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Advocates need to tell a different story about immigrants and refugees

Several sessions at Together We Welcome Conference focus on advocating for refugees and passing laws to protect them

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Etienne Girardet via Unsplash

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — From 2017 until last year, refugee resettlement in the United States suffered “death by a thousand cuts,” says Angie Plummer, Executive Director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS).

The numbers told the story of the Central Ohio organization she heads. In fiscal year 2016, CRIS resettled 833 individuals. By fiscal year 2020, they were down to 106 due to a variety of policies from the administration of President Donald Trump, including overt religious discrimination against Muslims and an annual lowering of the number of refugees admitted into the United States.

As the number of cases declined, a vital infrastructure for helping resettle people crumbled because without work, agencies lost employees as well as relationships with key partners like landlords, employers, translators and churches, to name a few.

“Every step of the way, when you cut back the number of people allowed to come in through the refugee resettlement program, you undermine our capacity to receive them,” Susan Krehbiel, Associate for Refugees & Asylum in Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), said during “Build Back Refugee Resettlement,” one of the advocacy track sessions in Together We Welcome, a conference presented by Church World Service. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and PDA were a major sponsor of the event.

In the last year, agencies and others working in resettlement have felt the strain as the administration of President Joe Biden increased the number of refugee admissions and then as the United States saw an influx of refugees from Afghanistan as the U.S. ended its 20-year war there. As agencies and partners worked to serve incoming refugees, they struggled to rebuild the connections that had been lost during the previous four years.

The anti-immigrant feeling that supported the policies of the last four years was fueled by stories people heard from politicians and some news sources about immigrants being dangerous, taking people’s jobs, becoming burdens on society, and other false narratives.

“I realize people are talking about me, my family and my communities,” Dauda Sesay, a refugee from Sierra Leone, said of the 2016 election. “They are talking about my story in the way they feel like talking about it.

“I said, ‘That needs to change.’ If you give somebody the opportunity to tell your story the way they want to say it … twisting your story, you give them more power.”

Dauda Sesay

Sesay, National Network Director for African Communities Together, was speaking at another Together We Welcome advocacy session, “Making Change Through Civic Engagement.” The session covered advocacy, from simply voting to civic leadership, engagement with officials, and even running for office. The session was designed for anyone who wants to get involved in civic engagement, but specifically highlighted immigrants such as Sesay who had become involved.

“When refugees are at the table and represented, given the tools to be at the place where decisions are made, we definitely create an impact because we have the lived experience and we are experts of what is really impacting us,” Sesay said.

Rev. Dr. Sharon Stanley-Rea, Director of Refugee & Immigration Ministries in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said she was inspired to get involved in advocacy in high school through a combination of the example of Jesus Christ in scripture, relationships, and a call to justice.

“We can write op-eds together,” she said of ways to advocate for refugees and immigrants. “We can hold meetings with faith leaders together and make sure we are collectively flipping the narrative, that refugees among us are blessings in our community, contribute constantly, and are not in any way burdens.”

The session included Hyun Ja Shin Norman, Executive Director of Woori Juntos, which works to expand civic engagement, particularly voting, by people in Texas who are Asian-American, and Ahmed Ahmed, Volunteer Community Organizer and Refugee Leader in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“The refugee story has always been political,” Ahmed said. “Here, we must not shy away simply because power was taken from us before or because we have a distrust in the government of our former homelands. It will take all of us, a coalition.”

Between both sessions, there was discussion of broad engagement with officials and specific advocacy, particularly the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow Afghan refugees to apply to become permanent residents in the United States. Many of the Afghans who came to the U.S. were granted humanitarian parole of one to two years.

Krehbiel said getting the act passed is vital and observed that anything else “would be overwhelming for the Afghans themselves, overwhelming for the legal community. It just would be a tremendous effort, and I am really fearful with the confusion that already exists, people will fall through the cracks.”

While serving Afghan immigrants has been vital, it has forced other immigrants, many of whom have been waiting years for their chance to come to the U.S. or bring family over, to wait even longer. And while refugees from Afghanistan and now Ukraine have made headlines, there are many people in desperate need, fleeing harrowing conditions around the world.

“To be prophetic … we cannot stay with the sexiest issues,” Stanley-Rea said. “We cannot move from issue to issue to issue. We have to offer sustained support. Yes, support TPS (temporary protective status) for Ukrainians, but also TPS for Cameroonians, for others, communities that continue to be oppressed and have worked on this priority for a long, long time.”

One thing that will increase a sense of urgency about the situation immigrants and refugees face is getting to know people in the immigrant community.

“Maybe for some of us who were born in this country, there are many questions we may not have asked in the same way until we have relationships,” Stanley-Rea said.

Angie Plummer

“Once you know someone, it is not an abstract piece of paper,” Plummer said. “Get to know people and to be moved, and you will not regret it.”

Krehbiel concluded, “We often have churches that want all the answers before they do anything and I am like, ‘Just do which you can, just do something.’ It is inspiring every day. We talk about the challenges, but I tell you I have had more fun, more laughter, and I am constantly inspired by the people that I meet.”

Read more about Together We Welcome:

Fighting erasure: Panelists advocate for Black immigrants

Climate change is a major cause of migration, even in the US

‘We are as much a part of the community as those whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower’

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