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Build a Refugee Support Network around a Faith-Based “Welcome Circle”

(Safe Harbors Network, based in San Diego, has developed a network of refugee “Welcome Circles” that includes a dozen congregations and two dozen homes in San Diego County. However, Safe Harbors is developing “Welcome Circles” in other areas of California and throughout the United States. This section shares information on how you may organize a Safe Harbors Welcoming Circle in your area. Dr. Paul Johnston has organized Refugee Welcome Circles in Turlock & the San Francisco Bay Area of California.)

By Dr. Paul Johnston, Ph.D.

(Santa Cruz CA) Any congregation or other community group can serve as the heart of a community network of care for refugees. Many of these refugee families are not in eminent transit to another destination, but instead must make a new life as they wait for many months or even years for their asylum hearings. Over time, through individualized care and case management, these families can become self-sufficient members of their new community.

Based on over a decade of experience, Safe Harbors Network offers the “Welcome Circle” model for anyone who wants to help these vulnerable immigrants on their journey to a safe and better life. Such Circles and connected networks are particularly suited for longer-term support of refugees in interior communities.

In this model, congregation members and others open their homes to families of asylum seekers. They rely on the help of a network of volunteers and community organizations organized through a support center located, ideally, at a local congregation or organization. The network engages with local social service and refugee resettlement agencies as essential partners in moving families toward self-sufficiency and community membership.

The faith community-centered refugee support network: pieces of the puzzle

1. The first and most essential element is the presence of spiritual leadership, anchored in a faith community, able to answer and affirm and amplify the call to compassionate refugee aid. Such leadership can summon up boundless resources.

2. Gather a team of volunteers within and around the congregation and willing to take on the work of refugee support. This will require the establishment of a division of labor into essential work teams, as outlined below.

3. Secure the formal agreement of the host congregation or other institution to host a Welcome Circle: the visible hub and prime sponsor of a network of care. Surrounding faith communities may elect to join and support that network or, perhaps sharing some resources, to anchor their own support network. Four networks serving 6-8 families each can provide more personal and sustainable care than one network serving many more families.

4. Establish relationships with key community organizations willing and able to meet some refugee needs. Family resource centers with case management capacity, health outreach teams able to navigate eligibility challenges, and school-community liaison staff will be particularly valuable participants in any network of support for refugees

5. In addition to the case management, health access and school support partners mentioned in #4 above, volunteer teams should be organized around essential tasks that include:

Housing: Most of all, new arrivals need a room or rooms with beds, privacy, access to sanitary and laundry and cooking facilities. Continuous recruitment of hosts will be necessary, supported by larger volunteer teams, themselves continuously replenished and energized by outreach and training. Inevitably, some who are inspired to offer hospitality will be unable to do so for lack of space or legal concerns in their own household; small teams composed of such people can provide essential support to individual families and those hosting them.

Interface to support for immigration legal services: Asylum seekers, like others awaiting their day in immigration courts, need legal representation. Legal aid is typically concentrated around immigration courts, often hundreds of miles away from communities where refugees may settle. And attorneys providing such aid are typically vastly under-compensated and overextended. Financial resources and legal and paralegal training and support must be summoned up… a daunting task, but within the power of compassionate spirit.

Transportation: This team should maintain and continuously replenish a list of volunteer drivers, able to transport and accompany asylum seekers to appointments with attorneys and court dates as well as medical and other appointments.

Mental health care: Asylum seeking families are typically recovering from traumatic journeys and the experience of violence in home communities. Mental health care is often difficult to access, but essential. Care can be secured on a pro bono basis if necessary, by tapping, again, the compassionate spirit at work among mental health providers in our own communities.

Support center office support: a volunteer-staffed office can serve as a hub for communication, receiving donated materials and funds, recruiting new volunteers and steering them to suitable work, and most importantly as a welcoming center for new arrivals. It is essential that such a network be good at putting people to work in useful ways, so the support center office should maintain a list of needed volunteer tasks. Regular community events that affirm refugee culture and spiritual traditions, community gardens, tutoring in language or other survival skills, outreach to other faith communities and fundraising projects are all examples of productive leadership roles for volunteers.

6. The challenge of coordination: A few dedicated individuals or even a single large committee working hard to accomplish all these tasks is a sure recipe for burnout, dropped balls, and a “log-jam” of long meetings and inaccessible leaders, frustrating and preventing the activation of many potential volunteers. So, a division of labor is essential (dividing and further dividing to expand capacity as volunteer numbers expand). This requires in turn a coordinating council that meets regularly... limiting its role to overall direction and mutual reporting among committees, pushing actual work and problem-solving into teams such as those suggested above while ensuring they have the resources needed. Such meetings should be open to refugees and to all volunteers, but the agenda should be limited to committee reports. This is an ideal place for people playing specialized roles and new volunteers to grasp “the big picture” together.

7. Refugee resettlement agencies like Catholic Charities, International Rescue Committee or Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services have the capacity to provide particularly valuable assistance in moving families toward self-sufficiency. At this writing, these organizations are beginning to broaden their work beyond “approved” refugees from war zones like Afghanistan, to serve these new families; to succeed in this new challenge, they urgently need partnerships in our local communities. In partnership with local case management agencies (see #4), local support networks should engage and form partnerships with such resettlement agencies.

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