Resettling in Their Brave New World
By julian lukins
January 26, 2012
In 2010, up to 80,000 refugees—victims of war and persecution in their homelands—will be invited by the United States government to come to the U.S. to replant their lives.
Many of them have fled political oppression, religious discrimination, ethnic warfare, even genocide. Often they come directly from a primitive refugee camp where they’ve waited in limbo for years. To return home could mean imprisonment, torture or death.
For many, when they step off the plane in America, it’s as if they’ve landed on a different planet. Walking into their American apartment for the first time, refugees enter a world of bewilderment … electric light switches, flushing toilets, microwave ovens and other things they’ve never encountered.
And so begins a great learning adventure. What refugees need is someone to be their friend, their guide in this confusing new world; someone who’s prepared to learn from them as well as teach them; someone with a heart of gold, yes—but also someone who understands the complexities of refugee resettlement.
“The local church is the perfect match for refugee resettlement,” says Dan Kosten, director of World Relief’s refugee work in 11 states, “because the local church is commissioned by Christ Himself to carry out His work in the world and offers refugees what they need the most to adapt successfully—that is, community in which relationships can be restored.”
Refugees, Kosten explains, typically go through three distinct phases after arriving in America:
The first few weeks is usually characterized by unrealistic expectations. Many refugees believe the stories they’ve heard in the camps about America being the Promised Land. They expect to find a well-paying job quickly and live the good life. But soon they realize things don’t happen that easily. They begin to feel isolated and alienated from the new culture they’re surrounded by. They’re struck by the realization of all that has been lost. The honeymoon is over.
The Reality Check
Next, reality sets in. Refugees look for a job, often minimum wage, janitorial or fast-food type work, even though they might have been skilled workers, teachers or doctors in their homeland. They sink or swim on their ability to speak English. And parents get frustrated when their children pick up the language and adapt to the culture more quickly than they do. Some refugees want to go back home.
The 5-Year Milestone
This is the critical final phase. By now, most refugees have made most of the major adjustments. If they are disappointed, they usually transfer their hopes and dreams to their children.
Knowing how to guide refugees through these traumatic stages in the resettlement process is more than just a wing and a prayer. Successful transition requires strategy. “Jesus’ own strategy is the most effective response,” Kosten says.
According to Kosten, Christ’s blueprint for refugee resettlement is found in the biblical story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Most of us are familiar with the story—a man is robbed and beaten, a couple of religious wimps pass by without helping, and then the good guy stops to assist the half-dead stranger.
World Relief—which has resettled more than 220,000 refugees in the U.S. over the past 30 years—has compiled a “Good Neighbor Guide” to help equip its volunteers, based on four principles in Jesus’ parable:
Principle #1: Temporary Assistance Versus Adoption
The Good Samaritan interrupted his journey long enough to help a stranger in desperate need. World Relief, likewise, views the resettlement process as temporary assistance—typically 30 to 90 days. Once the injured man’s immediate, urgent needs were met, the Good Samaritan tapped into available community resources—in this case, the innkeeper. The mistake some well-meaning people make, Kosten says, is that they try to adopt the refugee family, acting like an overly protective parent. That, Kosten maintains, creates dependency instead of the desired goal: self-sufficiency. And such a heavy commitment can quickly lead to burn-out, leaving the would-be Good Samaritan physically and emotionally drained.
Principle #2: Replanting Lives
Just as the Good Samaritan bandaged the victim’s wounds and then went on his way, so refugees must be allowed to replant their own lives without constantly leaning on others. Refugees are survivors. They’ve already overcome incredible challenges. Ultimately, they’re responsible for their own lives—and they can handle it. They just need someone to show them how to catch the bus, shop for groceries and what to do at the doctor’s office. Show them how—and then they go!
Principle #3: Community
There’s no place for Lone Rangers in refugee resettlement. The Good Samaritan took the victim to an inn—the hub of the local community—where he knew the man would get the support he needed. Likewise, refugees can access a wide variety of community resources such as support groups, health clinics, job services and ESL classes. World Relief builds relationships within the community—and then the refugees make their own way.
Principle #4: Friendship
Refugees crave meaningful friendships. The Good Samaritan did more than just the bare minimum; he went the extra mile and showed genuine compassion and friendship.
So the goal of refugee resettlement is to help refugees get on their feet and thrive in America, without creating dependence. Their ability to support themselves, make their own choices and ultimately contribute to their community is in everyone’s best interest.
It’s life-changing for everyone. In the words of one volunteer: “I thought I would change them … in the end, they changed me.”