Vital role of faith in the protection and integration of refugees

‘Welcoming the Stranger’ conference concludes with renewed commitments to increase interfaith cooperation

(LWI) – Every woman, man or child fleeing war or natural disaster, persecution or extreme poverty has a face, a name, a story and a family they leave behind. Hearing these stories, offering protection and support to forcibly displaced people is an obligation for all major religious traditions and faith-based organizations can do much more, in partnership with governments and international agencies, to respond to the growing global refugee crisis. . .

This was the message from members of different faith traditions working in local and global refugee responses who attended an international conference June 20-21 on exploring possibilities for increased cooperation. Entitled “Welcoming the Stranger, Shaping the Future,” the interfaith event brought together more than 80 faith leaders, national and local activists and aid workers from 37 countries, alongside officials from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Organized by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in partnership with Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) and HIAS, the Jewish refugee relief organization, the Geneva conference concluded with a message of hope, as well as a appeal to international agencies to understand the vital role that faith plays in healing trauma, building resilience and integrating refugees into their new host communities.

Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria speaks about the religious duty to protect displaced people.

German Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria and former Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), reflected on words from the Hebrew Bible which emphasize that the duty to protect immigrants and refugees stems from the experience of the people of Israel who “were foreigners in the land of Egypt”. “It’s not an imposed law but something that comes from the heart, to know what it feels like to search for a safe harbor,” he said.

Live as neighbors

“As a Christian,” he continued, “I am part of this Jewish narrative and I live in this history. Seeing the world through the eyes of another is a fundamental requirement for religious people and praying to God is not possible without also looking at one’s neighbour. He recalled a memorial service he and Catholic Cardinal Reinhard Marx held in a crowded Munich cathedral in 2019, reading the names of hundreds of people who died crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety and a dignified life.

Bedford-Strohm participated in a panel discussion, moderated by UNHCR Senior Advisor Safak Pavey, with four young women and men working to support refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya, Uganda, Malaysia and Serbia. Like the bishop, several of them have received death threats or been targeted because of their advocacy for the rights of these minority communities.

Heidy Quah, founder and director of 'Refuge for the Refugees' in Malaysia

Heidy Quah, founder and director of ‘Refuge for the Refugees’ in Malaysia

Heidy Quah, founder and director of Refuge for the Refugees in Malaysia, has been arrested and taken to court for her public exposure of the government’s mistreatment of refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reverend Moses Atuhaire, who heads a network of faith-based organizations in western Uganda, has told how his office was attacked after speaking on the radio about local government corruption and unfair treatment minorities. Jelena Djurdjevič, coordinator of Jesuit Refugee Services in Serbia, spoke of the discrimination she faces because of her work, but also the rewards of seeing individuals resettled and building a new life.

Farida Abdulbasit, program coordinator for the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance, shared the story of a refugee she met, a young Kenyan woman who was forced to marry a member of the Somalia-based militant group Al-Shabaab . “When her husband was killed, she found her way back to Kenya with her four children, traumatized by her experience, but all the counselors we spoke to were scared as she was a security nightmare,” Abdulbasit said.

Farida Abdulbasit, program coordinator for the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance with Swedish Lutheran sister Karin Johansson.

Farida Abdulbasit, program coordinator for the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance with Swedish Lutheran sister Karin Johansson.

“You get used to problems with the police, but you have to live with the knowledge that someone is watching you,” she added. Yet for Abdulbasit too, the benefits of getting psychosocial support and a small loan for this woman to start her own business were more than enough to continue this difficult work.

Participants highlighted the importance of “bold, focused, collaborative, innovative and evidence-based” advocacy for refugee rights. They underlined the importance of the training of religious leaders who can have a considerable influence on the formation of popular opinion on issues of immigration and integration. religious leaders and actors agreed on the need for closer cooperation “to understand each other’s language” and to ensure that the inclusion of a religious perspective goes beyond planning until to grassroots implementation.

Child protection and gender impact were among the areas of particular interest for participants at the interfaith conference.

Child protection and gender impact were among the areas of particular interest for participants at the interfaith conference.

The specific needs of children and the impact of gender-based violence on migrants and refugees were key areas where participants called for closer coordination between different faith communities and with secular organizations to share knowledge and understanding. experience in prevention, protection and healing practices. “In our group discussion, we talked about developing toolkits, speaking out against harmful practices, creating safe spaces for women and girls, and involving men and boys in research. durable solutions,” said Sikhonzile Ndlovu, LWF Gender Advocacy Officer.

Fight against xenophobia

Religious actors can play a vital role in combating xenophobia and promoting peaceful coexistence, participants said, insisting that this is “a long-term project that cannot be realized. in emergency situations”. Creating “meeting spaces through the use of art, music, food or sport” can be an effective tool in breaking down the fear and ignorance that fuel hostility towards immigrants, said Kate Wiggans, IRW representative to the UN in Geneva. Likewise, it is important to equip immigrants with knowledge of local customs for their integration into the host communities.

Rabbi Rebecca Lillian, board member of A World of Neighbors

Rabbi Rebecca Lillian, board member of A World of Neighbors

Religious language, symbols and rituals can also play an important role in trauma healing processes, the conference said. Psychosocial support for refugees is essential for the delivery of humanitarian programs, participants said, highlighting the need for networks to strengthen cooperation and greater religious literacy among secular and religious organizations. They also noted the need to identify secondary trauma and burnout of those providing pastoral care, particularly among men “who can often be overlooked in mental health care.”

In identifying lasting solutions to the challenges faced by faith groups in different parts of the world, participants stressed the importance of “enabling refugees themselves to be the protagonists of this work”. Paula Mazzini Mendes, regional coordinator for the National Council of Christian Churches in Brazil, noted that “what people want is not always what we want to give, so it’s essential to ask them first.”

Reflecting on the negative narratives about Venezuelan refugees in her country, she said that “we must always listen to both sides of the story” to avoid stereotypes and blame”. Third, she said, “as as religious communities, let us not limit our faith to liturgies, but find new ways to worship by providing food for the hungry.” “Faith matters to the people we work with, enabling them to survive and thrive,” said said HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield, “So we need to stop pretending that faith doesn’t matter.” Our commitment is to make sure we use faith as a force for good.

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