By Dr. Trevor Castor
1. Work with a Team
Refugee ministry is taxing because there are so many needs and people’s wellbeing is at stake. It is not a good idea to take on serving a family alone because you won’t last long as a lone ranger. The family’s needs will far outweigh your capacity and eventually lead to burnout. This may leave the family feeling abandoned. Consider gathering, or joining, a small team of five to seven committed people who are willing to serve and partner with a resettlement agency. Not only will this lighten the load, but it will draw you closer to the people you are serving with. There is something special that happens to small groups of people who work together to serve the “least of these.” We get to meet Jesus in a new and fresh way because, in loving the refugee or welcoming the stranger, it is as though we are welcoming Christ Himself. Also, you will get to know the spiritual giftings and talents of your teammates in ways that will encourage and remind you that God has called and equipped incredible people to accomplish His purposes.
2, Pace Yourself
Every need the family has is not completely dependent upon you and your team. Each family will have caseworkers who are their primary advocates in the resettlement process. Do not be afraid to say no to volunteer opportunities that you cannot meet. It is better to under-promise and over-deliver. You will be tempted to jump into crises mode when you first meet the family. The overwhelming needs may even keep you up at night because it is hard for you to imagine going through something so difficult. The next thing you know, you are working at an unsustainable pace to help the family resettle and be comfortable. You might last a week or two but will eventually stop showing up because it is too burdensome. The resettlement process is a marathon, not a sprint. Also be aware of your own emotional process. Helping people in crises may take a toll on your mental health. It is a good idea to tell teammates about your struggles because they are likely experiencing the same. If you feel like you’re falling apart, it’s normal. You need to take care of yourself, or you won’t be much help to others.
3. Meet Practical Needs
Not every need you meet is going to feel important. Refugees will need a lot of practical help: rides to appointments, learning how to use public transit, grocery shopping, enrolling kids in school, furnishing their apartment or home, finding affordable clothing, finding toys for kids, enrolling in English class, adjusting to the culture, finding a job, coping with the emotional stress of culture shock, applying for government assistance, paying bills, etc. Remember, work with a team and be willing to say no when there are needs you cannot meet. Your primary goal should be to meet as many needs as you can without burning out. The resettlement agency depends heavily on volunteers, and it is up to you to decide what you can and can’t do. The resettlement agency will not likely make that decision for you. It is not helpful to the agency, and more importantly the refugee family, to give the impression you have a larger capacity than you do. The agency needs to be able to scale how many families they can care for well. To do that, there needs to be an accurate assessment of volunteer capacity.
4. Teach them to Fish
Be careful not to do everything for the refugee. These are some of the most resilient people on the planet. Most of us could have never endured what they did to come here. It might be a good idea to fully care for them the first week or two so they can rest and recover. However, you will want to avoid creating dependency. You want to equip them to do things on their own as soon as you can, but balance this with realistic expectations. Rather than provide rides to every appointment, spend a day teaching them how to use public transportation. Make sure when you take them shopping for the first time that they have money. Help them to understand the value of a dollar. One way to do this is by showing them the cost of something, like a gallon of milk, or a carton of eggs. The resettlement agency will give them a small weekly stipend, but it may not be enough to meet all their needs and not all their wants. If you notice that the family wants something, but can’t afford it, consider going back at another time and buying it as a gift. Be careful not to overdo gifts, it could lead to feelings of inadequacy. When you give a gift, say it is a gift from God as it might help the refugee not to feel ashamed if they can’t reciprocate.
5. Show and Receive Hospitality
Invite them into your home before you invite them to church. A church visit will likely result in some confusion and many questions. Modeling the love of Christ before visiting a church will allow you to debrief and answer questions that your Muslim friends might have after the visit. Allow your kindness towards them, and good works on their behalf, to create a curiosity about who you are and what you believe. That said, keep in mind that we show kindness to the refugee because it is a biblical principle, not because we are trying to convert them. Refugees need genuine friendship with no strings attached. While it may be difficult, do not refuse their hospitality. Get used to drinking tea and being present with people, even though you have other things to do. You may feel bad eating their food when they have so little but do it anyway. Hospitality is an opportunity for your friends to show you how much your friendship means. It is also an opportunity for them to honor God for bringing you into their lives. If you have them over for a meal, avoid making meat unless it is from a halal store. You might even invite them to your house to teach you how to make their local food.
6. Listen to their Story
Listening to people share their stories will provide a deep sense of connection for you both. It will also open your eyes to the person’s felt needs and how you might more effectively pray for them. It may even open the door for you to share your story. This is an opportunity for you to see the work of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life and testify to the work of the Spirit in your own life. Be prepared to sit for a while and look for opportunities to bring Christ’s comfort to the sojourner. You would be surprised how comforting it is to a refugee to hear that God has prepared a place of eternal rest for them in heaven. Few people can understand the blessing of heavenly citizenship, or the light burden and easy yoke of our Lord, better than a refugee. Remember that many of these refugees have experienced trauma that may come up in their stories. Sharing traumatic experiences may retraumatize someone so be careful not to encourage them to share more than they’re comfortable with. If something does come up, let their caseworker know so that they can connect them with a trauma specialist.
7. Give a Sense of Belonging
Navigating a new society is daunting. They will need multiple helpers to come alongside them as they adjust to American culture and find their place in society. Unfortunately, many refugees will inevitably meet some people who do not think they belong in America and may even tell them as much. Be sure to go out of your way to regularly tell them how blessed you are that God brought them here, and how your mutual friendship has impacted you personally, as well as your relationship with God. Let them know that our scripture teaches us to show hospitality to the stranger because we might be entertaining angels unawares. In other words, tell them that their coming to America has provided you the opportunity and privilege, not only to love them but to love God. Muslims have a similar theology regarding hospitality as service to God. It will also be helpful to connect them with other Afghan immigrants. Developing community with other Afghans who are further along in resettlement will help them to see that things will get better.
8. Overcoming Language Barriers
Some refugees will speak perfect English because they served as translators for the U.S. in Afghanistan; however, many will not. The resettlement agency will have access to translators and will provide refugees opportunities for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. During medical appointments, translation services should also be provided by the hospital or doctor’s office. However, you will not always have access to translation services during your visits. There are a few apps that can be downloaded to your smartphone, but it will require literacy which is not a guarantee. If all else fails, chances are the refugee knows someone back home, or somewhere else in America who knows English and can translate. Facetime or WhatsApp will be very helpful in these situations. Be careful not to overburden translators and try to get comfortable with nonverbal communication. You can still be a loving friend to someone without always using words. Consider learning a few phrases in their language as well. It will help them to feel a connection to you when you take a genuine interest in their language and culture.
9. Cultural Tips
Accept the reality that at some point you will likely do something offensive because it is impossible to entirely avoid. There are many ways Afghan’s will need to adjust in America, but we should do everything we can to help them during the transition. Probably the most important things are related to purity laws. Gender segregation is largely practiced throughout the Muslim world. You should avoid creating any situation where two people from the opposite sex are forced to be alone together. This would likely only be an issue when arranging rides to appointments. Do not initiate physical contact (even a handshake) with the opposite sex. Dress modestly when interacting with your Muslim friends. The less skin you show the better. As for food, avoid bringing or serving any meat that is not halal; this is like kosher laws for Jews. You can find halal meat at your local international grocery store. Avoid using your left hand, if possible, especially when eating or handing someone something. If a Muslim friend is visiting your home, keep the dog outside. Dogs are considered unclean, and your Muslim friend will not want them jumping on them. Finally, avoid serving alcohol; this is considered forbidden in Islam.
10. Be Flexible
Refugee ministry is often unpredictable and sometimes stressful. You will need to work on increasing your frustration tolerance. If you tend to be rigid and expect things to go according to a particular plan, refugee ministry is an incredible opportunity for you to grow in flexibility. Last-minute things will come up, appointments will be missed, people will be late, miscommunication will happen, offenses will occur, and expectations will need to be adjusted. Do not let this scare you away from getting involved. You will be stretched in good ways. You also need to be flexible with yourself. Maybe you started off with lots of energy and passion for helping a family and now it’s starting to feel like a burden. Maybe the cultural differences that once seemed cool, or exotic, are now frustrating. This may lead to feelings of shame or guilt because you have high expectations of yourself. It’s okay, you’re human and chances are your expectations were too high. Keep asking God for strength to serve and then carry on doing what you can.
This article by Dr. Trevor Castor was originally published by the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies. https://www.zwemercenter.com/guide/guide-for-helping-afghan-refugees/