helping hand.
The nations have come to your doorstep, and kindness goes a long way in changing hearts. Even if hearts don’t change, we are commanded to be kind to the foreigner in our midst. It is an express purpose God clearly commands of his people.
I want to be clear that this isn’t something that believers should do if “called.” No, social justice is a command. Believers are to love the vulnerable and triumph their causes.
And, they definitely need the church’s help. My resettlement experience as an educated, well-to-do expat living in China was a breeze compared to what refugees face. I am grieved by how hard it is for refugees and legal immigrants to survive in the US. Somewhere along the line of UN status as refugee to resettlement, refugees are told that everything will be better when they reach the US. When they arrive and try to adjust, a sharp needle of reality pops the elusive, misconstrued version of the American dream.
There’s a reason Americans have the common cultural phrase, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” That’s what refugees have to do to survive in the US if they’re not given support outside of the US’s minimal refugee resettlement program.
Walls to Practical Love
First, proximity is an issue the church must overcome.
I have a suspicion that because of US refugee resettlement programs’ tendency to just place refugees in cheap housing regardless of security, refugees are alienated from neighborhoods where most American churches do the bulk of their outreach. Let’s be honest here. Most churches don’t pick the most dangerous neighborhoods they can to plant and build.
Secondly, lack of education in how to actually minister to a foreign culture is a huge, understandable issue.
It’s true that helping can hurt. Entitlement is a real problem for a tiny fraction of handicapped refugees. Entitlement is created by handouts. Entitlement is busted by proper instruction.
Whether due to apathy or fear, not doing anything is the worst thing a church could do in response to refugees resettled in their cities. Refugee resettlement programs have courses for businesses, organizations, and churches interested in figuring out how they can help. For example, refugees make awesome employees once they get over the hurdle of initial shock and resettlement, and providing a job to hard workers is a great first step.
Maybe your church can’t commit full ministries, but I bet they could commit to “sending” a bivocational minister to oversee a church’s ministry to refugees and figure out how the church can best get involved.
What You Can Do To Love Your International Neighbor
Aside from your church collectively taking part, there are many, many practical ways to love refugees. Several of these tips can be used to help legal immigrants, too. The list goes from easy to hard.
- Stop by and say hello. Unlike many Americans who don’t like uninvited door-knockers, most internationals come from warm, communal cultures where neighbors talk to each other. Saying hello and letting them know you’re there is a great first step. If you’re short on time, don’t accept the invitation to enter their home. If you enter, don’t be surprised if they give you a drink. Feel free to leave any time you have to go, and before they start to cook a meal for you if you don’t plan to stay for hours.
- Take a small gift from their part of the world. You might not be able to get something truly authentic but even a small spice jar from their part of the world would speak volumes. Most cities have import stores, but Amazon is also a wonderful resource. Not sure what to get? The internet is your friend.
- Forgive their cultural ignorance. In Nepali culture, walking through the unlocked front door of a friend’s home is totally normal. In Iraqi culture, women breastfeeding exposed in front of other female strangers isn’t a big deal. In Sudanese culture, slaughtering a goat with a machete in the middle of the apartment complex shouldn’t frighten neighbors. In Bhutanese culture, women going days with a type of herbal drug in their teeth is normal. Some of this might offend you, but if you were in another culture, you’d offend your host culture too if you acted as an American. So forgive and explain. Refugees should be taught about US culture, but they need time and patient teachers.
- Share a meal in their home and your home. You will probably not like their food, and to be honest, they probably won’t like yours. I loved Iranian, Syrian, and Nepali food, tolerated Iraqi and Cuban food, but hated dishes from Somalia, Sudan, Eretria, Myanmar, and Cote d’Ivoire. Just trying the food made my friends so happy though. Only one family we invited to our home liked my food. Maybe I’m just a bad cook.
- Learn their language. I always loved the shock on refugees’ faces when heard me speak a few phrases in their language. Even something as simple as, “Hello, my name is Vanessa,” made them laugh and give me a hug. Google translate is awesome for helping to get access to refugee languages, and there are plenty of other sites that have simple phrases.
- Take a small survival basket. I’ve had to teach some refugees how to use the toilet and turn on the stove. Some have never cleaned a home as they lived in grass huts prior to the US. A completely visual guide would be helpful (think IKEA furniture assembly instructions that don’t use language). The guide could include instructions for the toilet, stove, oven, garbage disposer, washing machine, dryer, city buses, and garbage pickup. Emergency numbers also necessary. This would be a gift most appropriate for a second or third visit if you’re able to assess their level of education or familiarity with modern, Western style apartments. Not all refugees and immigrants are uneducated or lived in camps. I knew PhD level engineers, principals, and professors.
- Teach. Refugees and immigrants have so much to learn. They need to learn English, the culture, the work culture, how to grocery shop, how to pay their bills, how to travel without a car, how to drive a car, how to communicate with their children’s teachers, how to use the internet, how to become a citizen, and more. You could teach whatever course you feel comfortable with in your home or in a community center.
- Sponsor a family. If you’re committed to loving the foreigners in your midst, this is the most sacrificial choice you could make. This would entail committing to help one family, not with handouts, but with instruction every step of the way. I will not downplay how hard this would be. But trust me when I say doing this will make lifelong friends, if not eventually disciples in the faith.
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