In a Refugee’s Shoes
By Judith Santiago*
May 1, 2010 – “Time’s up! The boats are leaving! Get on or get left behind!” These were the words shouted by Stephen Copley, director of Justice for Our Neighbors-Arkansas, who lent his support to act as a mean guard in a refugee resettlement simulation led by Naomi Madsen, Program Manager for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) Refugee Ministry.
The simulation during the United Methodist Women’s Assembly in St. Louis, Missouri, offered workshop participants an example of the harsh realities faced by millions of refugees around the world. Most refugees are forced to flee their homes because of political, social or religious persecution, and are often unjustly harassed or abused by armed soldiers.
“The things you might think to be important are not really important at all,” said Madsen describing the duress a refugee may be under when forced at a moment’s notice to flee his/her home.
The exercise raised participant’s consciousness to another level, challenging them to give up their personal belongings or items of survival to help another person in need. The choice between keeping food or water, and denying one’s own need was a personal test for each participant.
Madsen said being open to refugees “makes the world bigger and smaller all at the same time.” Bigger, because the world that your refugee neighbor makes known to you, and smaller because after time, your distant neighbor becomes a dear friend.
“Having a person from another country live in your home for a while is like opening a window to the world,” said Mary Lynne Ball, refugee immigration coordinator for Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, who quoted an unknown source. Ball shared her church’s involvement in sponsoring refugees, as well as her own family experience in connecting with refugee families.
Copley is engaging in refugee ministry with local Methodist churches and other partners like Catholic Charities to help refugees find jobs or obtain literacy training.
“We’ve all received hospitality….and we all have it to give.”
Peggy Bermudez, lay leader and co-chair of outreach ministry at Christ United Methodist Church, Amherst, New York, has sponsored six refugee families over the past 11 years. She compassionately shared a personal story with workshop participants about the value of hospitality and helping those in need.
Bermudez relayed a story about her family coming from Sweden in the 1850’s. Her great, great grandparents’ farm was a stop in the underground railroad. For a long time, Bermudez believed that her family ran this railroad stop. But to her surprise, her family’s neighbors were African-Americans who not only assisted in the freeing of slaves, but they taught her family English and sold them farmland. In learning this, Bermudez said she felt like she received their hospitality. Deeply moved, Bermudez said, “We’ve all received hospitality, and we all have it to give.”
70 Years of Refugee Assistance
Since 1940, UMCOR has been assisting refugees, extending hospitality, welcoming the stranger, and raising the “voice of conscience” among United Methodists as they extend the hand of Christ to welcome the distant neighbor. UMCOR, in partnership with Church World Service and affiliates works to help refugee families settle into a new life and home in the US. They help register refugee children in school, secure jobs or training for the parents, find apartments, obtain healthcare, and much more.