My Christian Faith Informs My View Of Welcoming Refugees in America

It’s baaaaaack. I’m going to attempt to revive Frontline Fridays, a Friday segment on my blog where I interview someone about their perspective being on the ‘frontlines’ of a particular issue. With the current political climate,  I feel we could all benefit from learning from the experience of those around us.  Today’s interview, I’m talking with Kelly Barneche. I chose Kelly to interview today because of her extensive work with refugees and other asylum seekers.

Kelly is an American living in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she works at the headquarters of a humanitarian NGO. Kelly was born in Brazil to American parents and spent her happy childhood there. Her background is in international social work. Before moving to Switzerland,  she worked in the U.S. with refugees, asylum-seekers, and foreign-born survivors of torture and trafficking. She’s always felt most comfortable and most engaged in multicultural settings, and has a lot of compassion for people who are crossing cultures, especially those who haven’t necessarily chosen to do so.

How did you become passionate about issues related refugees and asylum seekers?

When I was in college I read The Middle of Everywhere, by Mary Pipher, about her work with refugees in Iowa. It was then that I had an epiphany: working with refugees was the “vocation” I had been searching for. My first job in this field was as a refugee job developer, meaning that I was responsible for helping newly arrived refugees find employment. I loved getting to know people from places like Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, and assisting them in starting their first jobs in the U.S. It was amazing to witness their courage in adapting to a new language and country with its own customs (always extra apparent in the workplace!) and I was moved by the kindness they were often shown by their new colleagues. It became clear to me that refugee resettlement in the U.S. is a win-win: people who’ve fled their home countries to save their lives can live in relative safety and hope, and communities that welcome them benefit from their contributions and investments.

I later went on to volunteer with asylum-seekers being held in immigration detention, and I then worked with immigrant survivors of trafficking and torture. Knowing people who had experienced the very worst at the hands of other human beings was challenging, and I learned a lot about the causes and effects of trauma. However, I continue to be amazed by the resilience of the human spirit, and it was a joy to support people in their healing. I was also inspired by the dedication of my colleagues in these various settings, many of whom were immigrants or former refugees/survivors themselves.

Was that a departure from your views about these issues before you worked there?

When I first started learning about refugees in the U.S. around fifteen years ago, everything was new to me. Though of course there’s a long history of people coming to the U.S. to seek relief from persecution, refugee resettlement has become a more widely discussed political topic in recent years. Awareness has increased, and so people have the opportunity to develop opinions on “the issue” one way or another without ever necessarily getting to know a person who is a refugee or asylum-seeker. I’m fortunate that I didn’t have well-formed, pre-existing views before beginning this work, so just some basic facts about refugee resettlement and a sense of curiosity were my starting points in getting to know the individuals behind the legal and political terms.

What are common misconceptions about refugee(s) and in particular Muslim refugee(s) that you hear often? How do/would you respond to those misconceptions?

I think misconceptions about “the other” are an unfortunate reality of being human— who hasn’t felt unfairly characterized because of their gender/sexual identity/ethnicity/cultural background/religious affiliation/political opinion, etc? Obviously this is a more common experience for some than others, but it should give all of us pause before making unflattering generalizations about those who are different from us. Misconceptions about refugees, and especially Muslim refugees, abound. Some focus on what it means to be “American” and who is or isn’t worthy of that designation. In response, I have to say that I’ve heard some of the most eloquent explanations of “American values” from refugees I’ve worked with:  people who appreciate the notions of freedom, democracy, and hard work to a profound degree, given the persecution and limited opportunities that caused them to flee their home countries. I’ve watched adults who already speak several languages enthusiastically embrace English as the language of their new homeland. I’ve known women, particularly from traditional Muslim backgrounds, who risked their lives to advocate for women’s rights in their communities, and who found allies in their fellow Muslims. These experiences developed in me a deeper appreciation for what the U.S. is meant to represent to those who seek freedom, justice, and hope. I understand that the topic of refugees elicits economic concerns as well. It’s really important to consider the facts on this, and there are a number of articles to choose from, like this one: https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/heres-how-much-the…/…

A good summary is that “refugees tend to be cost-neutral or cost-positive for their host countries.” I’ve assisted refugee clients with opening bank accounts, deciphering their first paychecks (what’s FICA? where is that money going? what’s the difference between federal and state income tax?), and opening savings accounts for a down payment on a first home. To say that refugees place undue burden on our system is to not acknowledge the meaningful contributions many make to the local economies and communities where they live.  

As a Christian, how has your faith shaped your views on refugees and public policy related to refugees?

It’s clear that Christians are called to love our neighbors and “welcome the stranger.” Scriptures and good theology point to this, as well as some of the best moments in the history of the church. On a personal level, this love and welcome means sharing what I have, being thoughtful about how I speak about refugees to others, and remaining intentional in who I get to know and let get to know me. On a community level, it means supporting organizations that provide assistance to refugees. On a public policy level, it means advocating for laws and policies that are just and that offer protection for communities that are socially vulnerable, including refugees and asylum-seekers.

My faith also compels me to seek and speak the truth. What seems correct or logical at first glance may not be, and so it’s important to examine facts, use reason, and ask great questions. Good public policy regarding refugees will be informed by good research, not by fears or biases (which can threaten to blind all of us to what’s true).  

As an expat, how has your life abroad shaped your views of the US and US policy related to this issue? What could we learn from other countries?

Living in a country that’s not my own helps me empathize with others who are in the same situation. Navigating a new language, new public transit systems, new ways of correctly weighing apples at the grocery store—it can be stressful! And I came to a country not too different from my own, of my own free will. So I try to put myself in the shoes of someone who never planned to tackle the adventure of migration, but who had no choice.

Different countries take different approaches when it comes to immigration and legal status channels, social safety nets, and employment. There are some good lessons to learn from policies in other countries that have been successful and from those that have had unintended consequences. However, it’s maybe even more relevant to look at effective grassroots movements that have sprung up in places like Germany, where concerned citizens came together to offer housing to newly arriving refugees via an online platform. Caring people can be really creative, and it’s a great time for sharing ideas about how to meaningfully and effectively make an impact.

What, if anything, would you say about the recent Muslim ban? How do you see it affecting refugee(s) and/or world issues?

The immigration executive order resulted in really catastrophic consequences for innocent people. I’m concerned that the resulting confusion and uncertainty will erode trust in the U.S. immigration system. Though the system (before the ban) is not perfect by any means, it has offered many persecuted people hope and has allowed some incredible individuals to live and work in the U.S. (just look up a list of famous refugees). It would be tragic if people were unable or unwilling to migrate to the U.S. as a result.

What advice would you give other American(s) about what we can do to learn more about the refugee crisis and what we can do to support those seeking asylum around the world?

Read! Read about the circumstances that cause people to leave their home countries. Read about what it’s like to be a refugee or asylum-seeker in the U.S.  What is the What by Dave Eggers and this New Yorker article are two good examples of the excellent reading material out there.

Ask! Find a local organization that works with refugees and ask what you can do to help.

Share! Share what you have with others and be willing to let them share with you.

Be open! Be open to how you might make an impact. For example, in many states there are visitation ministries where people can offer encouragement to immigrants (including asylum-seekers) being held in detention centers (some of the most meaningful volunteer work I’ve ever done): http://lirs.org/act/visitation/join-a-visitation-ministry/

Advocate! Advocate for just immigration policies and let politicians know that you support refugees in your community. There’s really no end to the possibilities if you remain curious and open-hearted.

Thank, Kelly, for sharing your experience and perspective with us today!

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