Ideas for Helping Refugees in your Community

I was so excited during General Conference last Saturday when I heard Linda K. Burton quote Emma Smith: "We are going to do something extraordinary. … We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”

I knew she was going to give us a challenge, and a few minutes later she said, There are more than 60 million refugees, including forcibly displaced people, worldwide. Half of those are children.

And the words: We have organized a relief effort called “I Was a Stranger.” It is our hope that you will prayerfully determine what you can do—according to your own time and circumstance—to serve the refugees living in your neighborhoods and communities. This is an opportunity to serve one on one, in families, and by organization to offer friendship, mentoring, and other Christlike service . . .

I was cheering out loud (and today again during Elder Kearon's talk).

The challenge is wonderful because although the issue of 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons (half children) is absolutely overwhelming, the Relief Society is in a great position to help coordinate help on both the organization level and the individual level. And! one person really can make a difference. One person may not be able to solve the Syrian war, or the many issues in refugees camps, or in the resettlement process, but one person can help on the individual and community levels both monetarily and with volunteer support.

Since I teach special topics writing class that works to raise awareness for refugee situations, some people have been asking me how they can get involved. Here are some ideas:

Read these two things: 
  •  I was a StrangerScroll through to the "Getting Involved" section. It lists a lot of great ideas for questions to ask as you consider what you can do + organizations for partnering.
Ideas for your individual service:
  • Learn about refugees. Spend 30 minutes  or an hour reading articles linked on the UNHCR and U.S. websites. Humans of New York did an excellent series last Fall: 
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  • Partner with your local refugee assistance organizations. Most cities who resettle refugees will need after-school tutoring, mentors, job training, English teaching, etc. The I Was A Stranger website lists national organizations that may have chapters in your city. Here are organizations I've liked working with in Utah:

    • Utah Refugee and Immigrant Center: Salt Lake City (You can donate to my students' fundraiser here or start your own fundraiser. They also have volunteer opportunities of various kinds.) 

    • Hearts Knit Together: This organization, started by an LDS missionary, provides all the welcome kits for the refugees and women's shelters in Utah. If you don't have a similar effort in your city, you may be able to begin one. She came and spoke to my students a few years ago, and you can listen here about her experiences organizing this effort. 

    • South Franklin Community Center: Provo (This center helps immigrants who face similar issues as refugees in terms of integration and need for community support. The center always need volunteers—they just emailed me. If you can't get to Salt Lake City, but want to work with people—this is a great way to do something that will matter in the same way as helping refugees. They love working with BYU students ) 

Ideas for ward activities/efforts:
  • Invite someone from a local refugee assistance center to speak to your ward or RS group. They can talk about the resettlement process and specific challenges the refugees in your community face. They can discuss a variety of ways to get involved. 
  • Educate your ward members about refugees and internally displaced persons. Ask a ward member to research the topic and do a short presentation. The UNHCR website is a great pace to start as well as the U.S. site.  You could do this in 10 minutes as part of a presidency first Sunday RS lesson. 
  • Educate your ward members about the refugee resettlement process. Only a small/tiny percentage of refugees worldwide get resettled. Most refugees still live in camps. Some have lived there for 20 years. Last year when President Obama wanted to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S., that would have only been .0025% of the 4 million refugees currently in just the Syrian camps. When refugees do resettle, they continue to face challenges. The government only provides assistance for so long. They need help learning English, finding a job, learning how the bus system works, learning about the culture. They need tutoring. This takes friends and businesses in the community willing to help. Invite someone in the ward or community who has worked with refugees to talk about his or her experiences. You may be able to get a referral from someone at your local refugee assistance organization. 
  • Remember that refugees are our brothers and sisters. The title "refugee" gives people protection and asylum, but it also puts them into a category that's hard to imagine—sometimes we forget they are just like you and me: people with families who had the misfortune of war (!) or a govt. that forced them to leave for religious or political reasons. 
  • Remember the principle of reciprocity. Give, serve, and assist from a perspective of respect and equality rather than pity. 

Example Relief Society Activity:
This activity organized by my friend Kaylynn for her Pittsburg ward RS.
Our RS Presidency had a goal of doing more service this year. We decided to look into how to do something locally for refugees. In order to do this, we started out by contacting the three refugee resettlement agencies in our area.  

I talked with each of them about their needs and how we could serve. One ended up seeming more receptive to our help, so we chose to partner with them. Because we are an inner-city ward with limited financial resources among our Relief Society and many of the service opportunities with refugees are actually volunteer opportunities, we chose to host a speaker from the refugee service center for an RS activity.  

The purpose of this event was threefold: 
  1. Educate ourselves regarding the plight of refugees worldwide and in our community. 
  2. Learn about volunteer opportunities individual sisters could choose to do independent of the Relief Society.
  3. Collectively plan a service project suitable for the ward to do for the locally placed refugees. 

Other thoughts:
  • Many centers don't place refugees during the winter months. Considering this and the often limited storage space at refugee service centers, choose the season you collect materials wisely.
  • Be careful that your service is empowering to refugees and not going to make them overly dependent on any one person or group. 


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