An unprecedented 65 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution or natural disaster. Out of these millions of displaced people today, more than 21 million have left their home country and sought refuge across international borders. In 2016, the United States resettled 84,995 of these refugees, and many new arrivals will settle this year.
Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Not only have their lives been completely disrupted by violence and upheaval, but they also endure miserable, mind-numbing conditions in refugee camps, which are often little more than overcrowded, fenced-in tent cities.
Because less than 1 percent of them are permitted to resettle into a third country each year, refugees can spend up to 17 years in these “temporary” facilities.
After years of living without many basic needs, the few refugees who finally have the opportunity to come to the United States arrive with nothing more than what they can carry.
As the body of Christ, we can have the gift and privilege of showing and sharing the love of Jesus with them. In such passages as Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and Leviticus 19:33-34, the Lord’s heart for the afflicted, the downcast and the stranger is clear. He places a premium on our care for the disadvantaged (James 1:27). As peoples from across the globe resettle into our communities to start a new life, we need to clearly understand that this is an important moment (Luke 10:29-37).
Christ-followers and the local church must ask what we are doing to serve the refugees coming to our cities and neighborhoods. In fact, Jesus will one day ask us how we loved the hungry, the sick and the stranger (Matthew 25:36). We decide now how we will answer Him.
You and your church can take practical steps toward being a blessing to newly arrived foreign neighbors:
1. Be a good neighbor.
Work together with your small group or circle of friends to welcome refugees. Form a good neighbor team – a small group of people from a local church that partners with an evangelical resettlement agency such as World Relief to welcome newly arrived refugee families. The goal is for each refugee who arrives in the United States to feel the warm welcome of his or her local community.
2. Help in the home.
There are many simple ways you can help refugee families settle into their new homes. Even learning to use everyday household appliances creates a learning curve for someone who has lived in refugee camps for years. Assist new refugee friends as they learn how to use the microwave, stove, washing machine, etc.
3. Give welcome kits.
Remember how much gifts from wedding and baby showers meant to you when you were beginning a new stage of life? Refugees are starting a new life in America and gifts of household items, baby supplies and furniture go a long way in assisting them (not to mention help them feel welcomed and loved). These types of welcome kits can help you get started.
4. Collect backpacks.
Any parent knows that school supplies can be expensive. Much more so for those entering a new culture. Have your church donate backpacks, notebooks, binders and other items to help equip local refugee children with the items they need to be successful in the classroom. Collect and distribute them to families in as simple a manner as possible.
5. Provide financial coaching.
Offer to help new arrivals set up bank accounts and establish budgets. Depending on their origins and their length of stay inside a refugee camp, newly arrived refugees may not have used a checking account or a bank card in years, or may be unsure how to plan for monthly expenses.
6. Tutor and teach.
Provide tutoring for children of refugees. These children start school immediately after arriving in the States and are in urgent need of help with homework and language. Adults may welcome lessons in conversational English as well.
7. Take them shopping.
All the retail options – grocery stores, department stores, drugstores – can be overwhelming to someone arriving from a refugee camp. Show them around their new communities and explain the differences between these stores.
8. Offer transportation.
Navigating without a car in most American cities can be very difficult, especially to newcomers. Offer rides to doctor appointments, job interviews, schools, stores and banks until new families can acquire cars or learn the ins-and-outs of public transportation in their new cities.
9. Create an urban garden.
Does your church or community have unused green space? Consider providing a garden area where refugees can grow their own vegetables. Those who come from agrarian societies may be eager for an extra way to provide for their families.
10. Learn more.
Familiarize yourself with local resettlement agencies that can teach you about incoming refugee groups and provide specific volunteer opportunities. Seek out further training that will teach you and fellow church members strategic ways to share the gospel message and to advocate for the needs of refugees in your community.
Let’s engage this moment well, so that the first friends refugees make in our communities will be those who can demonstrate and speak the message of Jesus.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Terry Sharp, @terrysharpimb, is the International Mission Board’s state, association and diaspora network leader. This article first appeared at the mission board’s imb.org website.)