Erica Eastley is a friend and has been a BCC participant for many years.
The first time I visited a refugee camp was in college in 1995 in the West Bank. I’d gone with two women I’d just met to visit the family of a Palestinian BYU student and they took us to a refugee camp. They also gave us figs fresh off a tree. Since then I’ve been in more refugee camps in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip (where I ate one of the best and most memorable meals I’ve ever had before spending the night with a Palestinian family) and I’ve met refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan living in Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, and the US. I’ve seen teenagers working their way through Mexico from Central America to the US. I’ve moved overseas with my family with two suitcases each to new countries where I didn’t speak much of the language or know how to manage everyday life. Even though I can’t possibly imagine the terror that so many refugees have gone through, I have listened to their stories and experienced a few of the challenges of resettlement and I know that many need help.
When President Linda Burton announced the church’s new refugee relief effort in the first session of conference, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Even if only the choir* had sung that night, it would have been a great meeting (and did you hear both President Burton and Elder Eyring talk about the woman who anointed Jesus?), but having the church start a relief effort in a cause I think is so important is a once in a lifetime thing. Elder Kearon’s talk and President Uchtdorf’s reaction to it topped it all off at the end of conference.
But I know that projects like this come and go, and I know that this one is hard to implement because people don’t know how to get started. It’s especially challenging because no one can create a worldwide, comprehensive list of people or organizations to contact because they’re different for every area. There’s also a lot of fear and misinformation out there about refugees that makes it scary for some people to get involved. I think a lot of members of the church need a little more hand-holding on this one, and that’s okay.
I’ve worked with a friend of mine to create a list of resources and tips for getting started and you can find it here. Like I said, no one can create a list that works for everyone, but this includes ways for people (like me) who aren’t always in the US to help, who don’t have agencies in their area, who don’t have much time, and/or who need really simple things to do. It also has ideas for contacting agencies and organizations and links for learning more about the worldwide crisis. Did you know there are video games about refugees? And LEGO lesson plans for teaching children?
In the end, if you really want to be useful you have to send out some emails or make some phone calls and get a background check, but it can be done. There are so many humanitarian crises around the world where it’s best to send money and say some prayers, but this time we can actually give our time and talents.
Another thing I like about this relief effort is that it doesn’t have to be about your calling. I don’t have a RS calling but I still was able to help plan a RS activity this month about helping refugees in our area. We shared local ideas and resources and our stake is planning a volunteer fair in a couple of weeks where representatives of many local agencies will present their needs. Wards and stakes can coordinate with each other and this is a worthwhile opportunity to create relationships with other secular and religious organizations. Since our church can be rather insular at times, we need reasons to branch out.
Elder Kearon said,
[E]ach one of us can increase our awareness of the world events that drive these families from their homes. We must take a stand against intolerance and advocate respect and understanding across cultures and traditions. Meeting refugee families and hearing their stories with your own ears, and not from a screen or newspaper, will change you. Real friendships will develop and will foster compassion and successful integration.
Honestly, it’s so nice when you get great quotes like this in conference and this is true. We tried it for ourselves in our ward.
Last week we hosted a welcome dinner at the church for three Afghan families who recently were resettled in the US. It wasn’t easy to plan, especially the transportation including car seats for many children, but the Lutheran refugee agency we coordinated with was so helpful in making this happen. And if there’s anything that Mormon women are supposed to be good at, it’s feeding a crowd of people who don’t drink alcohol.
None of the Afghan families have been in the US for more than two months. The mother in one family is pregnant, none of the adult women speak English, everyone is looking for work and the children are transitioning to new schools. It’s challenging in so many ways and not pleasant for them to be dealing with the current wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in the US. Their situations are hard, but nothing in comparison to what they left behind in Afghanistan.
The LDS families who were able to attend or drive spent a lot time talking to these Afghan families, hearing about their lives in Afghanistan, and learning about their current challenges. I’ve spent the last 20 years meeting people from different countries and cultures and it was good to see members of my ward having a chance to do the same. Like Elder Kearon said, hearing their stories, told by themselves, does change you.
And in the tradition of all good dinners at the church, all the little children, both Muslim and Mormon, Afghan or American, had a great time running around the cultural hall together. Isn’t that what it’s really all about?
*I still think about that choir often and the huge undertaking it would have been to make it happen. Many of the women singing were not native English speakers (some don’t speak much English at all) and it would have been much more difficult than usual to learn the songs. Since many of the women are converts with a wide variety of family support for their conversions and with a wide variety of socioeconomic challenges, transportation and scheduling would have been a bigger challenge too. Also, when choirs like these are organized (this was 350 women from 7 stakes), it’s usually easy for each ward to find 5-7 women who have Western musical experience. But in this case, there would have been a much smaller pool of women to select from and everyone would have been needed, no matter her musical background.