By Jeff Brumley
Stacie Blake knows a thing or two about refugees and refugee resettlement in the United States. Most importantly, it’s a massive job.
As the director of government and community relations for the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, she also knows that agencies like hers cannot handle the job alone.
So USCRI and other agencies that resettle refugees in this country rely on volunteers and donors to provide everything from furniture to fellowship for dislocated and culturally disoriented new arrivals.
“Their engagement is critical to the program,” she said.
And one group that’s distinguished itself, Blake said, is led by Marc and Kim Wyatt, Cooperative Baptist field personnel called to work with refugees and other internationals in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.
“They’re pretty amazing,” Blake said about the couple.
They’ve earned that reputation for recruiting a growing army of churches in the region to supply volunteers to help refugees move into apartments and to donate furniture and supplies for recently settled refugees. They have also inspired individuals from those churches to seek ESL teacher training through USCRI.
But they recently stepped up their impact by helping the agency open Welcome House, a residence near the North Carolina State University campus in Raleigh.
The three-bedroom residence is intended for use by small families and single refugees — a group that usually struggles after arriving in the United States, Blake said.
While the lease is held by USCRI, the Wyatts and their volunteers will oversee its operation, including staffing it with house parents.
Congregations are providing
Three CBF churches in Raleigh — Forest Hills Baptist, St. John’s Baptist and First Baptist — are located near the Welcome House. They, the nearby Oxford Baptist Church and a United Methodist church are providing the furniture, food and other supplies for future residents from Burundi, the Congo, Iraq and Ethiopia, among other nations, Kim Wyatt said.
Refugees placed in the house will stay there at most six weeks, Marc Wyatt said.
“The house buys time for the agency to find them a permanent home,” he said.
The dwellings are now ready and expect to receive their first occupants — an Afghan family — Thursday night, he said.
During that time they will work on learning English and be shown — sometimes by church volunteers — how to shop in American grocery stores and to use the bus lines to find work, he said.
Once some volunteers receive qualification from USCRI, they will be able to spend time with refugees at the house, Wyatt said. Their hope is for those relationships to continue after refugees are placed into permanent housing.
“We are wrapping community around people,” he said. “Whereas before, they were just here.”
They also hope that the proximity of N.C. State will increase the likelihood of refugees running into students, professors or others from their homelands, he said.
“This really is Matthew 25,” he said. “What we are doing for these people, we are doing for Jesus.”
‘Energizing and life-giving’
Chris Aho said he can vouch for that.
“They are reminding us we are called to do this kind of work to provide for people in need,” said Aho, pastor at Oxford Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.
After being drawn to the Wyatt’s call for service, the Baptist Men at the church designed and built bunkbeds for one of the rooms of the Welcome House. They are now working on providing those plans to other churches.
That project inspired those workers to look for others in need of bunkbeds and also spurred other congregants to action, Aho said.
That became evident after one of the bunkbeds was put on display for those entering and leaving the sanctuary.
“It’s fun to walk by a bunkbed in the middle of your foyer — bunkbeds we are building for refugees who are escaping persecution,” he said.
Aho said it’s also inspiring to him.
“It’s energizing and life-giving to see people in our church who are willing to do that work,” he said.
Aho said the Wyatts have challenged church members in the region to look for ways to apply their skills and interests to benefit refugees. They’ve also demonstrated that missions work can be done at home.
“The model is changing,” he said. “The missions are coming to us and we are engaging ourselves in service to one another and to the Kingdom of God where we are.”
Taking care of neighbors
That certainly describes Judy Johnson’s experience since being inspired to refugee work by the Wyatts.
A member of nearby St. John’s Baptist Church, Johnson said the couple’s presentation to her congregation convinced her that helping refugees is one way she can personally live out the Great Commission.
“I’ve done a lot of international travel and I can’t imagine what it’s like to leave everything you know” to resettle in another country, she said.
So Johnson has become an ESL instructor and hopes eventually to adopt a family at the Welcome House.
“I want to … help people get used to maneuvering through American-style grocery stores and banks,” she said. “It’s not really taking care of them but helping them learn how to take care of themselves.”
Johnson said it’s also important to her to take action to counter all the negativity toward refugees in society and the media. It’s important to offer these internationals a welcoming hand so they can tell others in their native countries that Americans can be kind and loving.
“And that’s what we are called to do,” Johnson said. “We are to take care of our neighbors.”
Blake said the Wyatts and others who welcome refugees are helping with that problem of perception that’s gripped the nation.
Anti-immigration fervor has made refugees indistinguishable in some people’s minds from undocumented immigrants who have entered the United States.
That couldn’t be further from the truth for refugees, she said. Each of them undergoes a years-long process of documentation and background checks while still overseas, often in refugee camps monitored by the United Nations.
In a process overseen by the U.S. State Department, about 70,000 refugees, all fleeing some sort of persecution or hardship in their native countries, are granted resettlement. Last year the number was actually 85,000, Blake said.
Handling that task are agencies like USCRI, which resettles refugees in 25 states. It is one of four such NGOs operating in the Research Triangle, and in Raleigh alone resettles 325 refugees annually, Blake said.
With an estimated 60 million refugees worldwide, it’s a big job, Blake said. That’s why USCRI and other NGOs rely on private citizens and groups for help.
“The U.S. resettlement program is designed to be a public-private partnership,” Blake said. “We depend on the generosity of community folk, whether with a faith-based group or a school or other entities.”
Those other entities can include Rotary clubs, corporate groups and colleges and college-affiliated student groups, among others.
But the Wyatts have been major players, Blake said.
“The Wyatts have brought us wonderful gifts,” Blake said. “They are so well connected to so many other faith-based groups that they are able to bring scores of volunteers to the program that we would not reach ourselves,” Blake said.
All of those volunteers extend the reach of USCRI — just as the new Welcome House does, she said.
In fact the idea came from the couple, who used it previously when serving in Canada. It’s the first such approach for the NGO, she said.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for newcomers to get far more support and orientation to Raleigh and the neighborhoods,” Blake said.
‘We are matchmakers’
Marc Wyatt said the approach also ministers to the caseworkers at USCRI, which is why every dollar and stick of furniture donated is so important.
“If churches don’t pay for all this stuff, then caseworkers are often paying for it out of their pockets” if the refugees reach their personal allowance, he said.
Single people, couples and small families receive fewer sponsorship dollars than larger refugee families do, he said.
And the churches are being ministered to as well, Kim Wyatt said.
“We are matchmakers,” she said. “We introduce churches who have never met an international and give them the opportunity to be one-on-one with them. They meet them as a person and not as the label of refugee.”
And even the Wyatts’ needs are met in the process, she said.
“We get to do what we love doing, which is welcoming refugees and encouraging churches,” she said.