A house called Hope in Durham, North Carolina, is soon to be home to two refugee teenagers and their seriously ill mother, and the sponsor wants to keep details quiet.
The yen for privacy reflects how refugee advocates are using lots of caution to shelter families from potentially ugly political debate over President Donald Trump’s policy towards refugees.
The family, from Africa, has lived in the Triangle area for nearly 14 months. The mother is working and paying rent. With a stack of medical bills possibly in her future, a temporary rent-free stay at the Hope House will ease her burdens.
But Pastor Bill Bigger of Hope Valley Baptist Church in Durham is careful with what details he makes public about the family and the old, ranch-style brick house they’ll live in.
An upcoming Hope House housewarming, he said, will likely be kept private, to ensure the refugee family doesn’t face protesters or media attention that could lead to confrontations. While no anti-refugee violence has been reported in North Carolina, some advocates are concerned refugee families could be convenient targets for protests.
The current political climate, Bigger said in an interview, is a reminder not everyone is glad to have refugees as neighbors and some view them with suspicion.
Bigger recently joined more than 500 evangelical pastors across all 50 states in signing a letter to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, urging support for refugees. They said the recent executive order to slash refugee admissions by more than half this year was an endangerment to vulnerable people.
“We live in a dangerous world and affirm the crucial role of government in protecting us from harm and in setting the terms on refugee admissions. However, compassion and security can coexist, as they have for decades,” the letter says.
He was compelled by his faith, not partisan politics, to sign the letter, Bigger said.
“God cares about the vulnerable and those on the outside looking in. . . . Despite political rhetoric, these are folks who have been forced to leave home. They have nowhere to go,” he said.
Trump and supporters of the freeze on refugees say federal agencies aren’t able to properly screen immigrants who come from terror hot spots.
$925 The one-time federal cash stipend given to a refugee upon arrival
The Hope House, a project launched by Bigger’s church along with other local congregations and volunteers, is designed to house two small families or one large refugee family. The church owns the house. In many cases, refugees arrive in North Carolina and quickly move into apartments. But sometimes a unit isn’t immediately available.
Hope House will serve families waiting for permanent homes, saving refugees the cost of far more costly hotel stays. Each refugee receives a federal government stipend of $925 to cover housing, food and other expenses in their first month. That means a family of four gets a one-time allowance of $3,700 as start-over money in their new city.
After resettling, refugees may be eligible for some public assistance programs, like food stamps. And charitable refugee-assistance agencies help individuals and families with furniture, clothes, employment, language classes and other needs. Churches, for years, have been behind the scenes working with refugees.
The work has now been thrust in the spotlight as politicians debate the national security risks inherent in vetting refugees from war-torn countries, where records on employment, criminal backgrounds and education are sometimes unverifiable.
Bigger isn’t alone in worrying about the safety of refugees once they’re in the U.S., said Adam Clark, office director of World Relief Durham, a partner in the Hope House project.
Trump’s January executive order on refugees – currently blocked by federal courts – has ushered in divisive rhetoric about immigrants, taking an emotional toll on the people already legally resettled in the U.S., Clark said.
“They’re wondering how welcome they are. It’s painful to watch because that’s exactly what they’re fleeing,” he said, noting that refugees are fleeing persecution, often religious, political and social. “We don’t want them re-traumatized.”
For the refugees who are here, we really want to communicate that we’re glad you’re here.
the Rev. Thomas Kortus, All Saints Church
The White House move has inspired some churches in North Carolina to do more to help refugees, said the Rev. Thomas Kortus, rector at All Saints Church, an Anglican Christian church in Durham. Kortus also signed the pro-refugee letter to Trump.
“For the refugees who are here, we really want to communicate that we’re glad you’re here,” Kortus said, adding that his church has helped resettle three refugee families in the past 10 months. He and his wife have worked with World Relief for more than 15 years.
Clark said Trump’s executive order hadn’t stopped the arrivals of refugees in North Carolina, thanks to a court restraining order. But a major part of the president’s order has not yet been changed by judicial action – the part that cuts 2017 refugee admissions from a planned 110,000 to 50,000.
The reduction, Clark said, means refugee assistance organizations like World Relief will see less funding per refugee helped and be forced to shrink staff ranks. Nationally, he said, some refugee offices will close and layoffs have already begun.
“It cuts in half the network of support,” he said, which affects the services available to refugees already living in the U.S.