United States

When Welcoming Refugees Is a Matter of Faith

Imagine for a moment that you are a Syrian refugee arriving in Phoenix, Arizona. The plane touches down and as you taxi to the gate, you reflect on the long journey that brought you to America. You remember fleeing your home in Syria like it was yesterday, even though 5 years have passed since your home was destroyed in the crossfire of civil war.

You have been practicing your English and preparing for this moment for months, but walking through the terminal sparks feelings of anxiety and fear. Everything is different. However, you’ve heard there are people waiting to meet you and a community ready to help.

People like Leisa McDonald.

Today, Leisa is the Associate Director of Refugee Programming at Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona, but her path to becoming a refugee advocate is rooted in a childhood experience.

As a child, Leisa had the opportunity to welcome a family from Laos at the airport. Before they arrived, Leisa’s mother explained to her that the family from Laos was coming to America because it was no longer safe in their home country.

“We went to the airport to welcome them and to let them know they had friends in the United States,” says Leisa.

But it wasn’t until 2012, when Leisa met Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon, that she discovered her passion and desire to work with refugees in her home community.

UNHCR tents being shipped to Indonesia.

The experience in Lebanon had a profound effect. “I met refugees coming from Iraq who were employed, successful business people, who were all of a sudden fleeing because it was not safe.”

She also met Christian refugees in Lebanon who fled persecution in Iraq.

“That shattered my understanding of what a refugee was,” she says. “From being someone who was poor seeking a better life, to someone who was no longer safe because of religious practices,” she continues. “[This was] a new revelation for me and fueled, even more, my passion for being involved.”

Leisa returned home from that trip to Lebanon and got involved.

For many years, Central Christian Church’s work for refugees primarily focused on language skills training and support for other church and faith organizations operating in the Phoenix area.

But as the number of refugee families resettling to Phoenix increased, Central Christian Church saw an opportunity to deepen its commitment to resettled refugees and be a leader in the faith community.

“As a church we felt there was more we could be doing,” Leisa explains. An immediate challenge was connecting available resources to refugee families in need. In the Phoenix area, this meant finding a way to connect members of the Central Christian Church community who live in the East Valley to refugee families who primarily live in central and western Phoenix.

Central Christian Church collaborated with local resettlement agencies and started to take a more active role in language training and life skills support to complement the work of caseworkers at the resettlement agencies.

Today, Central Christian Church has helped resettle more than 40 families. The support has grown to include language and tutoring programs operated by the church; a resettlement team that assists families navigating the challenges of paying bills, acquiring a driver’s license and registering children for school; and legal services to help families get on the path to citizenship.

Even with the tremendous success of Central Christian Church’s refugee programming, there remain skeptics. Leisa’s appeal to the skeptics is simple and rooted in experience and faith.

“That call to serve the 'least of these' and represent Christ to that community, I think is one of the most important things we can do,” says Leisa.

“The hope I have is the more people that get involved, the more we can be creative in our support for refugee families.”

How can you help refugees?

USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, supports the full journey of refugees. Not only do our donors help refugees in their greatest time of need, but their support builds awareness for resettled refugees living in the U.S. Refugees have woven themselves into the fabric of American society and are making lasting contributions to their communities. With your help, more refugees will have the opportunity to build a peaceful life and give their family a bright future.

Dec 20 2018
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