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Workshop explores coming alongside immigrants

The world has 26 million refugees. Presbyterians are at work helping many of them deal with stress on many fronts

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Refugees and migrants walk through the Hungarian town of Hegyeshalom on their way to the border where they will cross into Austria. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants flowed through Hungary in 2015, on their way from Syria, Iraq and other countries to western Europe. The ACT Alliance has provided critical support for refugee and migrant families here and in other places along their journey. (Photo by Paul Jeffrey)

Refugees and migrants walk through the Hungarian town of Hegyeshalom on their way to the border where they will cross into Austria. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants flowed through Hungary in 2015, on their way from Syria, Iraq and other countries to western Europe. (Photo by Paul Jeffrey)

LOUISVILLE — Presbyterians and many other people of faith are accompanying asylum seekers from Central America and as far away as African nations through the U.S. immigration court process.  Just how successful that coming alongside process will be remains to be seen as President-elect Joe Biden and the 117th Congress reshape U.S. immigration policy and laws beginning in January 2021.

During last weekend’s Presbyterian Border Region Outreach conference, Susan Krehbiel, associate for Refugees and Asylum with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, offered a workshop on forced migration and asylum and the ministry of accompaniment.

By the end of 2019, nearly 80 million people had been forcibly displaced from their own country, Krehbiel said, and 85% of those people were in developing countries.

In addition, 26 million people were classified as refugees and nearly 46 million as internally displaced people. About 4 million were seeking asylum. Of all the refugees in the world, less than 1% will be resettled.

In most cases, she said, we think of people migrating from Central America to the southwestern border region of the United States. In fact, she said, “we know now they come from all over the world,” including those escaping the violence in Cameroon. Four million Venezuelans have been displaced outside that nation’s borders.

U.S. refugee admissions have dropped precipitously since 1980, when more than 200,000 refugees were allowed into the U.S. That number for the current fiscal year is closer to 15,000 refugees.

The nation’s 200 detention centers nearly match the number of its refugee offices. During peak nights in 2020, the U.S. detained as many as 45,000 people. The largest providers of detention centers, Krehbiel noted, are for-profit companies.

For the most part, those in detention centers “are scared and alone,” she said. “They’re treated like criminals and are faced with the threat of indefinite detention or deportation. They’re overwhelmed by the impending legal process without free legal assistance and they’re isolated from their support systems.”

When they’re released, she said, it’s generally with a monitor attached to an ankle.

Biden’s camp, she said, has already come out with statements on refugee resettlement, policies that can be changed “quickly and easily. There are discussions around ending the remain in Mexico policies. But some of it will take time.”

Susan Krehbiel is Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s associate for Refugees and Asylum.

Krehbiel said she thinks of accompaniment as “coming alongside someone” and “turning away from our traditional language in U.S. churches, where we think of ourselves as the savior and great responder.”

Accompaniment, she said, is mutually transformative. Both parties experience the gift of God’s love. They form new friendships, learn more about a new culture and can be inspired and humbled by the other’s courage.

In Southern California, congregations seeking to provide shelter for an asylum seeker are also matched with a congregation that includes people with a similar background as the asylum seeker. As part of the resulting three-way partnership, “the group does some unpacking for the church so it’s not a burden for the asylum seekers,” she said. The people who shuttle between the congregation and the asylum seekers generally came to the U.S. as young children, Krehbiel said, and are raised to be bi-cultural. “It’s a fairly unique model,” she said.

Another work of the heart concerning accompaniment is around power, she said. The goal is not to solve problems for, but to solve problems with the individual or family.

One workshop participant said one solution she and the asylum seeker living in her home came up with together was for her to give up control of the kitchen to the guest. “We felt like sisters when we were done,” she said. “It changed the dynamic.”

“We sometimes think of them as needy people,” Krehbiel said. “But if they made it here, they have skills and ingenuity. They are survivors.”

Trauma is another reality both parties must deal with.

“We like to think of trauma as being past,” Krehbiel said. “But as long as their immigration status is unsettled, they are still in the trauma.” Members of faith communities “have a lot to offer, but we have to recognize that the way they might cope is not something we might immediately recognize.” It’s not unusual for immigrant children and their older siblings to wear a set of headphones for much of the day in order to isolate themselves, she said. Participating in a sport might bring on some healing.

“Make time for check-ins, and be clear with your boundaries,” she suggested. Don’t over-volunteer to care for immigrants by doing things for them they can do themselves. “Do it in a way that shows you are a partner,” she said. “We need to recognize our own limits, too.

For those unable to house a family during the pandemic or work directly with them, advocacy is also part of day-to-day accompaniment, according to Krehbiel. That can include letter-writing, donating funds to a detention center commissary or writing a check to help provide for pro bono legal services.

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