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PC(USA), regional and international partners advocate for continued collaboration at ‘People on the Move’ gathering in Rome

Consultation session looks at refugee and migration issues in context

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

‘I didn’t know how strong I was until I had no choice but to be strong.’ – Sara, a Syrian refugee

LOUISVILLE — The above words came from a Syrian woman displaced from her homeland and forced to flee to Italy, but they’re words that could be voiced by thousands who face a similar migration journey to often-unwelcoming countries; a journey that frequently leads refugees to be terrified, broken, and fragile at their destination.

Several PC(USA) representatives joined global partners in Rome in late January to contextualize their work, share experiences, and seek solutions around migrant and refugee justice. Alethia White, co-regional liaison for Northern and Central Europe, was a member of the session’s planning team and moderated a panel discussion focused on migrant advocacy.

In January, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) personnel joined global partners in Rome for a consultation on refugees. (Photo by Alethia White)

“We hoped to have a mixed group of practitioners, people on the move, and advocates who would share, learn, and hear from each other. We knew we would need to balance the perspectives and experiences, creating space for those coming from countries where people leave and countries where people arrive,” said White. “We managed to create and support this space together and the result was that participants expressed hope and renewed energy for their journeys and their work. We all learned so much from each other’s stories and experiences.”

In addition to PC(USA), conference hosts and participants included representatives from the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Reformed Church of America. The Rev. Allison Seed attended as a PC(USA) representative for the Southern Europe Partnership Network.

Colleagues Amanda Craft, manager for immigration advocacy for the Office of the General Assembly, and Susan Krehbiel, associate for migration accompaniment with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, were co-presenters and shared their experiences and the church’s long history with immigrant sanctuary and accompaniment.

“As people of faith, we are called to see each other. Therefore, for those in receiving countries, we are tasked with the responsibility to act from a place of faith to counter harmful, damaging narratives about migrants and migration,” said Craft. “These narratives lead to countless deaths at sea and on land. Instead, we are called to imagine creative, wholistic solutions that guide us toward the transformative ministry of walking together.”

Krehbiel noted the importance of listening and hearing from actual immigrants at the session, like Sara from Syria, who had no choice but to find strength in her journey.

“The active participation of migrants in the conference was important for all involved. It kept our discussions based in real experiences and provided an opportunity to express gratitude, support and encouragement to the migrants. They felt seen and heard,” said Krehbiel.

Global partners and PC(USA) personnel paused their consultation in Rome to pose for a picture. (Photo by Alethia White)

According to Luciano Kovacs, PC(USA) area coordinator for the Middle East and Europe, the conference’s objectives included:

  • Making space for marginalized people’s voices who are on the move, allowing them to speak for themselves.
  • Committing to a mutual partnership in solidarity where partners learn, advocate and grow together.
  • Developing contextual action steps by hearing from impacted persons and those gathered in the global ecumenical community.

“This consultation could be a good template for future events featuring the work of partners across the globe welcoming and centering the voices of those who are forced to leave as well as focusing on root causes of migration, whether it is war, poverty or climate change,” said Kovacs. “It’s important to focus not only to the right to move, but also on the right to stay.”

Takeaways from the session were overwhelmingly positive, but participants recognized there is challenging work to do around migration.

“I was personally encouraged by the hope that participants felt at the end of the consultation,” said White. “This is hard work and often a brutal journey that people are on. To feel hope is no small thing. I came away with new connections and friendships to follow up with. We arrived on separate paths, but now carry a bit of each other going forward.”

Representing a group that focuses on migration and diaconal ministries while nurturing partnerships in four churches of the Reformed tradition in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece, Seed was particularly impacted by Sara’s migration odyssey.

“Stories matter,” said Seed. “The statistics of those affected by displacement are overwhelming, but hearing the stories of individuals who are making new lives in a new land transforms them from stranger into neighbor. I will never forget Sara’s words.”

“Migration is a constant feature of humanity,” said Craft. “As mobility expands across the globe, it is also what connects us. The answers to address root causes and to provide a dignified welcome must be generated together.”

Dr. Peter Makari, global relations minister for the Middle East and Europe in Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), noted that while Global Ministries is only 28 years old, some of their local churches date back to the 1600s. The churches’ mission boards have been addressing forced displacement in the Middle East separately or together dating back to the Armenian Genocide in 1915-16 and continuing to present day.

“The UCC has been actively responding to the needs of Palestinian displacement over decades and have been especially active over the last three months advocating for a just resolution to the conflict as a whole and addressing root causes, including the policies of Israel,” said Makari.

Photo by Markus Spiske via Unsplash

“Accompaniment and solidarity with partners in such crises mean supporting our partners in providing immediate needs and intensive advocacy with the U.S. government, whose policies are often a direct or indirect factor in creating or perpetuating a crisis.”

Makari noted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports there are currently almost 110 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, the highest number in history.

“Migration is a major issue that countries of the world will need to deal with in a cooperative and systemic way,” said Makari, “not simply by warehousing people in countries unable to absorb, let alone respond to the needs of people.”

The partners expressed strong interest in continuing to explore ways to reinforce each other’s ministries and collaborate on larger issues. On the final day, small groups gathered to discuss next steps and follow-up, which included networking around themes, regular online meetings, resource sharing, inviting other networks to contribute, planning webinars and connecting U.S. migrant-led organizations with those in Europe.

“Bringing our faith partners (denominations, ecumenical bodies and humanitarian workers) together was important on two levels,” said Krehbiel. “First, to connect with others in a setting of mutual support and recognition, providing emotional and spiritual support for their work, and second, to learn from each other and exchange ideas. As PC(USA), we have the privilege of connecting with partners in many locations, but our partners are not always aware of each other’s work/ministries.”

Craft was intrigued at the possibilities the future holds.

“There is a hope we can build a stronger network to allow for better collaboration and coordination of ministries and work,” she said.

Seed, after hearing displaced students from other countries introduce themselves in fledgling Italian, saw the need for language skills to help people fully integrate into an unfamiliar environment.

“Without language skills, key marks of integrating into a new society, such as jobs, further education and relationships, become unachievable beyond one’s ethnic group,” she said. “Not all of us can influence international law, but we can all find a way in our communities to help develop the language skills of the immigrants around us. By so doing, we ourselves move from being strangers to being neighbors to the newcomers among us.”

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