The Diocese Embraces Refugee Families

by | May 11, 2017

Photo: Barbara McGowan

By: Lois Herrmann

Moved by heartbreaking pictures of people fleeing violence and war in the Middle East and Africa, churches in the diocese have partnered with more than 25 refugee families beginning new lives in DC and Maryland. Individual parishes have provided a loving welcome and material support to new arrivals–and several churches multiplied and enriched their efforts by joining with other Episcopal churches and faith communities to help families.

St. Columba’s has developed a partnership with a family from Afghanistan, a mother, father and three sons who arrived in February. The Rev. Kate Heichler, associate rector, noted that the hardest part of the process was “the very long wait for word of a family we could host, especially as that waiting time coincided with an election outcome that many knew would severely limit the number of refugees allowed into the United States.” St. Columba’s also has had to manage the sheer number of parishioners who wanted to be involved, especially as only a limited number would have hands-on engagement with the family.

But many parts of the parish found ways to contribute. The Refugee Response Committee raised $40,000 to cover a year of the family’s rent and other living expenses. Parishioners scoured the area to find an affordable apartment in a good school district; furnished the apartment; took family members to school and medical appointments; and enrolled the parents in English classes at a community college. When the family expressed a desire to go to Friday prayers at a mosque, parishioners offered to take them every week.

Parish children made signs to welcome the family and contributed proceeds from a lemonade stand. Two children’s grandparents in New Jersey offered to double whatever their grandchildren could earn or raise for the refugee fund. When St. Columba parents learned that soccer was the sons’ passion, they organized a game with their kids and helped sign the boys up for youth soccer leagues.

When asked how the project has affected the parish, Heichler said: “The initiative revealed to me not only the extraordinary capacity of the St. Columba’s congregation, but the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit among us. This kind of response seemed to me a “loaves and fishes” moment that gives us a hint of what God wants to do through us.”

In Montgomery County, St. Anne’s in Damascus has moved in step with community partners to help refugees. In April 2016, it helped found Montgomery Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Neighbors (“Interfaith Neighbors”) — 20 Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities that have come together to assist 14 refugee families (from Syria, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Chad, Iran and Cuba). “It has been a joy watching our committee members honor their own individual faiths while all stepping out in faith together,” said Pam Brewer, a St. Anne’s parishioner active in Interfaith Neighbors.

Two different faith communities work together to help a single family. “This is to show newcomers that in the United States we honor and respect our different faiths,” Brewer said.

Interfaith Neighbors offer refugees the kinds of choices not available during long stays in refugee camps. They select their own furniture and household goods at A Wider Circle, a local organization offering free furnishings to those who need them. They choose clothing from donated articles collected and displayed by Interfaith Neighbors.

The churches, synagogues and mosques in the interfaith consortium take turns hosting social events for all of the faith communities and refugee families. “That is where we just have fun and all simply become neighbors,” Brewer said.

When, within a year, four refugee families “graduated” to independence, the interfaith group took on four more.

On Capitol Hill, St. Mark’s and Christ Church are part of seven worshipping communities now assisting five Afghan refugee families. “Connections develop as needs arise,” said Karen Getman, St. Mark’s refugee coordinator. For instance, the Mormon church in the alliance has donated food and household goods from its own warehouse. Several volunteers found their callings by spending hours collecting and delivering furniture to the families.

For St. Mark’s, the long wait for families’ arrival during Advent was a reminder of the season of anticipation. The whole parish took ownership of the project as it waited. Clergy gave sermons on “being the stranger,” parishioners created a six-foot Refugee Madonna and Child statue out of colored newspaper, and the flower guild kept Christmas decorations simple to donate money to the church refugee fund. “It felt like waiting for another Birth during Advent,” Getman said.

Parishes working with refugees have found rich rewards. “The most joyful part is just being with the family and seeing their eagerness to embrace their new life in America,” said Deacon Jean Ann Wright of St. Columba’s. For Brewer it is “seeing these people in peace and no longer worried about their families getting killed.” And Getman’s joy is “seeing a five-year-old’s room full of toys and books, and hearing her say she loves school.”

The newcomers, of course, face formidable hurdles including learning English and American culture, finding employment, mastering public transportation, and completing complicated paperwork to get registered in the American system. They do all this while dealing with profound loss–of their home cultures and of close family they may have left behind.

Yet parishes helping refugees have been moved by their hospitality and their gratitude. “The families are so extremely gracious, hospitable and polite, insisting on volunteers staying for tea or a meal,” Brewer said. “And they are using the material things they have been given with such care.”

Refugees’ hopes for the future mirror those of most Americans: “I want to have a good job, learn American culture, have a happy family, and show my sons ‘the good way,’” said Fridoon, St. Columba’s refugee dad.

And they want to reach out. One of St. Mark’s refugee partners saw church people putting signs in their houses that read No matter where you are from, we’re glad you are our neighbors. “I want one for my home, too,” he said. “I want to be a welcoming neighbor.”  

Other churches in the diocese are also assisting refugees. All Souls’, together with Christ Church, Georgetown and St. John’s, Georgetown, is beginning the process of partnering with a family. St. Alban’s, St. Dunstan’s, and St. Phillip’s, Baden have assembled welcome kits of household supplies for refugees. St. Dunstan’s has sent funds and materiel to refugee camps in Croatia though a missionary connection there.

How to Get Started Helping Refugees

Churches volunteer with a resettlement agency like Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran Social Services or the International Rescue Committee which have decades of experience working with faith communities interested in helping refugees. The agency offers volunteers training and a plan that helps them move forward systematically. A church first decides how much financial and human support it can offer a family. It then forms committees that work on individual areas of assistance such as housing and furnishings, employment, education, English as a second language, and medical care. The shared goal is to help families and individuals to become productive, self-sufficient members of the community within a year.