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Curious City refugees

Many Chicago faith-based groups support refugees. Here, several volunteers share lessons they’ve learned.

The number of refugees and other immigrants coming to the United States changes each year, but for decades Chicago has received a steady stream of refugees who have made the city home after escaping war and political conflict. They’ve arrived from countries like Bosnia, El Salvador, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan.

Most recently some 3,227 asylum seekers were bused from Texas to Chicago.

Churches, mosques, synagogues and other faith-based organizations have played a key role in helping provide these immigrants and refugees with resources such as food, clothes and housing as well as making the city feel like a welcoming place. Oftentimes, these religious institutions and organizations from different faiths work together. For example, The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago said it coordinates services with more than 70 mosques and other Christian groups.

Many of these faith-based organizations say they are driven to do this kind of work because of their faith.

“It says in the Torah, in our Holy Scripture … that we are obligated to welcome the stranger,” said Jessica Shaffer, director of the JCFS Chicago’s HIAS Immigration & Citizenship program. She adds that Judaism also has this idea that each person is created in the image of God.

“So it doesn't matter who you are, where you're coming from, what you believe. Every person is deserving of dignity and respect and welcome,” she said.

Other faith organizations share similar values.

“We're invited to welcome the stranger, the way that God welcomes us,” said Nathan White, external engagement director of World Relief Chicagoland, a Christian humanitarian organization that assists refugees and immigrants in Illinois.

Much of the work that gets done through faith-based groups and religious institutions is done by volunteers — people like Robert Bator.

In 2017, Bator helped start a volunteer program to welcome refugees from countries like Syria and Myanmar at his church, St. Paul and the Redeemer, an Episcopalian church on Chicago’s South Side.

So Bator wanted to know more about how other faith communities approach their work with refugees and immigrants and what they’ve learned from the experience.

To answer his question we asked several faith-based volunteers and people who work with faith organizations — including Bator — to share a few of the lessons they’ve learned. Here are some of their takeaways:

Make sure people want to talk about their experience before you ask

Volunteers welcoming people who just left their home country due to economic or political turmoil need to be mindful about the trauma some of these new arrivals may have experienced, said Luisette Kraal, a member of a Park Community Church on Chicago’s North Side. Kraal has organized a number of events at her church to help provide food and clothes for some of the asylum seekers who came to Chicago from Texas.

She said it’s important not to ask questions that are going to retraumatize people.

“One of the things that I see volunteers do, they ask too many personal questions,” Kraal said. “And they want to know … Did you see dead people? How was the walk in the desert? You can't ask that. You have to wait, build the relationship and in due time, maybe that person wants to tell you what happened.”

Oftentimes volunteers can feel upset after learning about the hardships asylum seekers and other immigrants have faced back in their home countries. Finding the time to acknowledge and process those experiences is important, said Colin McCormick, program director of the Chicago Immigrant Transit Assistance with the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants. He has helped train volunteers since 2019.

But McCormick also said it’s important to stay focused on the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, "instead of operating from [the point of view of] ‘I feel so bad,” he said.

Ask people what they need

When people arrive in Chicago they have all kinds of needs — everything from housing to clean clothes.

This was the case for the asylum seekers who arrived in Chicago from Texas. Many organizations, including faith-based groups, have also been figuring out how to connect them with legal resources and health care, as well as to help them find jobs. During that process some volunteers say it’s important to remember to involve these newcomers in this process.

Robert Bator, who started the volunteer process at his own church said he's learned a top-down approach doesn't work. “It's important to ask people what they need,” he said, as opposed to “deciding for them."

Other volunteers like Luisette Kraal agree.

“People don't have anything so if you offer them stuff they will grab it because they will think, ‘tomorrow I’ll need it, next week I will need it,” she said. But doing it this way, they might end up with a lot of stuff they don’t actually need.

Once all their most basic needs have been met, then it’s possible to figure out what's next after that, she added.

Invite a newcomer to a meal

Both McCormick and Kraal say inviting people to your home for a meal, a community event or other activities happening in your congregation is always a great way to help newcomers adjust and get to know them.

“How I personally do it is, ‘Hey, I know you arrived to that destination a week ago, a month ago... How are you?’ Or, ‘Would you like to come to my organization's event as our guest?’ That shows we're including [them] too,” McCormick said.

He says it should just be a simple invitation to do something together. “It doesn't have to be anything about how [you met them] based on that vulnerable time, rather, human to human just like we would anyone else.”

And he’s quick to add it’s important to check with the organization's volunteer agreements before inviting anyone to your home.

Learn about their culture

Since January, Jessica Shaffer said her organization has welcomed 110 refugees from all different corners of the world including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Guatemala, Burma, Sudan, Congo and Burundi.

She said it’s important to remember that when working with refugees and asylum seekers from different cultural and religious backgrounds the approach used with one family might not work for all the others.

These year her organization invited the Muslim Women Resource Center to train staff and volunteers about Afghan culture and the best ways of being welcoming.

“Our goal is always to build trust and to be respectful,” Shaffer said. “And so the more that we can understand about somebody's culture and background and religion, the more we have the tools to build those really trusting and authentic relationships.”

It’s about each individual

Sister JoAnn Persch helped start Su Casa Catholic Worker in the ’90s to help house Central American refugees who were fleeing genocide in countries like Guatemala. Along with another Catholic sister and other faith-based leaders she also co-founded the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants, an organization that assists immigrants in detention.

She has seen people from many different faiths come together to help thousands of asylum seekers, refugees and other immigrants over the years. For them it’s not about the numbers.

“To see one family that now is whole because we all came together, we know it’s worthwhile.”

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is Curious City’s reporter. Follow her at @AdrianaCardMag

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