By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, walked his audience at Bettendorf Christian Church through Scripture passages to help guide Christians’ response to the global refugee crisis. Showing pictures of his family’s treasured crèche on the church’s large overhead screens, Soerens said, “Jesus himself was a child refugee.”
World Relief Quad Cities, which expects to welcome 175 refugees to the western Illinois and eastern Iowa region by the end of this year, organized the event titled Rebuilding “Welcome” in the Quad Cities. Organizers described the event as an educational opportunity for participants to learn more about the situations in Afghanistan and Haiti and to explore ways local churches can work together to care for refugees arriving in the Quad Cities.
Following Soerens’ presentation, refugees and volunteers with World Relief Quad Cities, including diocesan deacon candidate Ryan Burchett, shared their insights and experiences. In a pre-recorded video, middle school students from the area shared what they have learned about refugees.
The United Nations defines refugees as “persons who are outside of their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.” No formal definition exists for an international migrant but the UN says, “most experts agree that an international migrant is someone who changes his or her country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status.”
Soerens cited studies (including by evangelical groups) about immigrants and refugees and the contributions they make in the U.S. He pointed out that often the debate about migration focuses on what immigrants “take” from the U.S. rather than what they contribute. He noted that 44 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded or co-founded by immigrants or their children (New American Economy, July 29, 2020). Twenty years after their arrival, the average adult refugee has contributed approximately $21,000 more in taxes than they received in government contributions, Soerens said.
He cited passages from Scripture emphasizing God’s particular concern for the vulnerable: the orphan, the widow and the foreigner. Christians are to “love our neighbor as ourselves, without caveat.” Love for one’s neighbor can require taking risks, as the Good Samaritan did in Luke’s Gospel, coming to the aid of a wounded man on the road. “Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Love your neighbor so long as it’s safe.’”
Soerens pointed out refugees arrive in this country following a thorough vetting process. For people who ask, “What about the immigrants who are not here at the invitation of the U.S.?,” he responds that World Relief believes in secure borders but also recognizes that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are not a threat to others. They do not want to risk breaking the law for fear of getting deported. Honoring the law while showing compassion can work hand in hand, through restitution-based immigration reform, he added.
He highlighted a Christian response to refugees and immigrants that includes prayer, listening, empowering churches abroad, advocacy, serving locally and evangelism. The most basic need of immigrants and refugees: “friendship.”
“I thought the main speaker did an outstanding job of bringing the Scripture to bear on the issues of asylum, refugee and legal and undocumented immigrants,” said Glenn Leach, a volunteer in the Diocese of Davenport’s Social Action Office. The speaker “tailored his remarks to his evangelical audience and the typical myths about refugees and immigration. He began his remarks quoting a study of evangelicals by evangelicals, saying that only 12% of evangelicals involved indicated that the Bible was a significant source of their positions on these issues.” Catholics tend to be no different than others on these issues, Leach added.
During the panel discussion, World Relief ambassador Mbanzamihigo “Abe” Ibrahim, a native of Tanzania, shared his story of arriving in the U.S. in 2007. He attended Rock Island High School in Rock Island, Illinois, worked for World Relief and now is in college with dreams of becoming a psychologist.
World Relief Quad Cities volunteer Sandi Schrag said her family once lived in a foreign country and appreciated the kindness bestowed on them. When her family moved to the Quad Cities in 2012, they got involved in volunteering with World Relief. It is important for her to teach her kids to love God and to love their neighbors, she said.
Burchett talked about his parish’s (St. Paul the Apostle in Davenport) cultural partnership team volunteering to assist a refugee family from Myanmar, helping the members to navigate life in the Quad Cities. That family moved out of the area and now the parish is assisting a family from Burundi. The volunteer experience “allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone,” he said. Burchett also met a person from Tanzania who now works for Burchett’s family-owned Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire. “When you open those doors (to refugees and immigrants), you will see Christ,” Burchett said.
Laura Fontaine, director of World Relief Quad Cities, talked about her love for her work with refugees and the value of choosing to walk alongside them. “Strangers turn into close friends,” she said.
Chantal Nabageni, a World Relief friend and refugee, is from the Congo, but spent 13 years in a Burundi refugee camp with her family, she said. It was a difficult time because there is no respect for refugees, no opportunities, she said. Today, she works as a community health care worker for Community Health Care in the Quad Cities, a very good job, she said. “World Relief is changing lives.”
World Relief welcomes volunteers. To learn more, visit worldreliefquadcities.org.