So you want to help a refugee family

Members of Epiphany United Church of Christ in Chicago church welcomed their sponsored Syrian refugee family when they arrived at O'Hare Airport.

Members of Epiphany United Church of Christ in Chicago church welcomed their sponsored Syrian refugee family when they arrived at O’Hare Airport.

With the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban currently on hold, refugee families—and those organizations aiming to help them resettle in the United States—can return to planning the next steps for a new life.

Many people are asking how they can help. Settling a refugee family into your community is not a task to be taken alone; more likely, it’s done by a group such as a faith community working with a local agency that assists refugees. This is one reason why so many churches have gotten involved.

When the travel ban was announced on Jan. 27, many refugee families already were at airports waiting to board planes. Their trips were abruptly stopped and their visas canceled, only to resume again a week later, when senior federal Judge James Robart of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington issued a temporary restraining order against the ban. Before being named to the federal bench by President George W. Bush (he was approved 99-0 in the Senate in 2004), Robart was in private practice for 30 years. The man Donald Trump called a “so-called judge” also did pro bono work representing refugees.

A three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments for and against the Muslim ban and ruled 3-0 against the Trump administration. The issue may end up in the U.S. Supreme Court—or the executive order may be redrawn. But for now, it’s legal for refugee families to resume their journeys.

During the resumption of travel, one Syrian refugee family was finally able to fly to Chicago. Members of a sponsoring church were waiting to greet them. Let’s see how they all fared so far.

Epiphany United Church of Christ on Chicago’s north side worked as a co-sponsor with Refugee One, which helps to oversee refugee families coming to Illinois. Groups wishing to be co-sponsors have a big job ahead of them which includes:

  • Raise at least $6,000 to $8,000 for expenses. The average cost is usually $8,500.
  • Meet the family when they land at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
  • Set up and furnish an apartment.
  • Stock the apartment with food and have ready a welcoming meal.
  • Visit them weekly for six months to help them practice English skills.

Other duties are suggested for co-sponsors and mentors, including tutoring children and helping adults find jobs. Refugee One staff is on hand to guide co-sponsors every step of the way. They provide lists of all needed items for the apartment, including furniture, kitchen supplies, linens, and personal care items, and specify what items need to be new, such as bedding and linens, and what can be used, such as furniture.

The agency also helps the refugee families get integrated into American life. It tries to get each employable adult into a job within three months, and steers families toward English language classes, health care, and vocational training.

Epiphany worked for about nine months to get ready for a family of two parents and two boys, a 10-year-old and an older teenager. The apartment was ready with furniture, beds, and a stocked pantry, only to have the family stopped before boarding the plane. In the lull, a Congolese refugee family moved into the apartment temporarily but left before the Syrian family arrived. The Syrian family moved in after spending one night at a hotel.

Church members at a rally against the Muslim travel ban.

Church members at a rally against the Muslim travel ban.

The Rev. Kevin McLemore is the pastor at Epiphany. He said two congregation members led the effort to sponsor the family, with about 20-25 on the refugee care team. Some 15 people went to greet them at the airport.

After selling their belongings and paying for their own plane tickets, refugees receive a one-time payment from the U.S. government of $1,125 per family member to help with initial expenses (despite false right-wing media reports that refugees get that amount per month—they don’t). That money goes mostly for six months of apartment rent, along with other settlement costs. After six months, the family becomes responsible for their own rent. Refugee One finds the apartments in neighborhoods with affordable housing that also are near public transportation, making it easier for family members to travel to work and school.

McLemore said the fear is that the Trump administration and the GOP Congress might cut those refugee funds to zero. That’s one of the reasons Refugee One recommends a high initial amount of funds from the co-sponsor.

“My other fear is that if there’s a sustained action against feelings about refugees in this country, some of the agencies that help them, like Refugee One, might shut down,” McLemore said. “If the numbers of refugees are brought down, the organizations that do resettlements won’t have enough clients. And then there won’t be enough people around to help them when they do come.”

The members of the Epiphany refugee care team plan to visit their family once or twice a week to help them learn about the city and to offer any needed practical help, such as teaching them how to use passes to take public transportation and showing them where the nearest laundromat is. “The plan is to have them move forward as quickly as they can as well as to give them their privacy,” McLemore said. “Right now, they don’t know any English, but they’ll learn soon enough.”

The family helped by Epiphany fled Syria in 2013 to Turkey, where they spent the next few years. They completed the two-year vetting process and received their visa just recently. At their request, there is no photo of the refugee family. Back home in Syria, relatives of other refugee families who made it to the United States faced harassment when photos of smiling refugee family members showed up on social media and in the news.

The family also will be introduced to members of the Syrian Community Network, a Chicago nonprofit group made up of former Syrians who help with Syrian refugee resettlement. The group will work with the family to connect them with community resources and to ease the transition to a new country.

Taking on the responsibility of accepting a refugee family is a huge undertaking. Besides churches, other groups tackling the process include businesses, neighborhoods, and groups of like-minded friends. Groups like Refugee One will gladly accept donations, as will national groups such as the International Rescue Committee, which supports newly arrived refugees with immediate aid; UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency; the White Helmets, a volunteer Syrian Civil Defense group; Heartland Alliance, which works with immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and others; World Vision, a Christian group that works mostly with children; and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to name just a few. Nine national nonprofit agencies handle refugee resettlement in the U.S.

Refugee families come from countries other than just Syria. These agencies work with families from Burma, Burundi, Colombia, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Somalia, Yemen, and many other places.

A personal note: My own church is in the beginning steps of helping a refugee family. So far, two people have stepped forward to lead the effort, although it’s going to take work by people throughout the church to raise funds and to help with all of the tasks.

At the church’s recent annual meeting, one of those two volunteers stood up to address the congregation about co-sponsoring a refugee family. This was the same weekend that the Muslim travel ban had been issued and then stopped partway due to a series of lawsuits.

“Before, I was excited about this project,” the volunteer said. “Now, I’m on fire.”

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 12, 2017.

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