Interfaith Solidarity for Global Refugees

The following Update was written by Liz Di Giorgio as an NGO Representative at the United Nations (Department of Public Information) and Youth Representative Mentor for the International Caucus of the Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA). For more WCA UN DPI/NGO updates, please visit the Women’s Caucus for Art, International Caucus.

UPDATE #22

FINDING A NEW HOME: THE ROLE OF FAITH-BASED ORGANIZATIONS IN REFUGEE ASSISTANCE AND REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT WORK

By Liz Di Giorgio, Member of Flushing Meeting
April 13, 2017
Moderator: Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF
Panelists: Jean B. Bingham, General President of the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Barbara Day, Domestic Resettlement Section Chief at the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Anwar Khan, CEO of Islamic Relief USA
Abdul Saboor, Match Grant Coordinator of Interfaith Works
Reverend Canon E. Mark Stevenson, Director of Episcopal Migration Ministries
Maria Fare, Policy Specialist and Regional Focal Point for Latin America for the UN Sustainable Development Goals Campaign.

PictureThe panelists for this NGO-led briefing shared their personal stories of migration and described how their organizations have partnered with others to maximize their effectiveness in providing humanitarian aid to refugees and migrants in the US and around the world. The goodwill that interfaith collaborations can generate was clearly evident in the genuine affection and respect that the panelists displayed toward one another. The packed audience indicated the high level of concern and compassion that NGOs bring to this issue.Moderator Caryl Stern spoke about her own origins as a child of a child refugee. Her grandparents had made the heartbreaking decision in 1939 to send her mother and uncle (then ages 6 and 4), to New York on board a ship fleeing Europe. She noted that her family has maintained a steadfast remembrance for the unknown woman who brought her mother and uncle to safety in New York, where they were raised in an orphanage. Caryl Stern also spoke about her grandfather, who was among the 1,000 people who sailed to Cuba on the SS St. Louis, in the journey known as The Voyage of the Damned. She explained that the ship was held in the port for 40 days because no country would take in the refugees. Although her grandfather ultimately survived the war, the ship was forced to returned to Europe, where many of those who had been turned away perished. The fact that her family owed its continued existence to a single woman of unknown religion, led her family to hold a deep respect for all faiths, and to know the difference that a single person can make. She spoke proudly about the work of UNICEF as having no politics except that of protecting the child. She spoke of the 50 million children wandering in the world, 28 million as refugees forced from their homes, and shared tender stories of the wonderful children she encountered in her work around the world.

Jean Bingham spoke about the long history of relief and humanitarian aid provided around the world by the over 7 million women who comprise LDS Charities. She spoke of her Church’s own history of persecution, which led its pioneers from New York to Missouri, where they were then driven out to neighboring Illinois. She described how they were initially helped as refugees in Illinois, but that hostilities subsequently arose and led them to move again and to settle in the Salt Lake Valley. She spoke about the doctrinal inspiration of her organization that teaches “it is by small and simple things that great things are brought to pass.” She quoted Joseph Smith’s declaration in 1842, following a period of intense persecution, that “a member of the Church is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to comfort the afflicted, to dry up the tear of the orphan, whether in this Church, or in any other, or in no church at all, wherever he finds them.” She remarked on the boldness of this statement being made to a group of exiles who were struggling for their own survival.

Jean Bingham traced the roots of LDS Charities to 1985, when members across the world were asked to take the simple step of foregoing two meals in order to donate money for famine relief in east Africa. She quoted the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr. Olav Fyske Tveit, who stated that “churches and other religious communities are not engaged in humanitarian response and development because of the SDGs, but because of their fundamental faith commitments to respecting human dignity, to serving the community, to protecting creation, and to witnessing to the divine.”

Anwar Khan spoke of his own family’s history of migration, which began when his family fled from India to Pakistan to escape the ethnic cleansing that cost many lives on both sidesHe migrated first to the UK, and then to the US.

He spoke about the work and challenges faced by Islamic Relief, and noted that its oldest partnership was with LDS Charities. He described how the two organizations worked together to help refugees fleeing from Somalia to Kenya in 2011. In describing the evolution of his organization’s work, he said, “Initially the idea was to help Muslims in need around the world, but then it changed to helping human beings in other parts of the world, and then it changed to helping everyone everywhere.”  He described his organization’s work with Catholic Relief Services and World Vision in the Central Africa Republic, funded by USAID, to encourage peace between Muslims and Christians. He described relief work with Catholic Relief Services in Gaza and in Yemen. He spoke of working with Episcopalian Relief and Development in various areas and in Liberia to prevent violence against women. His organization has worked with Adventists, Lutherans, American Jewish World Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and others.

Anwar Khan talked about his organization’s Day of Dignity program, which was originally designed to help homeless people in the US, but with the financial crisis of 2008 changed to also help the working poor by providing food and clothing and then hygiene kits provided by LDS Charities. He proudly noted that, “Now we have Syrian refugees volunteering to help homeless US army veterans in New Jersey and Seattle. That is not the narrative you see on TV, but it should be.” While this work was covered in the UK by The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, and in the US by Samantha Bee, he pointed out that other major media outlets have not covered it. He asserted that, “There is a very active counter narrative against people working together, to divide people. We need to identify what we are working against. We answer their hate with love.”

In speaking of his organization’s work, he noted that it is difficult. He acknowledged the death of staff members who have died overseas, including two Christian staff members who died in Kenya assisting Muslim refugees. He explained that, “We have to know how to deal with people that like us and don’t like us.” Despite the current challenges, he reported that donations have gone up and that he had never seen so much love from friends of other faiths as he has seen this year. He noted that he never fully understood that verse in the Bible about welcoming strangers until he saw Christians and Jews at the airport welcoming immigrants, adding “This is the America that I love.”

Barbara Day began her work in Lutheran service organizations, working to settle refugees throughout the US.  She reminded the audience of the migrations of first two decades of the 20th century that brought 15 million immigrants to the US, and of the wave of immigration brought about by WWII, noting that the roots of assisting immigrants run deep. She spoke about the role of faith organizations in the modern-day resettlement program that began in 1975 to help settle Vietnamese refugees, and how the magnitude of that crisis caused the US government to reach out to churches.

She explained the origins of the current US Refugee Resettlement Program created by Congress in 1980 by establishing the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services. This program delineated federal responsibilities and the funding of support programs in public/private partnerships designed to include private contribution administered through NGO- and state-based partnerships with six established church world service programs: Episcopal Migration Ministries, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, The US Conference of Catholic Bishops and Church World Service (which encompasses 40 denominations and their congregations).

Barbara Day noted that the US government does not distinguish between faith-based and non-faith based organizations, but that all of their partners are held to the same standards. She stressed that there is a clear separation required to ensure that inherently religious activity is separate in time and location from the services that faith-based organizations offer to refugees. She noted that matching what is offered with what is needed is complicated and requires many resources. She explained that faith organizations can respond quickly and efficiently, and can help even long distance, by providing funds or clothing and backpacks. She also noted that the greatest gift can be simply the gift of friendship, and recalled a Bosnian refugee who told her that what she craved most was someone to have coffee with.

Faith organizations have been able to provide English language training, help with tax returns, driving lessons, and running thrift stores to teach job skills. She noted the transformational nature of this work to both the giver and receiver. 

Picture Reverend Canon E. Mark Stevenson expressed deep gratitude for his position as director of a national resettlement program that “reaches deeply to the core” of his faith as a Christian. He displayed an image of a poster created in the 1930s to promote the Lutheran Church’s work to aid World War II refugees. The poster was based on the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which describes the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt to protect their child from a campaign of infanticide. He invited the audience to see the parallels to today’s refugee crisis in the image of a veiled Middle Eastern woman and a family willing to take unimaginable risks to protect their child. EMM is one of only nine organizations (six of them faith-based) that work in partnership with the Federal government to resettle refugees. EMM resettled 5,762 of the 85,000 refugees by working with 30 affiliate partners across 22 states, to offer cultural orientation and language instruction, and by helping refugees to access education and employment. He quoted the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. And even as you did it to others, you did it also to me.”

Abdul Saboor currently works with Interfaith Works to help refugee families in Syracuse, New York to achieve self-sufficiency within 180 days. He worked in Afghanistan as a cultural advisor and instructor for the US military, for USAID and for AECOM as a stability program manager. He described his journey, which started when his own community became dangerous. He recounted that people were being targeted for believing in freedom of expression and democracy. His journey to the US took him 5 years from the day of his application, and he described the difficulty of adjusting to his new community. He described himself as feeling puzzled and disorganized and his wife as feeling marginalized and lonely as they started their new life in upstate New York. He noted that he didn’t know the congregation or faith of the people who came to his home to offer rides to appointments, but that now he “takes pride in calling them friends.”

He shared his observation that, “Volunteerism in America is exceptional.” He saw the virtue of American life, in which people of different cultures and religions volunteer to help others. He welcomed the opportunity to volunteer in a community in which every problem is approached through an interfaith dialog, and spoke about the resiliency and cohesion of his community in Syracuse. He stressed the value of interfaith dialog in developing empathy, and quoted Mother Teresa as saying, “The reason we’re having so much trouble is that we have forgotten that we belong to one another.” Abdul Saboor describes his new life in America as allowing him to start dreaming again. He currently attends Syracuse University, where he majors in political science.

Maria Fare acknowledged the importance of the eight Millennium Development Goals that preceded the SDGs, but she noted that they were not created in consultation with the world’s populations. She described the successor SDGs as “truly a miracle” in that they were created by   asking people around the world to prioritize 16 global issues through the My World Survey. She explained that when governments report back on their progress in achieving the goals, the data makes them accountable. She described the many ways to involve communities around the world, such as young people being invited to take photos about which goals are important to their families and communities. Maria Fare suggested that people create their own Humans of Our World sites or contribute photos to the UN’s page https://www.facebook.com/humansofmyworld/.

Maria Fare also encouraged young people to take part in the World We Want art project, which offers instructions on how to create walls on which community members can write about the world they want. She describes the new agenda as providing more opportunities for people to give their opinions, and as being more qualitative in nature.

She also described how the UN uses tools, like virtual reality films, to create empathy. These films allow the viewer to experience what it is like to live as a refugee, to live without clean water, or to live in an area where war is part of your life. She explained that the UN uses this tool when there are meetings of the Security Council concerning refugees.

Maria Fare also described how they use the data gathered through the My World Survey in exhibits around the world, particularly when world leaders are meeting. She described a Voices of the People award to acknowledge exceptional engagement in the SDGs, and the establishment of a space in Bonn, Germany for inviting organizations and governments to discuss what they are doing to raise awareness of the Agenda.

Maria Fare’s presentation was especially relevant to the subject of this panel in that she shared the astonishing fact that the UN My World Survey Office has only 15 people on staff. It was only with the help of 1,000 partner organizations that they were able to reach 10 million people. She noted that many of the responses to the survey were gathered by telephone and in person, and that 80% of them came via pen and paper. Clearly, partnerships are crucial to providing aid to refugees as well as to implementing the Sustainable Development Agenda.


For more details, visit Women’s Caucus for Art, International Caucus.

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