From Refugee to Family

How is your church responding to war overseas?

As we watch the gut-wrenching conflict coverage coming out of Ukraine, many of us are wondering what we can do to help. Images of destroyed shelters, video footage of babies too premature to be evacuated and news reports of civilian bodies in the streets are impossible to ignore – they cry out for justice. On this side of the ocean, many churches and communities have begun to ask questions about providing refuge for those fleeing the violence. BC 1Life, a Christian Reformed-based educational and leadership collective recently hosted a panel about this very question.

Moving towards kinship

The event facilitator, Dena Nicolai, works as a Refugee Support Mobilizer with the CRC in British Columbia, helping newcomers and churches connect on a personal level. According to her, churches need to provide a sense of kinship for refugees. “Kinship is hard work,” says Nicolai. “It’s not simple. It’s not easy.” But it’s necessary.

Churches need to move beyond providing for the newcomers’ needs. They need to move past standing with them in their pain and sorrow. Churches need to arrive at a symbiotic relationship. “There’s a huge difference between ‘you’re welcome here’ and ‘you’re needed; you contribute to this community,’” explains Nicolai.

As one refugee shared with Nicolai: “We don’t always want to be the one having things done for us.” Another said: “I want to put my hands together [and help].” Churches need to create space for newcomers to become active and involved members of their communities.

The words we use

We can start by changing the way we talk about refugees. Some newcomers find themselves asking: How long will I be a refugee? When can I be a new immigrant or a helper? The way Mohammad, one of the newcomers Nicolai has worked with, puts it: “When I hear the word refugee, I think of someone who is poor and helpless. That’s not me.”

Instead of assuming that people are fine with being called “refugee” or assuming that they’d rather be referred to another way, Nicolai suggests you ask. Let each person tell you if they want to be referred to as a refugee, a new immigrant, or something else. Because some might be fine with the term refugee. After all, as Nicolai points out “The root of ‘refugee’ is ‘refuge,’ and refuge is important.”

Discerning the path forward

Most of us can’t do much about the deep injustices we’re seeing on the ground in Ukraine. But we shouldn’t close our hearts to the humanitarian impacts of war just because the problems seem too vast to solve. It’s important to do the best we can. As Nicolai points out, “It’s not sinful to be finite and limited.”

If your church is beginning to discern whether or not you can sponsor a refugee, take the time to listen to each other’s concerns and discern whether or not this is something you and your community can do. “I’m the last one to say every church in Canada should be sponsoring refugees,” said Nicolai. “Discernment is absolutely necessary. But if someone knocks on your door; you have to answer that.”


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