Faith motivates people to help refugees in a strange new land

Written by William C. Duncan

September 1, 2021

With Utah Gov. Spencer Cox recently telling the news media that Utah can expect Afghan refugees to begin arriving “within the next few weeks,” it is important to recognize the critical contributions that religious organizations and religious individuals make to refugees, motivated by their faith. Such motivation is deep and durable and prompts actions that governments are unlikely to take, at least without great expense to taxpayers.

The need to resettle refugees from Afghanistan highlights one illustration of this important work.

A United Nations report notes:

Religious people and communities of many different faith traditions have a long history of aid for those in need, including those fleeing war, poverty or persecution. Religious orders and monasteries of various traditions offered places of safety and aid to the poor, and from the 19th century onwards religiously based charities of many different faith backgrounds have become involved in humanitarian assistance of various kinds.

The reports explains that this assistance transcends denominational boundaries: “Given the nature of current conflicts, many of the refugees are Muslim but most of the faith organisations involved in their resettlement are either Christian or Jewish.”

A sociologist at Michigan State notes that religious groups have historically provided important advocacy for refugees. “Starting in the late 19th century, and during the Holocaust, faith communities appealed to the U.S. government to welcome Jews seeking safety from persecution. They also advocated for allowing Armenians, who were murdered en masse by leaders of the Ottoman Empire, to immigrate to America.”

As refugees and other immigrants come to the United States from Afghanistan, as with other crises, faith groups have helped them with temporary housing, food, transportation, clothing, healthcare, etc.

Past experience shows religious groups have also facilitated “refugees’ long-term integration, years after their initial arrival.” A study from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service highlighted the value of all of this assistance. It “found that the State Department funded only 39 percent of the actual cost of resettling a refugee, while private giving covered the remaining 61 percent.”

Sometimes, however, this assistance can put religious groups at odds with government policies. A faith-based organization, No More Deaths, “maintains a year-round humanitarian presence in the deserts of southwestern Arizona.” Its “volunteers hike the trails and leave water, food, socks, blankets, and other supplies. Under the direction of our medical team, volunteers provide emergency first-aid treatment to individuals in distress.”

Some of its volunteers, however, have faced federal charges for littering or harboring undocumented immigrants for their activities.

A case pending in Texas involves the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, which “provides food, clothing, medical care, and temporary rest for over 1,000 migrants each day who have been released by Border Patrol.” The state of Texas issued an order “forbidding non-governmental entities from transporting migrants anywhere in Texas” as a way of preventing the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. Department of Justice, recognizing the good the center provides, has challenged the order so that the center can continue to do its work.

Refugees and other immigrants are in a particularly vulnerable situation. The help provided them by people of faith and religious organizations is critical – and therefore, ensuring that such help can be given unimpeded is an important policy priority. As Afghan refugees begin arriving in Utah, we should remember that the contributions of religious organizations and the protection of religious expression make such humanitarian relief efforts viable.

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