‘People are suffering from trauma,’ panelist says at multifaith event highlighting need for solidarity with refugees, displaced people

Sudanese refugees who fled the violence in their country sat in their shelter May 11, 2023, in Koufroun, Chad, near that country’s border with Sudan. (OSV News Photo by Zohra Bensemra, Reuters)

By Maria-Pia Negro Chin

To minister to those whose lives have been forever changed by displacement, faith organizations need to collaborate, make connections and advocate for lasting solutions, said a panel of experts at a multifaith event for World Refugee Day.

The June 20 panel included Bill Canny, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Migration and Refugee Service; Anwar Khan, co-founder and president of Islamic Relief USA; and Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit founded in the late 19th century as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The moderator was Bishop Mariann Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

The “Hope Away from Home: A Multifaith Celebration of World Refugee Day” event occurred at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington and was livestreamed.

During his opening remarks, Matt Reynolds of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N. Refugee Agency, said that more than 110 million people were forced to flee their homes. This year alone, 19 million have been forcibly displaced, said Reynolds.

These numbers include at least 35.3 million refugees, 62.5 million internally displaced, 5.4 million asylum-seekers and 5.2 million others in need of international protection, according to the UNHCR’s Global Trends 2022 report. UNHCR now estimates that by the end of this year, the total number of displaced persons will be 117 million.

“These numbers are staggering and unacceptable,” Reynolds said. But “while numbers can provide scope, we must remember that they represent millions of actual people — fathers, mothers, children, families, families and people like you and me.”

Panelists shared examples of interfaith communities showing solidarity with refugees and connecting person-to-person. This included “making sure that we give them access and connections to their own faith traditions and to their own communities,” said Hetfield.

He recalled how three faith communities in St. Louis rallied together to make sure Afghan refugees could observe the first Ramadan and Iftar — the first meal of the fasting day — after coming to the United States through Operation Allies Welcome, an effort across government agencies to resettle vulnerable Afghans, including those who worked on behalf of the United States.

Meanwhile, Canny highlighted volunteers, such as parishioners at a Catholic church in Rochester, New York, who refurbished a vacant convent to accommodate a family of 11 Syrian refugees. He added that they also made sure people had rides, information about schools and services, and English-language assistance through a volunteer network.

Canny also stressed the importance of going beyond meeting basic needs, including encouraging the newly arrived to pursue career paths or be able to use their professional degrees, or certifications, in the United States. “I think we have to be mindful of, as we seek to resettle more people, that our services are robust for everyone,” he said. “We don’t want to be satisfied with resettling people to our working poor.”

Like Khan, Reynolds emphasized that while those forced to flee their home leave much behind, they bring “their cultures, experiences, talents, skills and dreams, all of which make communities around the world and across the United States stronger and more vibrant.”

Among the barriers displaced people face are legal backlogs to regularize their migration status — with Hetfield describing the wait for those who seek protection in the United States and abroad as “unfathomable.”

Hetfield said that long processes often delay the ability to seek employment and reunite with families. “Backlogs are the most serious impediment to an effective asylum system. And it’s one that has got to be addressed,” he added.

Speaking about the “connection between anxiety and trauma and our refugees’ status determination process,” Hetfield recalled how 20 years ago, HIAS realized the resettlement process was so traumatic that they offered psychosocial services to urban refugees from Nairobi, Kenya, who were being resettled to the United States, Australia and Canada.

He added that trauma continues to affect today’s refugees because, by the refugee definition of 1951, people must prove that they left their country because they were persecuted and because of who they are and their beliefs.

“Because to get through a refugee status determination, you are required to talk about the worst things that have ever happened to you in your life. Why they happened to you, what was going through the mind of the person who was torturing you or after you when he or she committed these horrendous acts,” Hetfield explained. “And you’re telling this to a person who doesn’t believe you, who is paid to be a skeptic to try to see whether or not you are lying to them, whether or not you’re stretching the truth or committing fraud to get through this process.”

Panelists also said that parolees (those who have temporary permission to stay in the United States, such as Ukrainians and Afghans), refugees and asylum-seekers are all people who need protection and certainty about their status and the safety of their families in the future.

Khan agreed, saying there is a great need for more lawyers and resources for people who have been dealing with traumatic experiences and are now facing uncertainties. “We need to give them a sense of stability. We need to give them a sense of hope,” he said.

“People are suffering from trauma. They don’t want handouts. These programs are designed to help people to help themselves,” as opposed to settling people in camps, said Khan, whose mother and father were refugees.

Also present at the event was Julieta Valls Noyes, the assistant secretary of state for Population, Refugees, and Migration of the U.S. and former ambassador to Croatia. She discussed the Biden administration’s goal of admitting 125,000 refugees into the U.S. annually and efforts to find “ways to streamline our rigorous refugee vetting process without compromising its integrity.”

She highlighted the need “to rebuild capacity and infrastructure that has deteriorated over years of low admissions numbers and during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Valls Noyes commended the work of the organizations present as a natural extension of their faiths, values and charisms. “All of your teams are foundational pillars of our country’s refugee assistance infrastructure, serving refugees and migrants from any and all religious tradition or none at all,” she said.

Also marking World Refugee Day, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, underscored the enduring commitment of the Catholic Church to refugees, asylum seekers and other forcibly displaced persons.

“At a time when record-breaking numbers of people across the globe are forcibly displaced, we join in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world who seek safety, security and the means for a dignified life,” Bishop Seitz said in a June 20 statement. “For centuries, American Catholics have led efforts to welcome refugees to our communities, providing Christian charity and hospitality to newcomers from all walks of life. We are privileged to partake in this ministry with many others who, inspired by their own faiths, seek to provide hope to those in need.”

He also highlighted the “countless contributions made by generations of forcibly displaced persons who have come to call this land their own,” adding that “we remain steadfast in our support, guided by the courageous examples of those who came before.”

Observed annually on June 20, World Refugee Day was created by the United Nations to honor “the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution.”

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