Did you know there are more than 60 million displaced people in the world today? These are men, women, and children who cannot return to their homeland due to war, persecution, or disaster. Less than 1% will become resettled as refugees in a handful of benevolent countries who will take them. Since the 1980s, the Capital Region has received thousands of refugees, many from Burma, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Congo, Syria, Sudan and other countries. Though the numbers for new refugees are down this year, according to U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), our local resettling agency, there are still many, many neighbors who could use a hand.
Two years ago, as a volunteer mentor with USCRI, I became acquainted with two Afghan widows and their children, ages 4 to 13. They are part of a larger clan of 10 brothers, five who were killed by the Taliban. Can you imagine what it has been like for them to land in Albany with no English skills, then try to navigate grocery shopping, school systems, healthcare, DSS, taxes, and more of our complex American life? It’s not easy at all, but the joy I receive in coming alongside them (along with frustrations) is immeasurable.
So what does it look like to help a family become settled? It looks like this:
- reading through mail,
- making appointments for vaccinations,
- doctor visits, dentist visits (usually their first),
- calling to remind them about appointments,
- showing up for appointments and reminding them again (!),
- filling out forms and more forms,
- responding to teacher texts (Can M’s mom sign a form for the field trip?),
- helping with homework,
- sitting on the floor for hours sipping chai and eating yummy rice dishes,
- arranging an apple-picking trip with other friends,
- finding tutors,
- showing photos of my family,
- hosting Afghan women for tea,
- taking some kids to their first movie,
- teaching the Hokey Pokey and laughing hysterically at kids singing and dancing,
- pantomiming my way through Walmart with the moms,
- watching ten children learn English in just a few months and say words like “industrialization” and rejoicing with them,
- celebrating Eid with them and talking about God, prayer and fasting,
- having young girls paint my hands with henna,
- receiving many, many hugs and “thank yous”
… you get the picture.
As followers of Jesus, we know that widows and orphans hold a special place in God’s heart, as do strangers, foreigners and the oppressed. How we treat them says much about who we are. As we move toward them with compassion, it’s as if we are taking care of Jesus himself.
But, that doesn’t make it easy! Stepping into another person’s culture and helping them understand yours is always a challenge. My Afghan friends often say,
“Sharon, America is so busy! Everyone is always busy! Why can’t you stay today and have some chai?”
(This, after I stayed for an hour the day before after another doctor/dentist/teacher/DSS/Green Card/shopping appointment.) Our Persian friends have much to teach us about hospitality and enjoying people.
In the book, Seeking Refuge, Bill Hybels says “The local church is the hope of the world.” We are definitely the hope of a few of our neighbors who are needing a hand in learning English, learning how to drive, complaining to their landlord, getting their kids into summer school, and a host of other things. For many of the folks who are our new neighbors, we are also their hope in knowing that God made them and loves them. They may not have ever met a Christian believer in their other world. But now, God has them here, where they can experience the love and compassion of God’s people, the hope of the world.
Our region has numerous agencies and nonprofits providing support to immigrants and refugees, and there are quite a number of churches and synagogues involved as well. A mentor network exists which provides invaluable assistance, and the Refugee Roundtable meets bi-monthly for additional networking. Some places to start if you want to help – USCRI, RISSE, Trinity Alliance’s Refugee Community Health Partnership or reach out to me, personally.
You can contact Sharon at her email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sharon Denney Lobel is new to Albany, also, and enjoys learning about this city alongside her refugee friends. A staff member of Cru’s City Ministry, she also leads the International Friendship Team at Loudonville Community Church, and dreams of building a network of Christians throughout the Capital Region who work, pray and learn together as they serve the refugee and immigrant community.