LOS ANGELES — As U.S. refugee resettlement agencies and nonprofits across the country prepare to help Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion and war that has raged for nearly six weeks, members of faith communities are leading the charge to accommodate displaced persons.
In Southern California, pastors and lay people line up at the Mexican border waving Ukrainian flags and offering food, water and prayers. Across the country, other faith groups are gearing up to provide longer-term support to refugees who will need to find housing, jobs, health care and schooling.
Aaron Szloboda, associate pastor of Calvary San Diego Christian Church, recently spent 50 straight hours at the Mexican border handing out food and water to Ukrainians waiting in line to enter the United States.
Just 10 minutes from the border, Calvary San Diego has become something of a hub for newly arrived refugees, a place where they can recuperate after a harrowing journey and plan their next steps.
On Friday, its walls were lined with snacks, drinks, dolls and stuffed animals as families arrived with duffel bags, suitcases and the hands of young children. They were welcomed inside to rest, have a meal and check their phones. The volunteers helped them with their immediate individual needs: information on flights to New York; how to change euros into dollars; a ride for a friend who had just crossed the border.
Szloboda, whose Hungarian-Jewish grandfather survived the Holocaust and lost family members to the Nazi genocide, believes he is called to serve those who need it most: “They are physically exhausted and mentally”.
The United States has agreed to accept up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, which has seen an outflow of more than 4 million people since late February. The Biden administration is also expected to end pandemic-related asylum limits at the U.S.-Mexico border on May 23, caps that have drawn criticism from immigration advocates.
But even before these refugee resettlements began, faith groups were already helping Ukrainians who made it to the United States. Some arrived directly on travel visas. Others traveled to Mexico and then to the US border to seek asylum, which allowed them to remain in the United States while their cases were processed.
Refugee resettlement agencies can use all the help they can get to accommodate the influx. Deep cuts under the Trump administration have seen them cut staff and programs, and they have already scrambled to help tens of thousands of Afghans seeking asylum after fleeing the Taliban takeover in Israel. last year.
“We started dealing with these crises before there was a chance to rebuild this infrastructure,” said Stephanie Nawyn, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University who focuses on issues of refugees.
“Refugees have a lot of needs: homes, jobs, English classes, financial aid, schools and translators to help them navigate it all. It’s too much, even for a large organization,” Nawyn said. “While it’s great to have more people of faith to help, not having enough resources or case managers is always going to be a problem.”
Quickly providing these kinds of protections and benefits to Ukrainian arrivals is a religious imperative, said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Jewish refugee agency HIAS, one of nine groups contracting with the US State Department on resettlement.
Jews are called by their faith to care for and help those in need, Hetfield said, noting that “welcoming the stranger” is mentioned 36 times in the Torah, more times than any other commandment.
“Not because it’s the most important, but because it’s the easiest to forget or ignore — loving the stranger as yourself,” Hetfield said.
HIAS also welcomes interfaith efforts to help newly arrived refugees, such as a planned partnership in New York with Buddhist groups.
Chad DeChant, a doctoral student at Columbia University who belongs to Village Zendo, a Zen community in lower Manhattan, initiated the effort. The group forms committees to help refugees navigate social services, and once their application to HIAS is approved, they hope volunteers can be trained by the resettlement agency.
Buddhism teaches its followers to be aware of “the interconnectedness of all beings,” DeChant said, and “the teaching is not to see ourselves as separate from others: to act with compassion to help others is a value fundamental in all Buddhist traditions”.
Minda Schweizer, founder and executive director of Home for Refugees, a Christian nonprofit based in Orange County, California, said resources were needed at the grassroots level where faith groups continue to help refugees. Afghans who were still looking for their way.
“A lot of Afghan refugees are still in motels because we’re in the middle of a housing crisis,” Schweizer said.
Matthew Soerens, US director of church mobilization and advocacy at World Relief, said his organization was eager to welcome more Ukrainians and was busy answering questions from churches about how to help: Can they accommodate a family? Can they be involved in English lessons?
“One of our main requests to churches is, ‘Can you help us identify the owners or property managers?'” Soerens said. “What we’re really struggling with almost across the country is long-term, permanent, affordable housing.”
Meanwhile, as Ukrainians continue to arrive at the US-Mexico border, local churches continue to mobilize.
Bogdan Kipko, pastor at Forward Church, a Baptist congregation in Irvine, Calif., has worked with churches such as Calvary as well as a Russian church in the San Diego area. Volunteers took refugees to nearby hotels or hosted them in their homes; after a short stay, those with relatives in the country usually travel by bus, car or plane to places like Sacramento, where there is a large Ukrainian community.
The biggest challenge will be connecting those in need with long-term services and helping them build new lives, Kipko said: “We try to help those who have nowhere to go. We think about their long-term needs.
Kipko and his family came to the United States in 1992 after fleeing religious persecution in Kazakhstan, and many of his relatives are from Ukraine.
“We came here as refugees, and the Baptist churches in Washington helped get us back on our feet,” he said. “I will never forget that.”
Henao reported from Princeton, New Jersey. Associated Press writers Mariam Fam in Cairo, Peter Smith in Pittsburgh and AP photographer Gregory Bull in Chula Vista, Calif., contributed.
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