NY Interfaith Immigration

Local religious communities help asylum seekers

Local religious communities can offer humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers in ways that faith-based organizations, limited by their eligibility criteria, cannot.

Religious communities play a vital role in the reception and resettlement of refugees and asylees in the United States. Refugees and immigrants who were granted asylum in the United States at least once (“asylees”) are entitled to a number of services offered by faith-based organizations working in resettlement. However, immigrants seeking asylum upon arrival in the United States discover that they do not have access to the same assistance as refugees and asylees.

Because the asylum application process can take months or even years, the experience of asylum seekers is characterized by uncertainty and waiting. Any help they need, be it financial, medical, psychological or social, they should look for it in the community’s social networks. This leaves asylum-seekers, who fled from life-threatening contexts, in a situation of extreme vulnerability when they arrive in this “safe” country. Those who lack social connections or economic means risk living in poverty, and being victims of exploitation and human trafficking.

Synagogues, mosques and churches are in a perfect position to offer the basic assistance asylum seekers need when they arrive. While faith-based organizations are restricted by their funders in terms of the services they can offer to forced migrants who lack refugee or asylum status, indigenous religious communities may not face such limitations. They are free to decide whether to provide humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers, despite the fact that they lack official legal status. When they offer housing, clothing, food, companionship or spiritual care, they are able to reach people who would not otherwise be able to access the care provided by local organizations and charities.

The experience of Joe [1] , an East African applicant who sought asylum in New York City after being persecuted, demonized, humiliated, and threatened with death in his home country for being gay, provides an example of what it would be like. in practice this commitment to religious communities.

Shelter: Regarding his first day in New York, Joe says the following: “It was the coldest day of my life; I slipped into a church and slept on its benches. I felt lost, alone and scared. 

Food and Clothing: Coming from a temperate climate, Joe “had never experienced the change of season.” Many local religious communities store food and clothing or regularly offer hot food to asylum seekers who do not qualify for the delivery of warm clothing or meals provided by organizations that require beneficiaries to provide identity documents.

Transportation: Joe found that access to transportation was essential to move around the city: “If you have a metro card [a public transport voucher], you can go to the soup kitchen or the doctor, go to the office from your lawyer, go to church, do volunteer work, etc. Having transportation in the form of a metro card is a fantastic and crucial tool to help people like me. ”

Company and spiritual support: While some asylum seekers are able to contact other immigrants from the same culture, this is not the case for all. Being isolated can aggravate trauma symptoms. Joe recommends that local faith communities “help [asylum seekers] find new friends. You are left alone, deep in your thoughts, with no one to talk to. If [local religious communities] could find volunteers who were willing to become real friends with people like me, it would be a great achievement. ” In this regard Joe He affirms that “finding a group of friends would help me and other people who are in the same situation to feel loved, human, and it would help me to appreciate life again.”

The flexibility that religious communities enjoy in terms of the type of assistance they can offer and who could receive it enables them to discern how best to collaborate with asylum seekers and to help each other. And most importantly, they are able to go beyond the typical client-provider dynamic that exists in most organizations (including confessional ones), in a way that allows friendship and spiritual support relationships to develop in the context of a community.

Kelly Barneche Kelly.barneche@gmail.com is a social worker and lives in Lausanne, Switzerland. Currently, “Joe” is looking for a job while waiting for a resolution to be issued on his asylum application; Kelly Barneche will forward the messages received.

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