For you were strangers in the land of Egypt

by Jacob Schmidt

Every year, Spokane welcomes around 500 refugees to call our city home. Many of those people live within a few blocks of Whitworth. Despite what you may have heard from cable news or your Facebook-happy uncle, they are not dangerous. In fact, they could really use your help.

As a nation, we seem to have a short attention span and faulty memory. I have been astonished by the number of people who act as if they had never heard the word “refugee” prior to this past fall. While the “global refugee crisis” has certainly increased the number of displaced peoples, the United States has been taking in a constant stream of asylum seekers for centuries. In fact, many of the churches you may attend have likely taken special offerings to support an organization called World Relief, a Christ-centered refugee resettlement organization. But we all seem to have ignored or forgotten about this, as I hear more buzzword-laden talk about how dangerous and “un-vettable” these people are. This is simply not the case.

All immigrants and visitors to the U.S. have to pass certain security checks through the departments of State and Homeland Security (DHS). These are just ordinary tourists and legal immigrants; for refugees, the process is much longer. A displaced person looking to resettle here must first apply for an interview with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and if she passes this, another interview with the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. This process can take years.

Meanwhile, the majority of them are living in camps in which they are not allowed to hold a job and thus become completely dependant on the support provided by the UN and local groups. The UNHCR restricts employment in order to avoid the transformation of refugee camps into a source of slave labor. The largest of these camps are in Kenya and Jordan, with some housing as many as 330,000 people in a crowded array of tents. These people do not want to live in the Kenyan or Jordanian desert. They would have preferred to stay in their homes. However, because of civil wars, religious persecution, or the vast unintended consequences of our global war on terror, returning home is not an option.

For someone lucky enough to make it through the interview process proceed to U.S. interagency biographical security checks performed by the DHS, FBI, NCCIC, and State Department. If this search does not unearth any criminal history, she will be interviewed by the DHS. Then another round of background checks by the Department of Defense. Then even more database cross referencing until finally, she is allowed to get on a plane and come to the United States. Upon arrival, she will be given 90 days of support before she must apply to other government programs to receive assistance. During this time she must pay back the cost of her travel to the U.S.

It should be clear from all of this that these people are not simply walking off the battlefield and onto a plane. In fact they are the most heavily vetted people in this country. If someone wished to carry out an attack on the United States, they would be far wiser to pose as a tourist than a refugee. To claim that we should not be helping these people because of inflated fears about the very groups that many of them are fleeing is to disregard Christian teaching and basic human morality.

If any of this is even remotely compelling to you, if you have even a shard of guilt for the damage your country has done in the Middle East, and especially if you take seriously the Christian imperative to welcome the stranger into your home, then please contact World Relief Spokane. I have been working with this wonderful organization for the past year as a mentor and employment specialist. We are always in need of volunteers to help refugees learn their way around Spokane, figure out the bus schedule, go grocery shopping or practice their English. My interactions with Spokane’s vibrant refugee population has taught me so much about the world we live in and what it looks like to build the Kingdom of God, I ask that you join me.

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