Workers Organizing for Welcoming Communities

Across the country, in cities large and small, people are organizing to build communities that are inclusive, embrace new members, and celebrate the diverse contributions and experiences of all their residents. Through our grantmaking and advocacy, UUSC has tapped into this energy to amplify these efforts.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to visit with two of our partners Greater Minnesota Worker Center (GMWC) and Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA). Both organizations are partners under Love Resists, UUSC’s joint campaign with the UUA, and deeply engaged in organizing workers to resist the criminalization of our neighbors based upon their identities and create safer, more just, and welcoming communities.

Building Welcoming Communities is Contagious

UUSC began partnering with GMWC in St. Cloud, Minn., last year, supporting the center’s “Resist and Persist” campaign. This effort seeks to advance human rights and social justice by “welcoming refugees and protecting undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable populations from deportations.”

I had to the opportunity to visit with incredible community organizers at GMWC in their St. Cloud office, including Ahmed, Mohamed, Sado, and Yasmin (starting left).

Thanks in part to GMWC’s outreach, the community of St. Cloud is becoming a friendlier place for immigrant and refugee communities. GMWC focuses primarily on organizing low-wage Latinx and Somali workers; however, their work extends beyond worker rights, enriching the lives of all St. Cloud residents by fostering a welcoming culture.

A great example of GMWC’s impact was their efforts to defeat a city council effort to reduce refugee admissions in the city. With the resolution defeated, GMWC’s next step was to advocate for the city council’s passage of a “Welcoming City” resolution, which inspired the nearby city of Willmar to do the same.

RCWA staff members and local workers meet to discuss their work to create a welcoming community.

RCWA Centers Welcoming Efforts on Immigrant and Worker Rights

From my first moment in Milan, Mo., there was an inescapable sense of community. Located in northeastern Missouri, the town is over two hours away from Kansas City, the nearest major city. The community has a tradition of self-sufficiency rooted in neighbors supporting neighbors. It is in this spirit that RCWA began organizing the town’s Latinx workers to address workplace issues, ranging from discrimination to low pay in 2013.

Following the November 2016 election, many of RCWA’s members were concerned by damaging and dangerous rhetoric around immigration and worker rights. Determined to address the issue head on, the group expanded their efforts around making sure Milan is a welcoming community for all residents.

UUSC has supported RCWA’s continued advocacy for workers’ rights, as well as their organizing efforts to help community members overcome fear of immigration enforcement actions, which they are advancing in partnership with local allies.

Continuing our Support for Welcoming Communities

After witnessing our partners’ incredible impact on building welcoming communities, I was reminded of how this work truly is a process. As they reminded me, their successes have not occurred overnight. With that in mind, it remains as critical as ever to continue directing energy toward sustaining the nationwide momentum around building more welcoming communities. As UUSC works to advance human rights and social justice in 2018, our continued partnerships with grassroots groups leading this work across the country will be critical to our success.

As I joined our partners in meetings with their community members, the importance of this relationship was always at the forefront of their conversations. As one of the workers in Missouri said, “Thank God that there are good people … who are interested in opening our eyes to stand up for our rights and stand up with us against those who exploit us … we are really grateful to partner with UUSC.”

Reflecting on my trip, and looking to the year ahead, I cannot wait to see what these organizations will accomplish through their ever-evolving and deepening roles as builders of welcoming communities ­­– and I’m energized by the opportunity to continue supporting them in their efforts. Join Love Resists in this movement to learn more and check out our Sanctuary and Solidarity Toolkit,, which provides easy steps for taking action in your community.

Syria TPS Decision Provides Needed Relief, But Not Nearly Enough

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) welcomes reports that the Trump administration has decided to renew Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 6,000 Syrians living in the United States, while expressing dismay and consternation that this provision will not cover Syrians arriving after August 1, 2016.

In the lead up to this decision, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had the option of re-designating Syria for TPS, rather than merely renewing. A re-designation would have allowed more recent Syrian arrivals to apply for the status. In previous extensions, TPS for Syrian nationals has been re-designated as well as renewed.

It is difficult to imagine a country that more directly fits the criteria for re-designation than Syria. It is in the midst of an ongoing civil war that has generated the world’s largest contemporary refugee crisis and taken the lives of at least 400,000 people. The new administration’s refusal to take the step of re-designation is impossible to reconcile with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s admission that “the conditions upon which Syria’s designation was based continue to exist.”

The failure to re-designate Syria also provides further disturbing evidence that the administration grounds its TPS decisions in xenophobia and bias, rather than the individual country assessments that Congress intended when it created the TPS program in 1990.

In November, the Trump administration ended TPS for 59,000 Haitian nationals, despite the country’s ongoing natural disaster recovery and recent disease outbreaks. In early January, they likewise announced the end of TPS for nearly 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador, in the midst of extreme violence and other major social disruptions in that country. The NAACP has filed a lawsuit charging that the TPS decision for Haiti was racially motivated, citing abundant evidence of the administration’s prejudice against TPS holders.

As with these other TPS decisions, DHS’s refusal to re-designate Syria did not occur in a vacuum. President Trump campaigned on a pledge to institute a “Muslim Ban,” and his rhetoric on both the campaign trail and in office has made Syrian refugees a frequent target of fear-mongering.

Further, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the administration’s failed attempt to implement a discriminatory ban on refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. Despite being struck down by multiple courts, the Trump administration continues to impose new versions of the order on Syrian nationals, including new restrictions announced Monday that will make it harder for refugees from Syria and ten other countries to reach safety in the United States.

The administration’s political and biased use of TPS bodes ill for immigrant communities whose futures depend on DHS renewal decisions later this year. These include Nepal in April, Yemen in July, and Somalia in November. All of these countries are sites of ongoing recovery efforts from recent natural disasters or devastating armed conflicts to which the U.S. government has directly contributed.

UUSC urges the administration to honor the humanitarian purpose of the TPS program, rather than wield it as a nativist, political cudgel. In the meantime, Congress should act to pass permanent legislative solutions for long-term TPS holders, who are all members of our shared community.

An Interview With Rachel Freed, Vice President And Chief Program Officer

Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.

When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?

I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.

Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.

Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.

What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?

My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.

There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.

I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.

What do you like most about your job?

At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.

What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?

One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.

What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?

UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.

What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?

I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.

Collaborating to Serve Refugees in Challenging Times

This week UUSC organized a convening in Zagreb, Croatia of civil society organizations – many of them UUSC partners – serving Syrian refugees along the Balkan Route. Twenty-six representatives from 16 organizations came together to discuss how they can better coordinate their work, to problem-solve challenges that they face, and to expand their networks in neighboring countries in order to continue serving refugees. It was a privilege to provide the space and hear reflections and feedback from organizations on the front lines of this crisis, many of which experience scrutiny and harassment from their local governments. Because of those security interests we have chosen not to name specific participants.

On behalf of the UUSC family, Rachel Freed and I were grateful for the opportunity to spend time with this quality group of attorneys, case workers, and humanitarians striving to protect refugees in an environment where doing so is highly unpopular.

Participants of the UUSC Convening of Refugee Service Providers in the Balkans.

The groups who participated in the convening face extreme challenges: the closing space for civil society organizations in Eastern Europe, a rising tide of right-wing governments and factions, and general anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the region. When the Balkan Route closed in 2016, refugees headed for Western Europe were suddenly stuck in transit countries ill-equipped to serve the long-term needs of asylum-seekers. Further, both the refugees and the organizations providing services to them faced growing public hostility fueled by a misinformation media campaign similar to what we have recently seen in the United States. Governments are using increasingly aggressive, inhumane tactics to stop the tide of migrants, and there have been reports of border guards pouring water on freezing migrants in the middle of winter, using attack dogs, and other forms of violence and intimidation at border crossings.

As refugees wait for their claims to be processed they are often isolated from the rest of society in camps with varying degrees of accommodations and where their freedom of movement and access to services may be limited. In the camps, education opportunities for children are minimal, and psycho-social support is insufficient to deal with the trauma many have recently endured. The organizations who came together this week are among the only groups providing essential services ranging from legal assistance; protection against gender-based violence and the exploitation of unaccompanied minors; and mobile teams providing medical care. Case management is challenging and the formal systems of care and communication are insufficient. Gatherings, like the one held this week, help the organizations build their relationships—expanding informal networks which are frequently relied on to provide care in such a complex environment.

Participants break out in small groups to discuss the challenges they face and how they can problem solve and support one another.

As the rest of the world turns its attention to other crises, these 16 organizations continue on until the job of resettling and assimilating refugees is done. Much of the funding that was available at the height of the crisis has moved elsewhere and what remains often comes with conditions that challenge the integrity of the mission-driven service providers. As such, the financial support of UUSC members is particularly crucial and we appreciate the generosity so many have shown to ensure we’re able to make a positive difference where we can.

Read Danielle’s pre-trip blog post, Balkans Convening Aims to Offer Support to Partner Refugee Organizations.

Celebrating New Partnerships to Advance Economic Justice

UUSC partners with over 80 organizations across the world to protect and advance human rights. In this three-part series, I will highlight a few of our newest partners and the projects we’re supporting across our focus areas: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice and Climate Action, and Rights at Risk.

Our Economic Justice Program strives to protect the rights of low-wage workers in the United States who face discrimination and human rights violations in the workforce, including immigrants, Muslims, and people of color. We partner with worker centers to strengthen protection mechanisms, improve working conditions, and respond to violations. In Central America, through the sale of Equal Exchange fair trade coffee, chocolate and other products, we support small farmer co-operatives to build sustainable livelihoods and advance human rights of other cooperative groups, particularly the rights of women, youth, and indigenous people. I’m excited to share with you three of our newest partnerships and projects that we’re currently supporting to advance economic justice.

Greater Minnesota Worker Center: Resist & Persist Campaign

The Greater Minnesota Worker Center
(GMWC) is “a coalition of low wage workers, community and labor activists, academics, and progressive clergy and laity to support low wage workers to build power, improve working conditions, and raise wages for workers and to improve the quality of life in Greater Minnesota.”

UUSC has partnered with GMWC, on their “Resist and Persist” (R&P) Campaign, a new project designed to provide added support to refugee and undocumented immigrant workers in Minnesota.

In the first few months of Trump’s presidency, GMWC has seen how anti-immigration policies and sentiments have already added to the marginalization of refugee and immigrant populations in Minnesota. One of the primary goals of R&P is to engage local communities in sanctuary practices by educating workers on their rights, creating a support network within the state, and engaging in legislative advocacy that protects the rights of refugees and immigrants. Another goal of the project is to provide low-wage immigrant and refugee workers with the knowledge, skills, and resources to organize for better working conditions.

“GMWC believes that we should not jeopardize the safety and security of people who have fled their homeland and have sought sanctuary in our shores due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on ethnicity, race, religion and other factors.” UUSC has partnered with GMWC to support the R&P Campaign because we share this belief. Learn more about GMWC and their innovative work here.

Fundación entre Mujeres: Strengthening of Strategic Planning Processes and Promotion of Sustainable Systems

Fundación entre Mujeres (FEM) is an organization of women farmers in northern Nicaragua. The organization “promotes ideological, economic, political and organizational empowerment through a holistic approach.”

Most Nicaraguan peasant women face a multitude of problems that deepen existing inequalities in access to and control over land and property and all their rights, including the right to live a life free from violence. These rights are threatened by the advance of monocultivist production (eg tobacco), and a state policy that does not favor the reduction of inequality gaps that peasant women face.

To counter these threats, FEM has a long-term goal to sensitize rural women to sustainable agricultural practices, which will give them control over their lives and the means to support themselves. UUSC has partnered with FEM to “support the development of a strategic organizational plan and the development of an agro-ecological defense network”. This commitment will help FEM continue to promote the processes of integral empowerment of peasant women, for the full exercise of their rights and the realization of their economic rights from a feminist, agroecological, and food sovereignty perspective.

FEM is an organization that has been promoting the rights of Nicaraguan peasant women for more than two decades, supporting education, preventing and caring for survivors of gender-based violence, and promoting sustainable agricultural practices in pursuit of their own autonomy. UUSC is proud to partner with an organization that has supported women for more than two decades. For updates on FEM, like them on Facebook.

Make the Road Pennsylvania: Comites de Defensa

Make the Road Pennsylvania (MRPA) is dedicated to advancing policy reform that will protect the rights of low-income minority workers in Pennsylvanian cities, where there are high concentrations of Latinx and African Americans living in poverty.

Pennsylvania also has one of the highest numbers of hate groups in the country. According to MRPA, “Eastern Penn. is the fastest growing part of the state, and many new residents are immigrants or people of color. The politics, however, have been reliably anti-immigrant at a congressional and state level.”

In light of this, UUSC has partnered with MRPA to establish “Comites de Defensa,” geographically-based committees that are ready to respond to the needs of immigrants in Pennsylvanian communities.

Much like GMWC’s R&P Campaign, Comites de Defensa aims to give support to immigrant families as raids and deportations increase—ostracizing already marginalized communities, spreading fear, and disrupting families.

The committees established through MRPA’s project “will be able to respond to abuses in the workplace, mobilize support for critical meetings and policy decisions affecting their members’ lives, and shift the public narrative towards pro-immigrant and worker messages.” Further, this effort will create a rapid response network in Pennsylvania to protect immigrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. UUSC is proud to partner with MRPA to promote economic justice for immigrants. Check out their Facebook page to get the latest news about their work.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading in human rights and social justice! In honor of World Refugee Day on  June 20, this week’s wrap-up includes articles about how technology is helping to address the crisis, climate refugees in Somalia, and education access for refugee children.

The current humanitarian crisis is the largest since World War II. UUSC is dedicated to fighting for the human rights of refugees. Learn more about our partner organizations working in Croatia to provide humanitarian aid for and protect the rights of refugees.

Refugee hackathons and 3D printing: apps for the world’s displaced people, Tazeen Dhunna Ahmad, The Guardian, June 20, 2017

Although humanitarian aid provides refugees access to the essentials, like food, clothing, and shelter, refugees also need access to opportunities to improve their situation. This is where technology comes in and has helped “to transform conditions and empower more than 22 million refugees worldwide.”

The majority of refugees have mobile phones, which has made travel and global communication easier. However, it’s tech initiatives, like the ones Ahmad highlights in this article, that are really helping to create education and employment opportunities for refugees. Ahmad shares the story of, Admir Masic, a former refugee who is now an associate professor at MIT, who recently launched a global hub, Refugee ACTion Hub (ReACT), to provide refugees with education. 3Dmena, another tech partnership, is providing refugees with access to prosthetic limbs, “custom-built and cheaper” due to advances in 3D printing technology.

Hackathons and other tech-centric competitions provide refugees with an innovative platform to solve the problems their communities face and to find job opportunities – from solving water leakages on camps to employing refugees to take on a backlogged recycling system.

It’s rare to find stories about refugees that aren’t grim. Technology and the opportunities it brings for human creativity and collaboration can change the conversation.

Amid Drought, Somali Pastoralists Watch Their ‘Sources of Life’ Perish, Samuel Hall Research Team & Ashley Hamer, News Deeply, June 20, 2017

The number of climate refugees is growing, and is set to grow at a higher rate as the impacts of global warming accelerate. Despite this, efforts to address climate forced displacement have been lacking and even avoided, meaning climate refugees “remain on the fringes of humanitarian support.”

Due to drought in the Horn of Africa, over 739,000 people have been forced to leave Somalia since November. Most are pastoralists who have watched their livestock die of starvation and dehydration and who have no other means of livelihood. Climate forced displacement can have, and already has had, a global ripple effect of economic disparity and violence, namely because of the damage that displacement does to families and communities. Addressing the needs of climate refugees will not only save hundreds of thousands of lives now, but can curb the more widespread conflicts that will likely come in the future.

UUSC has highlighted climate refugees as a marginalized group who are not receiving the help they need, even within the sphere of humanitarian aid providers. This is why our Environmental Justice portfolio is focusing its resources on communities at high risk of climate forced displacement.

What we owe refugee children, Elias Bou Saab, Gulf Times, June 22, 2017

Fifty-one percent of the world’s refugees are children, and without access to education, there are concerns that this group will be a “lost generation” growing up without the skills needed to rebuild their communities or to thrive. Saab, former Lebanese education minister, points out the benefits education access has for children: “Education is also a vital instrument for combating violent extremism, which can capture the minds of young people with no hope for the future. And school attendance is essential for children’s welfare, because it gives them access to basic healthcare services and protects them from the horrors of child labour and prostitution.”

World leaders have recognized the need to educate refugee children, but efforts on the part of host countries to provide education haven’t been enough. Education access has been delayed by poor organization, violence, and strained resources. Saab signifies how important it is that governments and organizations meet their monetary pledges – which many have not – but also calls on them to step up their funding for programs that make remote and online education possible. No child should grow up without an education. Visit the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to learn more.