Refugees in Our Homes: From Crisis to Community

The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) defines refugees as those “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail [themselves] of the protection of that country”, a definition that has been used since the 1951 Refugee Convention. While we hear about refugees, many people still are not aware of the issues concerning refugees and the refugee crisis.

What’s Wrong with “Crisis”?

In television segments and newspaper clippings, the refugee cause is framed as a humanitarian “crisis”. Such a frame is troubling for several reasons. Primarily, “crisis” implies a singular event, one whose treatment includes a series of aid drops and humanitarian missions. Refugees are treated as a problem in other parts of the world that rely on such aid.  They are a problem that we need to solve only because refugee resettlement has impacted our own country’s borders. Secondly, “crisis” tells us that these problems cannot be solved by people, but by institutions and governments, that it is beyond our individual abilities to confront.

If we are to bring about peace and healing for the people who deserve it, we need to change the conversation and understand how we play a very important role in doing so. We need to renegotiate how the refugee “crisis” is discussed in our media and how it plays out in the political arena.

Refugees in the US

It’s interesting to compare how we talk about refugees internationally, those in refugee camps or seeking asylum in other countries, with the refugees resettling in the US. Often times, our politicians and media outlets talk about the fears of letting in refugees. Not enough resources, security threats, and cultural differences are just some of the excuses given. It’s not commonly known that refugees undergo some of the most extensive security checks and interview processes before arriving to the US. Once in the United States, the discussion ends before addressing the topic of providing refugees with resettlement services.

While coming to a new country as a refugee is a happy occasion for many escaping violent conflict, our collective consciousness should not end there.

As a former Program Development Director for The Tiyya Foundation, a non-profit in Orange County dedicated to providing basic necessities and educational opportunities to refugees, I know firsthand that the journey for a refugee begins, not ends, with resettlement.

What Refugees Don’t Need

We know that refugees are not created because of a lack of resources and space, but because of war, violence, and persecution. Thus, the solution to the “crisis” is not purely in immigration reform policies or delivering much-needed supplies to foreign refugee camps. Though those things are necessary, they are not the solution. For many, refugee resettlement—that is, forming a new home in a new place, surrounded by people and a language they are unfamiliar with, is the key issue. Resettlement has to include providing opportunities for refugees to engage with their new community. That engagement can come in different forms, from cross-cultural dialogue sessions and refugee mothers’ groups to English language acquisition classes and youth tutoring programs. Creating communities that are cognizant of the vast experiences of refugees and that are sensitive to the trauma many refugees face, especially during resettlement, is crucial in putting an end to the refugee “crisis”.

On How to Create Refugee-Loving Communities

Building inclusive and loving communities for refugees and for those who work with them is tough work. It takes a lot to listen to the various stories of lost homes and lost lives. But, if you are committed to doing your part, the work is well worth it. You don’t have to live on a refugee camp or be a refugee to help broaden and popularize holistic resettlement practices. It’s not easy, but it is always rewarding.

1. Educate. Educate. Educate.

Yourselves, your family members, your friends, and anyone who will listen! Refugees come from all different backgrounds and resettle in different countries for a variety of reasons. If you want to learn about how to help refugees, you need to learn about why refugees are here and what the demographics are like in your local community. The experiences of incoming Syrian refugees may have similarities to refugees from Vietnam or Somalia, for instance. But, they also have different histories and cultures that need to be valued and understood. Even the most well-intentioned of people can do more harm than good if they aren’t aware of the culture, needs, and values of refugees from different backgrounds. Cultural Orientation Resource Center has an amazing collection of resources to get you started on learning about countries that resettled refugees come from.

2. Find local initiatives that help refugees acclimate to a new environment.

These initiatives can be a part of a religious organization, non-profit, or government agency.  Some organizations focus on providing basic necessities, some help with educating refugee youth, and some focus on preparing the adults for work. Regardless of what organization it is, find out what it is they do and what their needs are. And make sure that these organizations focus on inclusion, not erasure. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Being respectful and understanding of a refugee’s culture is integral in creating a loving community for them to acclimate in. Be wary of organizations or initiatives that don’t take those considerations into account.

3. Volunteer your time.

The best way to learn is to do. Once you learn about refugees, regardless of where their home country is, it’s hard to ignore the issues they face when they come to the US. If you find a non-profit you support, request more information from them and try to volunteer your time. At Tiyya, you can become a college mentor for refugee youth, teach ESL, help coach refugees on how to find jobs, and so much more. Refugees need holistic support in meeting basic needs, but also creating friendships that make it a little easier to adjust to their new home.

4. Donate money or host a fundraiser to support local refugee assistance organizations.

It would be ideal if these organizations could run off of purely good intentions and hard work, but money does a great deal to ensure more refugees are served. Host a fundraiser and donate the funds to local and/or international refugee organizations you support. You may not be able to donate to every organization you find, but pick ones that align with the things you care about most. The choices you make matter, including where you give to!

5. Make sure to educate yourself and others again.

If you start researching refugee needs in your community and volunteer your time, it can be easy to get caught up in the work. It’s equally important to spread the message to others who don’t have the opportunity to learn about and work with refugees. If you hear someone talking about immigration and refugee causes, but they are saying things you don’t agree with, speak up! Remaining silent when others speak ignorantly makes it that much harder to foster understanding and cooperation for refugee communities.

The refugee “crisis” is a convoluted one, bogged down by politics and histories of conflict. But, the formation of inclusive communities that incorporate refugees and their cultures can ensure much-needed healing can begin. By educating yourself and taking steps to assist refugees in your own community, we will shift the global narrative full of suffering and fear. We have the opportunity to create and showcase the loving communities that refugees were denied, and that we all deserve.

Submitted by Guest Writer Christina Ong