People of faith have been on the front lines of refugee resettlement for decades, and they are both furious and disheartened that President Donald Trump has halted the U.S. program. Instead of collecting housewares and making welcome signs, they are now bracing for a fight against a former ally: the U.S. government.
“We now view the U.S. government as an adversary. We view them as hostile to refugees and it’s our duty at HIAS to welcome and protect them,” said Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement agency. “So we’ve essentially gone from being a government partner to being an insurgent. So our focus now is on advocacy.”
Six of the nine U.S. resettlement agencies that work with the U.S. government to place and provide services to recent arrivals are faith-based. Although the religions differ, the organizations have one thing in common: They say God calls them to help the most vulnerable, and they don’t intend to let the Trump administration stand in the way.
“The Bible is silent on some things that we’d love it to speak to, but this is not one of those things. Scripture is super clear about helping the stranger, loving the stranger, welcoming the foreigner,” said Adam Clark, Durham director for World Relief, an evangelical Christian resettlement organization. “There’s just so much Scripture that makes it very clear that if you’re going to follow God, if you’re going to follow Christ, then that means caring for the vulnerable.”
Trump’s executive order aimed to restrict immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspend the U.S. refugee-resettlement program for 120 days. Syrian refugees are banned indefinitely. The order is facing legal challenges in multiple courts across the country that leave its future uncertain, and Americans who have been welcoming refugees say they hope they will still be able to do so.
We’ve essentially gone from being a government partner to being an insurgent.
Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS
“We are appalled that it forsakes our entire history to a country that welcomes refugees,” said Hetfield of HIAS, which began its work with Jewish refugees but has since expanded to help people of all faiths. “Almost all Jews in America trace their ancestry to someone who came here as a refugee.”
HIAS works with local agencies around the country on resettlement. In Pittsburgh, it partners with Jewish Family and Children’s Services, which said the Jewish community was in “full force” to respond to the executive order. The organization’s director of refugee and immigrant services, Leslie Aizenman, has seen a marked uptick in volunteer inquiries and has received a couple of thousand dollars in donations.
Some of that money has come from Audrey Graylin, who lives just north of Pittsburgh in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania. She felt called to take action after the presidential election and wanted something tangible she could do following the divisive campaign, concerned about the message the U.S. was sending to the world about refugees and immigrants.
She’s raised almost $1,000 from friends and family, and has been matched with a refugee family.
“Particularly because of my Jewish background, I wanted to help a Syrian family if I could and hopefully build bridges by showing that population that most Americans — including Jewish Americans — welcome everybody here,” Graylin said. “It’s important to overcome what looks now to be an unwelcoming country and replace that with some welcoming feelings from local families.”
Todd Unzicker, a pastor at Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, said he expects his community’s work with refugees to continue, despite the uncertainty caused by the executive order. The matter is likely to head to the Supreme Court before it is settled, but the trainings he hosts in conjunction with World Relief will still be held.
World Relief’s Durham office has the largest number of church volunteers of any of the organization’s locations across the country. Unzicker said his community was driven to help refugees by the Gospel.
“God’s called us to care for those who are in our midst and our neighbors, so let’s go do it. I think we have a church that is very open to that,” Unzicker said of his 11,000-person congregation. “We don’t pick and choose who our neighbors are. We love whoever our neighbors are going to be.”
The trainings help prepare parishioners for a role volunteering with recently arrived refugee families. Volunteers help with tasks like furnishing and setting up an apartment, stocking it with food and picking up a family from the airport.
They then strive to help the new arrivals, many of whom are fleeing war or persecution, feel comfortable in their new home. Volunteers are not caseworkers — resettlement agencies take care of that — but are meant to be friendly faces that can help answer questions about the simplest aspects of American life, which could seem overwhelming to a newcomer: where the closest grocery store is, how to use the public transportation system and how to do their taxes.
Unzicker and his family volunteered with a family that arrived in the area from Central Asia, and they became close. The Unzickers had their new friends over for dinner, went on play dates to the park, celebrated holidays together and threw the couple a baby shower as they welcomed their fourth child.
“We just did what we think good neighbors would do for anybody. They just became our friends,” Unzicker said. “It was just a great thing for us as a family.”
Dan Lester, director of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, cited a Bible passage from Matthew 25 as the foundation for the church’s work with refugees: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
“Everything that we do — especially as the Catholic Charities agency — is grounded in our faith and grounded in Scripture,” Lester said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the nine resettlement agencies, performs its refugee work through Catholic Charities locations nationwide. Lester said his organization is anticipating a “drastically reduced” refugee resettlement program.
“What that means exactly for us, no one knows right now,” Lester said.