Part 3: Welcoming Refugees in Your Community
There are many things you can do as an individual or a group to welcome refugees. Below are four ways you can volunteer. Click on the headings here and it will take you to the appropriate section. We’ve also included some event planning tips for you to consider before your event.
Sharing a meal together is a timeless tradition that cuts across all cultures and religions. The act of inviting recently arrived immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers into the hospitality of a communal meal holds immense meaning; it offers a welcoming space to get to know and learn from one another.
#RefugeesWelcome events can include more than a meal – celebrations of cultural traditions such as music, dance, or story-telling can be very welcoming. #RefugeesWelcome events not only show hospitality – they can also influence local social and political attitudes about refugee resettlement and put pressure on our representatives to be more welcoming.
Many community groups and congregations have hosted welcome dinners that also double as fundraising events to collect donations and funds to help refugees rebuild their lives in the United States.
Note that it’s important to consider #RefugeesWelcome events that include all refugees. While the crisis in Syria has opened many peoples’ eyes to the needs of refugees, many other refugee communities, who have suffered equally but received less publicity, will be happy to be included in your event.
Why it is important to include all refugees
While the crisis in Syria has opened many peoples’ eyes to the needs of refugees, it is important to invite all refugees to Welcome Dinners no matter their country of origin. Many other refugee communities, who have suffered equally but received less publicity, may understandably feel ignored if they are not included in your event. Since Central American families who have come to the U.S. seeking asylum do not receive support from resettlement agencies (see FAQ), the best way to reach them and extend an invitation to your #RefugeesWelcome event is to contact grassroots immigrant rights organizations near you which are likely to have relationships in the Central American community. If you have trouble identifying a local immigrant rights partner, please feel free to contact UUSC at email@example.com to collaborate.
- Determine your capacity. Begin by seeing how many members of your group or congregation want to be involved, and if the congregation or college will officially endorse your work to support refugees.
- Contact your local resettlement agency. Find out if they would be interested in partnering with you, and if they know families who would want to attend.
- Invite the interfaith community to help with the planning. Be sure to include Jewish and Muslim faith leaders in your event. Plan far enough in advance to have a few joint meetings and distribute roles among partners. Divide tasks for outreach, cooking/food, taking pictures and other logistics.
- Register your event. Once you have the resettlement office and faith/community leaders committed to assisting with the event, let us at UUSC know about your plans, and add your event to IIC’s #RefugeesWelcome page.
- Identify the best space for the event. It may be a church, mosque, temple, school, or community center.
- Invite refugees to speak. Ask the resettlement agency if any of the refugees attending would be interested in speaking. Depending on the circumstances, any kind of public speaking may not be appropriate for families who have just arrived. Instead, invite someone who is more settled and perhaps has become a leader within the community.
- Invite your representatives to attend. Remember to include both local and federal officials to attend and offer messages of support against anti-refugee legislation. Visibility of our elected officials on refugee issues is very important in our increasingly polarized political environment.
- Plan for translation/interpretation. Consider what kinds of translation are going to be necessary, both for speakers and for conversations at tables. Prepare icebreaker questions or activities for small groups at tables. Several cities have volunteer “interpreter collaboratives” who are willing to interpret at events like these for free.
- Include an action attendees can do after the event. This may be writing letters, signing pre-printed postcards to representatives, or signing a petition. Click here for more info.
- Plan ahead for follow-up. Welcome Dinners are not one-time events – they are a starting point for bridge building and deeper connections. Have a way non-refugee participants can sign up to learn more about volunteering. Encourage families to exchange contact information if they are interested. If there is major pro- or anti-refugee legislation coming up soon, invite participants to reconvene for a planning meeting to influence the outcome.
Helpful Tips to Making Refugees Feel Welcome at Your #RefugeesWelcome Event
- Avoid food that is not allowed under some refugees’ religion. In particular, be careful to avoid pork and any pork-based ingredients and gelatin for Muslim and Jewish guests. A full guide on halal food restrictions can be found here.
- Try to include food that comes from the different traditions of refugees who will be attending. If your resources only allow for a potluck among the hosts, that’s fine. Consider purchasing from a local restaurant that serves the foods of the refugee communities attending (they may offer a discount if you explain the purpose), or talk to the resettlement agency and see if there may be refugees who do catering you can hire for the event.
- Determine photography protocol and be sensitive about taking photos. Discuss in advance with the resettlement agency whether any kind of photography is appropriate – it may not be, based on culture or fear of potential reprisal and violence toward relatives in refugees’ home countries. Make sure everyone knows to only take pictures after asking for permission. If you plan to use photos for publications or websites, make sure that you get photo releases signed – but also make sure everyone fully understands the release (use interpreters when necessary).
- Make a media and social media plan. Depending on how photography is to be handled, decide whether you want to invite local press to cover the event. If you do, make sure refugees provide consent for your plans, including the specific media representatives you invite. A sample consent form is included in the appendix of this kit. Remember, refugees may not feel comfortable with their stories being shared publicly, since identifying information could bring harm to family members back in their home countries. If it makes sense, share promotion and stories on social media.
- Consider incorporating music, art, or dance. Be sure to represent the countries from which your group is welcoming new arrivals. Consider finding and learning a welcome song important to the culture/s of refugees honored in your event. One example is the ancient Arabic welcome song used when Prophet Mohammed was a refugee to Medina, called “Tala’al-Badru’alayna.”
- Ask non-refugee participants to focus questions on interests and commonalities. Too often, refugees who have been through trauma are asked to tell their story over and over. You want your guests to enjoy an event where they feel welcomed as their whole selves, without the expectation that they will revisit difficult memories, either as part of your program or during informal interactions with other participants. It isn’t superficial to talk about food, sports, music, or even celebrities – these conversations create a shared space where our guests can feel normal and connected.
- Be careful to respect refugees’ own religious traditions. Avoid incorporating religious expression that could feel like proselytizing. For example, if you plan to say grace for a meal, provide the opportunity for prayers to be offered from every religion in the room.
- Provide action and advocacy ideas for follow-ups. Attendees will feel inspired for next steps following your event. Be ready to offer opportunities for ongoing relationships with and support for refugee families, and to promote positive public policies and perspectives about refugees.
- Welcome to Shelbyville is a documentary that tells the story of how sharing a dinner can break down barriers and transform communities.
If you plan to host a #RefugeesWelcome event, a series of helpful resources are included: a printable “Welcome” placement in the most common languages and a printable “Refugees Welcome” sign which you can post.
Thank you to the Interfaith Immigration Coalition for spearheading the initiative to bring #RefugeesWelcome dinners and events to cities and towns throughout the U.S.
Supporting refugees through personal contact is incredibly important and meaningful. In the U.S. refugee resettlement process, newly arrived families receive free, government funded services for just the first 90 days. After that, while they may be eligible for certain benefits, they are generally expected to continue on their own. Three months is a very short time to adjust to a new country, language, and culture for migrants, particularly those who have been forced to leave their homes.
As a resettlement agency volunteer, you can:
- Provide community and cultural orientation
- Teach English Language Learners (ELL) classes or have English conversation meet-ups
- Offer transportation to appointments
- Help find household items and set up apartments
- Help families enroll children in schools
- Tutor teens and children
- Coach adults to prepare for job interviews and write resumes
- Offer workshops such as art for children or employment skills for adults
- Help with office-based tasks
If you’d like to volunteer with a local resettlement agency, it’s likely that there is a refugee resettlement agency near you. The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement has a national map to help you find the closest resettlement agencies.
You may want to volunteer as an individual, or as a group from your congregation, campus group, or community organization. Before you begin, make sure you are ready to make a commitment of at least 2-4 hours every few weeks for at least 3 to 6 months. Volunteering can be flexible with your work schedule, but building real relationships requires a steady presence.
If your volunteer interest involves providing housing to refugees, or if you would like to volunteer with an organization based in a specific cultural community, please see the FAQs.
If the resettlement agency has faced harassment, as many have, contact the Executive Director and offer your group’s moral support and willingness to voice your support for them in public.
Additionally, consider volunteering with service organizations based in specific cultural communities, such as the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), which serves immigrants as well as economically disadvantaged local communities; ACCESS currently has locations in 11 states.
Asylum-seekers who apply for protection once they are inside the United States or at a port of entry have to wait between 1.5 to 4 years for their cases to be heard, depending on their location. Asylum-seekers are placed immediately into one of more than 250 detention centers throughout the United States and often must wait there for an indefinite time.
Under the Trump administration’s tough-on-immigrants approach, some asylum-seekers who were released have even been re-detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and fewer are being released while they go through the legal proceedings to obtain asylum. In addition to asylum-seekers, many immigrants have also been detained because they have been living in the U.S. without documents. Many have U.S. citizen spouses or children, who are also at risk of being held in detention for months or years while they fight to stay.
In detention, the pain of isolation adds to the trauma they have already survived, and knowing that there is support from the outer world can make a huge difference. You can offer that support by participating in the following detention visitation, hotline, or pen pal programs.
CIVIC is a UUSC partner organization that supports a network of more than 40 immigration detention visitation programs throughout the country. At CIVIC about 2,000 volunteers help to end the isolation of some 34,000 people in immigration detention. In addition to visits, volunteers act as independent monitors to document what happens inside the centers. They lift up stories and advocate on behalf of people who are marginalized and also help write and advocate for state and federal legislation that expands the rights of immigrants.
CIVIC’s interactive map will help you find out if there is an existing visitation program near you where you can volunteer. If there isn’t, check the map to see if there is a detention center near you where immigrants and asylum seekers are being held, and CIVIC can guide you in how to begin a local visitation program. If visiting doesn’t work for you, volunteers are also needed for the National Immigration Detention Hotline and Pen Pal Program. You can find more information at endisolation.org.
Jan Meslin from Tapestry UU Congregation in Mission Viejo is on CIVIC’s leadership team. Jan has been visiting with the Friends of Orange County Detainees for five years. You can read her story of her experiences on Standing On the Side of Love’s blog. Contact her for more information at jmeslin[@]endisolation.org.
Watch these videos from CIVIC
Note: This action requires support from a religious organization.
“When lives are on the line, the only ethical act is resistance,” – Alison Harrington, Pastor at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., and New Sanctuary Movement leader
A growing number of congregations are offering a physical safe haven to immigrants and refugees who are at imminent risk of deportation, especially those who would be endangered. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) respects the sanctity of religious houses of worship, and will not enter to detain someone, even if they have a deportation order. In response to a surge of immigration enforcement home raids on over 100 Central American refugee families in early 2016, more religious communities are joining the 300-congregation strong New Sanctuary Movement to provide protection, resist injustice, and build political leverage.
Not every congregation in the movement is prepared to physically host a sanctuary case – some may instead offer material and moral support for a case in their city.
However you choose to become involved in the Sanctuary Congregation movement, the rewards for refugees in your community and for your congregation will be much appreciated.
You can inquire with Katia Hansen, President and CEO of UURISE, at katia[@]uurise.org or 760-477-7537. UUSC and UURISE have also created a toolkit for UU congregations considering sanctuary which you can download here.
Watch this video for an overview of the New Sanctuary Movement.