Two years ago, in response to the growing need to serve and minister to the thousands of refugees resettling in their territory, the Iowa-Missouri Conference formally launched a new department to coordinate efforts across both states.
“There are currently more people around the world being displaced than at any time since World War II,” said Bryan Gallant, Refugee Ministries coordinator for the conference. “In fact,” he added, “we are now witnessing what some have called the largest generation of refugees ever.”
The adjustment to a new life, particularly in the United States, can be quite difficult. “Imagine having your whole world destroyed by war and political unrest,” Gallant said. “And, after living in a refugee camp several years, you finally get to come to the United States. When you land, you don’t know the language, you don’t know the culture, you don’t know where or how to go shopping—you don’t even know how to run the appliances in the home you’ll be living in.”
To meet immediate resettlement needs, the conference has started language and citizenship classes in some if its larger cities. Some churches have started clothing and food drives to help meet material needs as well.
One of the biggest needs, however, is education for refugee children. In many areas, the public school system is not equipped for the large numbers of refugees settling in their areas. And refugee children, many of whom have never known anything outside of refugee camps with little or no educational opportunities, face additional hurdles assimilating into American culture and catching up to the grade levels of their American peers.
To provide refugee students with a learning environment that is both welcoming and nurturing, the conference has established a Refugee Tuition Assistance Fund to help refugee students who want to attend one of the conference’s elementary schools or Sunnydale Academy.
The conference is currently looking for 1,000 people to partner with them in this endeavor by pledging a monthly gift of $10 or a yearly gift of $120 to ensure as many refugee students as possible have this opportunity. So far 350 people have made pledges and, with other donations received, approximately $110,000 of the $120,000 goal for the 2016-17 school year was met. Because of this, 67 refugee students who would not have otherwise been able to attend were enrolled in Iowa-Missouri schools this past year.
Going beyond resettlement
In addition to the challenges of resettlement, refugee families face uncertainty about what has happened to friends and family members left behind in the camps.
Families on the waiting list for resettlement are often given little notice to pack their belongings and begin the journey to a new land. After rushed goodbyes, they part ways with loved ones not knowing if they’ll ever see or hear from them again.
And because communication back to the camps is rarely possible, those left behind have no way of knowing if their loved ones actually made it somewhere safe or if they were captured and killed.
Conference leaders met with Congolese refugees in St. Louis last fall with a plan to change that. They collected photos and updates from families here, along with information about relatives back in the camps. Conference president Dean Coridan, along with former executive secretary Bob Peck and executive committee member Dick Bascom, then took a trip to Africa to hand-deliver the photos to their loved ones still in the camps. Photos and updates from the camps were also brought back to families here.
“The families experienced such joy in reconnecting with loved ones,” said Coridan. “We were able to reestablish contact between twin brothers. When the gentleman here saw the photo of his brother come up on the screen, he stood up and stayed standing the entire time his brother’s photo was on the screen. It was an emotional experience for everyone.”
Special funding made the Africa trip possible, as well as the subsequent Nepal trip, where more families were reconnected. The conference plans to do more for refugees living in the camps and is hoping to collect enough money this summer to build churches for the estimated 20,000-40,000 Adventists currently living in one of the three Rwandan camps visited last fall. The camp has agreed to donate space for the churches, and the funds gathered by the conference will go toward building costs.
ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) is currently building schools to improve the availability of education within the camps, and the Iowa-Missouri Conference looks forward to discovering other ways it can participate in improving the lives of refugees both locally and internationally.