Twenty years ago, Americans rallied in unprecedented fashion to help the flood of Vietnamese refugees entering the United States at the end of the Vietnam War. But two decades and 2 million Vietnamese refugees later--as sentiment against immigrants sweeps across the United States--the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is about to close the remaining detention camps in Hanoi, where about 36,000 languish.
"We are in a new era in refugee resettlement," says Heidi Schoedel, executive director of Exodus World Service (EWS) based in Itasca, Illinois. "We are facing some unprecedented assaults on refugees and immigrants."
Legislation is pending in Congress that would cut the quota of legal refugees allowed to enter the United States from its long-time yearly average of about 100,000 to 75,000 this year and 50,000 annually thereafter. This is at a time when refugee numbers internationally are escalating, from 7 million in 1980 to 22 million in 1995. The situation is expected to grow worse this year because of the ongoing problems in such hot spots as Bosnia.
"We seem to be losing the capability as a nation to respond compassionately to new groups in need," says Ralston Deffenbaugh, executive director of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), one of a dozen nonprofit groups that have teamed with the government for more than two decades in a partnership to resettle refugees.
SUPPORT DRYING UP: In addition to the government restricting refugee numbers, many Christians themselves have become wary of helping. LIRS recently closed its California extension office, folding operations into two other ecumenical groups. The move is a result of a $40,000 deficit within the Lutheran organization and a shift in public attitudes toward resettlement of refugees.
Subsequently, local Christian families and a few church groups, recruited by LIRS and other nonprofit groups to resettle refugee families, have ended up shouldering more of the burden. When government-church resettlement partnership began in the 1970s--inspired by the Vietnamese refugee problem (one of the most successful government-church partnerships ever)--the federal government allotted church groups $500 per refugee to aid in funding initial resettlement. That has increased to only $700 in more than two decades.
World Relief (WR), another group resettling refugees, is facing a small drop in its 1996 and 1997 budgets due to the end of the Vietnamese resettlement program. And WR is closing an office in Binghamton, New York.
CHANGING LIFESTYLES: Don Hammond, WR vice president for U.S. minority and refugee affairs, recalls that he once could enter a church and speak about the refugee issue, and people would immediately offer help. These days he must be more specific.
"Now it needs to really be an individual appeal," he says. "That definitely shows a trend to me that we are less willing to deal with refugees as a subject, but just as willing to deal with refugees as people." He notes that 70 percent of WR's 10,200 refugees allotted by the government resettlement program in the last fiscal year had some form of sponsorship or Christian involvement.
Peggy Gilbert, WR director of migration services, says organizations are having to adjust to changing times. Today, families are less likely to be able to sponsor refugee families one on one, though this was the mode of operation long considered the Cadillac option. In such cases, an American family provides the refugee family some money, housing, and help in obtaining social security cards, enrolling children in school, teaching English, and generally adjusting to American culture.
Gilbert says changing work patterns are a factor. "In the U.S. we have predominantly two parents working, so you have fewer people who have the time to give to help to get somebody on their feet."
Newer organizations, such as Exodus World Service, founded in 1988, work to aid the larger government-designated resettlement groups such as WR in activating American families into the resettlement process. EWS's Schoedel says lifestyle changes in the 1990s necessitate innovations in resettlement operations, often downsizing from one-on-one sponsorship to performing more short-term acts of compassion for the newcomers. "There is not compassion fatigue," Schoedel says, "but we need to provide opportunities that fit with the hectic lifestyles of the volunteers in the Christian community."
LESS COSTLY COMMITMENT: For example, EWS has designed a program in which a church or family can assemble and present a "Welcome to America! Pack" full of toiletries and food to a refugee family upon their airport arrival. Often, Schoedel says, a church group will extend its commitment after meeting the family.
Ultimately, Christian refugee experts say, American believers must examine their lifestyles, commitments, and willingness to heed the call to aid others.
"Issues of isolationism come about because people are afraid of losing what they have," says Michael Friedline, director of development for the Seattle-based World Concern. "People think: Those refugees are going to crowd our roads; they are going to invade our way of life. As Christians, we have to let God take care of those things, and we have to take care of the justice issues."
Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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