Many people understand their faith as a refuge, but for refugees resettling in the United States, religion is often the primary refuge. Whether refugees are Syrian Muslim, Cambodian Buddhist, or Liberian Christians, religious organizations have played a critical role in the resettlement of refugees in the last 80 years, and most of the voluntary agencies that partner with the federal government to resettle refugees are faith-based. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines refugees as as those who are “forced to flee [their] country because of persecution, war, or violence” and estimates there are more than 26.4 million refugees worldwide.
However, efforts to address and understand refugees’ challenges often neglect their religious identities, experiences, and needs. The things refugee resettlement agencies are responsible for providing are usually cast in secular terms and focus on the necessities: housing, employment, healthcare, and English classes. Rarely do organizations think about the importance of religion in the lives of refugees. Ironically, in their efforts to ensure successful resettlement, these religious-based, voluntary agencies fail to respond to many of the religious needs of refugees. When U.S. citizens, agencies, or organizations do talk about refugees’ religion their faith is often considered a problem, such as the belief that Muslim refugees are a threat to U.S. culture and security — a concern that has energized recent efforts to limit resettlement.
The importance of listening to refugees
For many refugees, faith has been a central motivator and reservoir of resilience during difficult times. We need to understand and embrace the religious dimensions of refugees’ lives even if some United States officials says that certain religions are “un-American.” Only then will we be able to affirm and support what is an essential — but often overlooked — part of their journey to building thriving lives in the U.S.
In 2018, Princeton University’s Office of Religious Life created the Religion & Resettlement Project (RRP), co-sponsored with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and funded in large part by the Luce Foundation, to examine the U.S. refugee resettlement system. Identifying a gap in our shared public, civic, and scholarly knowledge in this intersection of faith and forced migration, we sought to understand the religious and spiritual lives of refugees and refugee communities which we believe is critical to understanding their experiences. We have conducted over 150 interviews with resettled refugees and asylees living in the United States whose religious identities have been consequential in their journey, resettlement, and integration. Over the past three years, we have trained over 70 undergraduate students in oral history methods and the significance of religion in refugees’ lives.
Religion as a source of resilience
If there is one thing that we have learned through listening to refugees’ stories, it is that religion matters. We believe that we can improve resettlement in the United States if we take time to listen to refugees and understand their perspectives.
Raised in the Christian Orthodox tradition, Milada Pejović fled the former Yugoslavia with her two young sons in 1998 after her husband was killed as a civilian. Soon after she was resettled by World Relief in Wheaton, Ill., and joined World Relief’s efforts to resettle and support other refugees as a volunteer, which eventually led to her becoming a case manager. As she helped refugees of various faiths, she “started realizing that people can have different religious roots, but they can still work for a higher cause and help each other,” she told RRP during an oral history interview.
Religion can be a source of resilience and strength for individual refugees as well as the refugee community as a whole. Mosques, temples, and other sites of worship and ritual practice foster rich social networks, generous mutual aid, and meaningful forms of spiritual and cultural connection. Religious institutions, long recognized as pillars of ethnic community life, are especially vital for refugees who have experienced the traumas of war, forced migration, and resettlement.
For example, Hmong Christians refugees in the U.S. have formed congregations where they can gather, worship in their own language, and offer one another material and moral support. In 1999, one Hmong American woman, Kim Yang, told the Minnesota Historical Society that the church functioned as an extension of the family. Yang said that religion was important to her mother because, “she [and her children] will receive help from the church.”
Non-Christian Hmong refugees have also established their own institutions — including funeral homes, cultural centers, and meat markets — that allow them to practice traditional Hmong rituals. In 1988, Shoua Vang wrote about how he created a Hmong cultural center in Minnesota on his family’s farm that drew Hmong people from Wisconsin, Iowa, California, and even France. His goal was to offer Hmong people “the chance to carry on and learn our traditional ceremonies.”
Refugees’ stories also reveal the perils of ignoring religious needs. Nizar Motani, a historian specializing in African history, was curious about how Ugandan Asian refugees resettled in the United States in the 1970s — many of whom were Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh — would fare in the U.S. resettlement system. As documented in an ELCA archive, Motani knew that Ugandan Asians were “very apprehensive about being resettled by Christian congregations,” especially since the Uganda Resettlement Programme was the first effort by many agencies and churches to resettle non-white, non-Christian people.
Motani believed that the Lutheran sponsors in his study generally handled religious differences well, but on occasion, the failure of Christian sponsors to understand the religious lives of refugees caused major problems.
“For example, a strictly vegetarian Brahmin was given work in a poultry processing plant,” he wrote. “The resultant psychological and emotional strain, compounded by his family’s separation from him because of the expulsion, could not be disguised. The concerned U.S. sponsors naturally suggested psychiatric help which further aggravated the situation.” They would have been better positioned to abide by their commitment to aiding refugees in a way that respects religious differences if they had access to tools for religious and cultural literacy.
As people imagine ways to rebuild the immigration and resettlement programs in the United States, now is the time to listen anew to the refugees who have been resettled so we might build a more just and inclusive society.
Many voluntary agencies that resettle refugees have deep historic roots in Christian and Jewish communities. They have made good faith efforts to resettle refugees as a way to uphold the precious and sacred obligation of welcoming the stranger, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8). Our conviction is that we attend to the faith — the refuge — of those being resettled as much as we do our own.
How might we suggest this be done?
First, take time to learn. If refugees are resettling in your area, learn about their faith background and explore the local religious communities that might provide refuge for them. Find out which institutions in your community support, employ, or are owned by refugees. For RRP’s archive, we are mapping organizations that support refugees across the United States which will provide information on ways to engage locally. For a weekly refugee brief, consider subscribing to UNHCR’s newsletter.
Second, take time to listen. If you are working with refugees, ask if they would be interested in sharing their faith journeys, even if they differ from your own. To access rich stories of migrants, we recommend the First Days Project, Minnesota Immigrant Oral Histories, and our oral history archive which will be publicly available in the fall of 2021.
Third, support local resettlement agencies. If you are connected to a resettlement agency, find out what relationships they have with local refugee religious leaders. Such knowledge is often precious but held informally by those working in the field. It’s essential to build relationships, create gathering spaces, and be intentional about developing the networks and personal connections necessary for a robust resettlement system at the local level. We recently helped organize several interfaith prayer services on World Refugee Day in which diverse places of worship collaborated to elevate the voices, journeys, and religious lives of refugee communities.
Religion is vital to many refugees who resettle in our religiously diverse country. May we remember that it is often not a nation, but faith, that serves as the most important refuge for people experiencing forced migration.
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