What Can I Do?
The numbers alone are daunting: There are 600 million displaced people in the world. Of that 20 million — more than the combined populations of New York and Los Angeles — have found their way into the refugee pipeline.
But when you couple the gigantic numbers with the raw photos and video and memes — in newspapers, TV, Facebook and elsewhere — it is downright overwhelming.
How can I even think about helping? It’s too big, too distant, too overwhelming, too hopeless.
That is exactly how I felt in late April as I walked into the Richmond district’s Congregation Emanu-El, which was hosting an interfaith meeting on the refugee crisis. Maybe I’d be able to pass along some notes to the Mission Working Group at SAPC.
Despite its reputation as one of the most progressive regions in the world, the Bay Area seemed little involved in the front lines of the refugee crisis, in part because of the cost of living here. I had emailed back and forth with an agency in Sacramento, which according to the State Department, Church World Service and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is the refugee-processing gatekeeper in Northern California.
But that agency only covered a radius of 50 miles around Sacramento. Maybe Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church could help with cash, in-kind gifts — that sort of thing.
I was unsatisfied, but at the same time I figured there was little else for someone encumbered by all of life’s tasks (work, family, health) to do.
Then history struck me in the heart — the history being written today: The refugee crisis, currently overwhelming Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and flooding into Greece, is the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
My heart and mind started to shift from an exasperated “What can I do?” to “What can’t I do” and then “What must I do.”
The United States in fiscal 2017 is proposed to accept 100,000 refugees, defined as someone fearing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or opinion. That includes 10,000 people fleeing Syria, whose civil war has spotlighted the refugee crisis.
Of those, a couple hundred are settled in the Bay Area, mostly in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Affordability is an issue. (“Oakland is almost off the radar at this point,” said Amy Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services at Jewish Family & Community Services-East Bay.)
More than half of them are under 18; many are alone, separated by geography and philosophy from family and friends.
But while the crisis is daunting, the meeting at Congregation Emanu-El taught me that it is not distant and need not overwhelm us.
Jewish Family & Community Services-East Bay, or JFCS, and the refugee foster care program at Catholic Charities in San Jose are placing families, young adults and teens right here. But they need help.
A refugee in the JFCS program receives $1,125 a month — $925 from government agencies, $200 from JFCS — and then he or she can apply for social services, which ultimately will supply $330 per month for eight months.
In the meantime, a refugee needs help with housing, enrolling children in school, understanding government benefits, English-language instruction, even just understanding the mass transit system here.
That last point shouldn’t be understated. The affordability problem here forces many refugees to be placed farther east, increasing the gulf between them and access to the critical social safety net infrastructure. Most of those services are in San Francisco.
At the same time, because of dangerously hostile policies, especially in African countries, San Francisco is one of the few places for resettlement of people who identify as LGBTQ.
Suvi, a native Syrian who spoke at Congregation Emanu-El, told us about his journey to Lebanon in 2013, which by that point was already overwhelmed with 1.5 million refugees. He found his way to Turkey and was working with Save the Children and individually with other LGBTQ young adults.
But messages about Suvi’s work made their way back to Syria, where a childhood friend who was now part of the Islamic State militant group pledged to hunt him and kill him. Suvi was moved to a safe house, to Istanbul, and ultimately to the United States. His stay in Turkey was about 10 months; others have waited two or more years to have a country step up to host them.
For LGBTQ refugees, San Francisco is a shining light after hellish darkness. As a result, JFCS expects a three- to four-fold increase in the number of LGBTQ refugees in the Bay Area.
There are several ways we can help: Open your home (a spare bedroom?) to a young LGBTQ person through JFCS’s “hosted housing” model, or become a foster parent for a teen refugee through Catholic Charities’ program; volunteer to provide mentoring, tutoring, English as a second language instruction or other help (note: this is intensively in the East Bay); contribute to JFCS’s Welcome Refugee Fund, which can be used to subsidize rent in the first year; or provide funds for Catholic Charities’ kids to take Rosetta Stone language classes or to receive computers.
There is a particular need for certified refugee foster care families for kids and spare bedrooms within the LGBTQ community.
You also can help by simply being an ally, helping to erase the stigma from the word “refugee” by explaining the social, political and sexual reasons people are fleeing their homes.
Me? I’ve traveled from helpless to empowered. Now I’m moved by the people I met at Congregation Emanu-El to travel to Lesbos, the Greek isle serving as the gateway to the Western world, to help aid, comfort and love refugees on this leg of their long journey.
I don’t know if I’ll actually get there — like everything, money is an issue (sponsorships anyone?) — but I’m no longer engulfed in the enormity of the refugee crisis.
To be sure, the plight of the world’s refugees is huge, but as we strive to model Christ in the world today, we can transfer strength to refugees by recalling what Pastor Gaines (and our Seventh Avenue Church website) often says: “Whoever you are, whatever your past, wherever your faith journey has taken you — there is a place for you here.”
– Ron Leuty, Chair, Mission Working Group