We can all do our part to help refugees feel welcome, safe

This could look like volunteering to help Chicago-bound refugees learn to speak English, set up their new apartments, navigate the U.S. health system or adapt to the culture of their new home. It could look like monthly financial sponsorship.

SHARE We can all do our part to help refugees feel welcome, safe
Celestine Mugisha (r) and his wife, Winniefred Akello, embrace at O’Hare International Airport in January 2020. They came to Chicago as part of the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Celestine Mugisha (right) and his wife, Winniefred Akello, embrace at O’Hare International Airport in January 2020. They came to Chicago as part of the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

For so many of us, Chicago is a home, a community, a place of belonging.

It is also a sanctuary city, and proud to be one. Roughly one in five Chicagoans are foreign-born. But to be a truly effective sanctuary for refugees, we need to make Chicago a home for all — especially the men and women who are fleeing here in the hope of finally knowing safety.

These refugees are often afraid. Everyone feels fear. It’s just an involuntary reaction we have to a threat or a danger. It’s a defense mechanism that kicks in so we have a better chance of escaping the threat we face to survive another day. But what happens when the threat never leaves? What happens when there’s no one and nothing to protect you and keep you safe?

For many refugees, this dire emotional situation is the norm. Whether they have come from war zones or extreme humanitarian crises, they have been in danger for extended periods of time.

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These individuals were not asked or given a choice to leave, and they could not fight because the force persecuting them was too large. They fled for their lives. They fled to us.

For these refugees, humanitarian aid from global leaders like the United States is their only hope. We have the power to end the cycle of fear. All it takes is an offer of welcome that brings safety, security and peace to people whose lives have been consumed by fear. And, since 1979, World Relief has worked to welcome over 40,000 refugees in the Chicago area in precisely this way.

But the question remains: How do we create a culture of welcome and a community of safety for refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons? It starts with recognizing exactly who these people are — and who they aren’t.

Refugees are not coming into the U.S. to take jobs or create problems for American citizens. They seek safety, and they have received a special form of protection from the United States government. These people aren’t dangerous; they have undergone a long and rigorous screening process.

So, if we want to be a country that welcomes refugees and asylum seekers, we need to create communities of safety that accept them for who they are. That means doing the work of supporting and assisting them in building the lives they want to build here.

This could look like volunteering to help Chicago-bound refugees learn to speak English, set up their new apartments, navigate the U.S. health system or adapt to the culture of their new home. It could look like monthly financial sponsorship.

Lora Kim Kwan.

Lora Kim Kwan.

Provided

The Chicagoland H.O.M.E. program, for instance, is centered around these specific needs, and its success is largely due to a vibrant community of volunteers and partner churches.

I think about the power of creating communities of safety whenever I think of Joshua Sherif. A pastor from Egypt who came to the United States as a refugee, Joshua Sherif recounted in his book The Stranger at Our Shore that “America was our refuge, our safe haven. And the American church in particular provided a new home and a new family when we had nothing.”

The church communities made him feel wanted and known. That’s what refugees need today. Communities of safety are in it for the long term, and are about building relationships that last.

But these communities need their own support. That’s why another part of the work we can do is supporting the communities that help refugees.

Chicago has already proven to be a cherished safe haven for tens of thousands of refugees. We have so many communities ready and waiting to welcome these men and women safely into their new home — so join us. Help us help them.

Refugees need an end to the cycle of fear. By creating communities of safety that welcome them, we can help them end it. I hope we all feel called to do so.

Lora Kim Kwan is the Group Facilitation and Case Specialist at World Relief Chicagoland.

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