Four years ago, the refugee resettlement agency World Relief set up an Akron office because of ample church support and the desire to see more refugees join our city. After a year-long investigation, and an incredible response from local churches that “yes, they would like more refugees in their city,” Akron went from one resettlement agency, the International Institute, to two. The work of both agencies helped newly arrived refugee families to find jobs and housing, get registered for school and English classes and meet other needs when they first arrive.
I returned to Akron after years abroad with the evangelical organization Cru to help my church think about welcoming and serving refugees. I found myself sitting in World Relief’s first office with new director Kara Ulmer a few months after they opened as we spoke about how to resettle refugees and mobilize volunteers.
During the summer of 2015, the refugee crisis was frequently headline news, and dozens of governors tried to block Syrians from coming to their states. The rhetoric against refugees, and Muslims, in particular, was heated in certain places, but I got to experience a piece of beauty in seeing Akron churches rally around the newly opened World Relief office and the International Institute to welcome refugees. I was able to see more than 170 people from my own church go through World Relief’s training during the first two years.
While the national controversy raged, churches around Akron immersed themselves in cross-cultural training, learning how they could welcome people and be sensitive to cross-cultural differences, how to help people acclimate, be sensitive to trauma, offer friendship and show the love of Jesus across language barriers.
Christians picked people up from the airport at midnight with welcome signs in their languages. Evangelical churches paid for funerals of refugees who died. Small groups rallied around single moms. Christians shared cups of tea and meals with Muslim, Hindu and Christian refugees alike.
There is a Bible verse that says, “We love because he first loved us,” and I saw that lived out: the overflow of Christians experiencing the love of God moving toward newcomers with love and without fear. It was the church at its best.
But then the Trump administration’s policies banned people from Muslim majority countries and slowed refugee resettlement nearly to a halt despite the refugee resettlement program being the most vetted form of U.S. immigration already. Month after month, Akron’s robust response to the global needs of refugees, keen to open space and time to welcome new families, was met by, “I am sorry. No more refugee arrivals are scheduled this month again.”
Despite the desire from the city, from businesses and churches to welcome refugees, refugee resettlement agencies have had to make hard decisions, cuts and even closures. Despite the global crisis and the need for refugee resettlement, the administration's policies have been closing the country's doors on some of the most vulnerable. World Relief Akron announced its closing two weeks ago because of national policies that have come home to us in Akron.
The national policies of this administration have cut into nearly every form of immigration. It is harder for Muslims to come to America. It is harder for persecuted Christians to come to America. Arrivals of Muslim refugees are down 90 percent from 2016, and arrivals of Christian refugees from the Open Doors list of most persecuted countries for Christians is on track to be down 73 percent.
Churches, you responded the past four years. What can you do today?
Unless national policies change, the U.S. is on track to resettle less than 25,000 refugees this year. The need globally is great. We should be resettling more and not less.
Call members of Congress and the White House and tell them you want the refugee ceiling to be lifted to at least 75,000 this coming year. Tell them you want the travel ban lifted, which is blocking Muslims and persecuted Christians from some of the most vulnerable warn-torn countries from arriving. It is time we tell them we don’t want to play politics with the lives of the vulnerable. We want to be their neighbors and give them a safe place to raise their kids.
I am sad for the closing of World Relief and what has happened to dramatically slow the flow of refugees. Yet Akron still wants refugees. The church still wants refugees. Akron is better because of our new immigrant neighbors.
Staats, who grew up in the Akron area, works with the Evangelical Immigration Table and Bibles, Badges & Business for immigration reform.