If each one of us reflects on our own stories, we can see God clearly leading and moving in our lives. As I reflect on my own story, I see that I started out focused solely on myself. But then I met the Holy Spirit, and God became real to me. I made a firm decision to follow Him with my life. Then during my college years, I went on a mission trip with Global Outreaches Unlimited because I thought it would be fun. Well, it was fun, but it also changed the direction of my life. My heart for other cultures grew. When my graduate degree in Intercultural Studies required me to do an internship and my top choice fell through, I was placed with World Relief.
As the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, World Relief is an international Christian nonprofit organization with a mission to “empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable.” In the United States we work primarily with refugee resettlement and immigration services. I was amazed that there was an organization that loved two things I loved: the Church and the immigrant. I spent a year learning about World Relief’s ministry to refugees, much of it from refugees themselves. After my internship, I was hired in Spokane, Washington, as a refugee resettlement case manager where I’ve served for the past ten years.
Now that you’ve heard my story, let me tell you a story of one of my refugee friends. Shortly after he was born, his family fled to a neighboring country to escape state-sanctioned infanticide. Though they were told to leave by someone they trusted, they also fled out of fear that their son would be killed. You know this refugee too. His name is Jesus.
When refugees hear Jesus’ story, that He was also persecuted and made to flee to a different country much as they were, they feel known. They realize He understands what they are going through. He has experienced what they are experiencing.
For years a church here in Spokane has hosted a “First Christmas” event for newly arrived refugees. The church throws a party with food and toys for the kids and also shares Jesus’ story. It’s cool to hear about the moments when these newcomers realize that Jesus understands them because He was one of them.
Each of these refugees has a story to tell. Every story is different, yet every story is similar. The struggles they face are not just the fear and the fleeing; the struggle is also with identity. I have heard over and over again that a refugee doesn’t know who they are. People in their native country didn’t want them and in fact may have tried to kill them. Neither did they have rights in neighboring countries to which they fled. They were not allowed to work, and in many cases, kids were not able to attend school. They were forced to simply wait.
Refugees will tell you that this waiting until someone wanted them was the hardest part of their journey. I know many who had to wait ten, fifteen, even twenty years. I know adults in their twenties who were born in refugee camps; it is the only life they have known.
The average wait for a refugee is seven years. That is a long time to not know how you fit in the world. Can you imagine how hard that wait would be on you mentally, emotionally, and physically?
GOD IS DRAWING THE NATIONS
One of our family’s favorite verses is Isaiah 55:5 (NIV):
Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.
It is God who moves people. It is God who has allowed these refugees to come here. In the process He is drawing them and us to Him. Today there are 27.1 million refugees in the world registered with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). On average, only half of one percent of those are resettled to a new country each year. Since I started working at World Relief Spokane in 2012, our office has received 2,401 refugees. That’s a lot of midnight airport pick-ups, home visits, grocery shopping, and enrolling kids in school! But those are just the tasks I am required to do because they are part of my job. It is their stories and the relationships that have impacted our community and me the most.
When I began, one of my first cases was a mom from Afghanistan with four young boys. I spent a lot of time at their apartment because the landlord kept calling me with complaints such as the boys running around breaking off sprinkler heads and making messes in the laundry room. I’d drive to their place, spend time with them, and wonder how they were going to be okay. It was hard for them, but through relationships they built with us and with the community, they got settled and were able to grow and learn.
After five years, I was privileged to see them become citizens of the United States. Now ten years later, those boys are succeeding in college, graduating, and beginning successful careers. One of the boys even joined our staff for a while. Just how far they’ve come since they first arrived to where they are now shows God’s hand on their lives.
There are many misconceptions about refugees, but actual statistics prove that, as in the case of the Afghan family, most eventually benefit their new communities. After the initial investment where we help them find housing and their first jobs, connect them to English classes and volunteers, and help them access healthcare they end up contributing in many ways. They start businesses that employ local people at a faster rate than native born Americans, they help stimulate the economy, and they are willing to do hard, physically demanding work that native citizens might not want to do. Those are just some of the financial benefits. Refugees add value to their new communities in so many other ways as well.
I was recently speaking to a high school group about the subject of refugees, sharing stats about how refugees add value to the United States. I shared that within twenty years of settling here, the amount refugees pay in taxes more than makes up for what it cost the United States to resettle them. I was trying desperately to make a case about why we should help refugees when a girl in the front raised her hand. She said, “Well, all of that doesn’t really matter, does it, because isn’t it just the right thing to do?”
I was speechless, hearing someone so young express truth a whole lot better than I was. Helping refugees is the right thing to do. Micah 6:8 says, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” We should minister and partner with the refugee because it is God who is at work in both them and us, and He is wanting us to partner with Him in His mission. It is God who is drawing refugees and us to Him.
It’s the incarnation of Jesus we hear about in the Christmas story that allows everyone, especially refugees, to relate to and know Him. And it is Christ in us through the Holy Spirit who gives us the courage to cross cultures, languages, and religions and to build relationships with refugees. This is a reciprocal relationship, where both the Church and refugees mutually learn from each other. We are blessed by one another as we are both drawn to Jesus.
So how can you make a difference in the life of a refugee?
Jordan Bemis is the Resettlement Director at World Relief, where he has worked for ten years. He and his wife, Hannah, have three kids, Asher, Nora, and Abel, and serve at Turning Point Open Bible Church in Spokane, Washington. The family recently adopted a puppy named Maverick.
Please Note: This article was originally published in the Message of the Open Bible.