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Presbyterians to commemorate World Refugee Day at Portland General Assembly

Organizers say this year has special significance

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
– with additional reporting by Kathy Melvin

PC(USA) members Choose Welcome at Compassion, Peace and Justice Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. Photo by Paul Olson

PC(USA) members Choose Welcome at Compassion, Peace and Justice Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. Photo by Paul Olson

LOUISVILLE – Presbyterians attending the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, will have an opportunity to recognize refugees seeking to start a new life. Monday, June 20th is World Refugee Day, established by the United Nations to recognize the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide, forced to leave their homes because of persecution, conflict and war.

During General Assembly, OGA’s Office of Immigration Issues, Compassion, Peace and Justice and World Mission will host a luncheon at the Doubletree Hotel (Mt. Bachelor Room) in Portland. Attendees will hear about a refugee resettlement in the city as well as stories from Central American asylum seekers being held in family detention centers in South Texas.

Teresa Waggener, immigration attorney with the OGA Office of Immigration Issues, says the PC(USA) has been involved with this issue for decades, but this year brings added significance in light of the Syrian conflict that has seen millions of people cross borders in search of a better life.

“We have not seen a refugee crisis this big since World War Two,” said Waggener. “There are 60 million people who are displaced throughout the world and 20 million are likely to meet the UN definition of refugee. However, less than one percent will be resettled.”

Waggener says the church continues to work toward helping families resettle in a way that is healthy and thriving. “Churches that typically call me are supportive and looking for ways to team up with local resettlement agencies to see how they can support resettlement efforts.”

Last fall, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons urged Presbyterians to adopt the phrase “We Choose Welcome” amidst the debate over allowing Syrians seeking asylum to come to the U.S.

“We are asking churches to express in as many ways as they can that we choose welcome as a people of faith,” said Susan Krehbiel, catalyst for Refugees and Asylum with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. “This is particularly important given that there are people in our own country, who express hatred and are actually trying to shut down access to refugees and stop the resettlement efforts.”

Krehbiel says a record number of churches are contacting the national office seeking to co-sponsor a refugee family.

“Congregations are stepping up and doing creative things such as hosting concerts to raise funds for these families,” said Krehbiel. “And this is not limited to helping Syrian refugees. Some churches have contacted their local resettlement agency offering to help whoever is in need – Iraqis, Burmese, Congolese or others. While other churches understand their mission to be welcoming children and families from Central America seeking asylum.”

“It is not unusual for churches to be very quiet about their ministries with refugees, perhaps out of a sense of humility. Events such as concerts or interfaith dinners offer a way for congregations to share their experiences and encourage their communities to build relationships with newcomers.”

Last fall, the exodus of Syrian families from their war-torn country drew international attention as thousands found themselves stranded while trying to cross European borders. The images of a child’s lifeless body being pulled from the Aegean Sea shed new light on the risks families would take to escape the war and violence.

Syrians are currently finding it harder to seek asylum as European borders have closed, forcing them to face extradition back to Syria.

“The very idea that people who have worked so hard to get to a certain geographic location just to feel safe and feel like they won’t be persecuted because of faith or ethnic background only to be turned around and sent back is disheartening,” said Waggener.

Burkhard Paetzold is a mission co-worker in Germany and World Mission’s liaison for central and eastern Europe. Despite efforts to keep Syrian families out, he’s seen changes in the way some Europeans look at refugees once they get to know them.

“Farmers in a little village near my home in Germany, normally a rather conservative band of elderly people, have seen several Syrian families moving into empty apartments. It was difficult for them in the beginning,” he said. “These are two very different cultures, but as they came to know one another everything changed. Now they are happy to have enough children to keep their school open that was about to be closed and they can call the children by name.”

Krehbiel and Waggener have been conducting webinars in hopes of expanding awareness of what Presbyterians and ecumenical partners are doing to assist refugees and asylum seekers. As part of a larger interfaith effort, the church is focused on several goals: to demonstrate welcome through actions with refugees and asylum seekers; promote more generous and welcoming refugee policies and promote efforts to end the conflicts that have caused refugee displacement.

There are two campaigns where Presbyterians and other concerned individuals can participate. #WeChooseWelcome is a rallying call from Presbyterians across the U.S. expressing their commitment to welcome refugees of all nationalities and faiths.

There is also a larger interfaith campaign launched in May– #RefugeesWelcome, a coalition of humanitarian, religious and non-profit organizations working together to create welcoming communities for refugees. The campaign goal is to provide opportunities for refugees to share their experiences with faith and community groups to: build friendships among diverse cultures and faiths, strengthen public and private welcome of our refugee neighbors, promote refugee integration and leadership, and celebrate refugees’ community contributions. Supporters of #RefugeesWelcome also include Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Oxfam America, among many others.

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Those interested in registering for the luncheon on June 20th can click here. For more information about World Refugee Day and how your church can get involved, click here.


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