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World refugee count at 15-year high

 
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1:00 P.M. EDT June 30, 2011



The Thang family, (from left) K.T., baby Eliezer, and Sha, pause for a photo with Hank Woolard. The Burmese family arrived as refugees from Malaysia and were welcomed by Woolard and other members of Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Decatur, Ga.   A UMNS photo courtesy of Virginia Sowell.
The Thang family, (from left) K.T., baby Eliezer, and Sha, pause for a photo with Hank Woolard. The Burmese family arrived as refugees from Malaysia and were welcomed by Woolard and other members of Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Decatur, Ga. A UMNS photo courtesy of Virginia Sowell. View in Photo Gallery

During her four years as a refugee in Malaysia, Sha Thang worried every day about being deported to the country where she had escaped persecution.

But after Thang, a Burmese Christian, and her family arrived in the Atlanta area last September and met Hank Woolard and other members of Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Decatur, her worry was over.

“They welcome me in America and they bring me to such a beautiful house and a nice place I never expected,” she recalled.

The number of people “forcibly displaced” around the world – some 43.7 million – is at a 15-year high, according to the 2010 Global Trends report of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, released June 20. That total does not include those fleeing civil conflict this year in countries like Syria and Libya.

In his statement that day marking the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the establishment of the U.N.’s refugee commission, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that war remains the major cause of the displacement of people around the world. Other factors, such as extreme poverty, environmental degradation and climate change, also play a role in the refugee count.

“The burden of helping the world’s forcibly displaced people is starkly uneven,” Ki-moon said. “Poor countries host vastly more displaced people than wealthier ones. While anti-refugee sentiment is heard loudest in industrialized countries, developing nations host 80 percent of the world’s refugees. This situation demands an equitable solution.”

‘Rural to urban migration’

Another part of the trend, says Erol Kekic, director of Church World Service’s Immigration and Refugee Program, “is rural to urban migration.”


Refugees fleeing violence in Libya arrive in the transit camp of Choucha Ras Djir.  A web-only photo courtesy of UN Photo/UNHCR/Alexis Duclos.
Refugees fleeing violence in Libya arrive in the
transit camp of Choucha Ras Djir. A web-only
photo courtesy of UN Photo/UNHCR/Alexis Duclos.

Instead of living in “tents stretched out in the desert,” up to two-thirds of refugees now reside in urban centers where they are often unregistered and have little assistance. These refugees are vulnerable to crime and have dismal prospects for employment. A colleague of Kekic’s in Colombia describes such areas as “misery belts.”

The problem is that forced displacement often is not considered in large-scale development plans, Kekic said. While grants directed at development also should be used for the displaced, they usually aren’t. “As a result, we see more and more of these protracted refugee situations, which really force people to be warehoused in these camps for years,” he explained.

Pakistan – where 1.9 million refugees were in 2010, many from Afghanistan – is a prime example of a country that doesn’t have the capacity to deal with refugees. However, emergency funding is usually in response to earthquakes or floods, not the influx of citizens from a neighboring country.

A new development in refugee resettlement, says Naomi Madsen of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, is the attention now being placed on immigration policies “and what people perceive as immigration problems.”

Some may think the United States resettles more refugees than any other nation, but on a per capita basis with the U.S. population, it’s not even close, she said.

Iran was among the top three nations housing refugees in 2010. “We don’t think of Iran as a refugee-hosting place; we think of Iran as a refugee-making place,” Madsen noted. “But because of its location, thousands make their way into Iran.”


The largest single group of refugees in 2010 were from Afghanistan, most of them in Pakistan.  Here, a child refugee is photographed at Roghani Refugee Camp in Chaman, a Pakistani border town.  A web-only UN 2001 file photo.
The largest single group of refugees in 2010 were from Afghanistan, most of them in Pakistan. Here, a child refugee is photographed at Roghani Refugee Camp in Chaman, a Pakistani border town. A web-only UN 2001 file photo.

When refugees flee, she pointed out, “they flee next door.”

Refugees coming to U.S.

The biggest populations currently being resettled in the U.S. are Iraqis, Butanese from Nepal and the Burmese, Madsen said. Smaller numbers come from countries such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

UMCOR does not have a contract to resettle refugees but works closely with Church World Service and other religious partners to encourage local United Methodist congregations “to get involved in welcoming the refugees who are coming.”

In Georgia, Woolard’s awareness of the refugee situation was stimulated both by his years traveling the world as a U.S. Air Force officer and a growing realization of what was happening in the Atlanta suburb where he lived.

“I kept reading and hearing and seeing about the influx of refugees coming into our area,” the 82-year-old explained. “Just 12 minutes from the front door of our church is a different world.”

He wanted Oak Grove United Methodist Church to become involved and started his research by interviewing staff at the six or seven area agencies resettling refugees. One of those agencies was Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta, affiliated with Church World Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries, where staff members speak 28 different languages and represent various religions.

“That was the group that really hit my hot button because they were so involved,” Woolard said. “To see how they work together to serve the refugees in the area was just phenomenal.”

The admiration is mutual. “Hank’s kind of the godfather here in the Atlanta area for refugee resettlement among United Methodists,” said the Rev. Tom Van Laningham, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor who serves as sponsorship developer for the resettlement agency. “He’s done a great job of making people aware of this ministry.”


Adel Dut holds seeds for planting outside a refugee camp in the South Darfur region of Sudan. A UMNS 2007 file photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMCOR.
Adel Dut holds seeds for planting outside a refugee camp in
the South Darfur region of Sudan. A UMNS 2007 file photo
by Paul Jeffrey, UMCOR. View in Photo Gallery


Making the human connection

With unanimous approval from the church council, Oak Grove took on its first family six years ago. The Muslim family had been living in Russia after being persecuted and forced from the Republic of Georgia.

When a few members expressed concern about sponsoring a Muslim family, Woolard told them: “Let’s look at it from this standpoint: This is what Jesus would do.”

Since then, the congregation has become very aware of the opportunities to work on various aspects of refugee ministries. The children’s school consignment sale each spring and fall generates donations of money and necessities. The church’s youth group set up the apartment for the Thangs and managed to raise $3,100 in 10 days to buy them a car.

Sha Thang, who grew up in an American Baptist family, is grateful for the Christian connection and the assistance that both the congregation and the resettlement agency have provided. “We really appreciate that so very much,” she said. “We came out (of Malaysia) with nothing at all.”

She and her husband, K.T. Thang, also appreciate the fact that their 22-month-old son, Eliezer, “will have a better life in the USA.” Most of all, she has grown to love Woolard and his wife. “Hank is like my father,” Thang explained. “Barbara is like my mother to me. They are like my parents.”


Sha Thang holds baby Eliezer (front) while husband K.T. looks on. A UMNS photo courtesy of Virginia Sowell.
Sha Thang holds baby Eliezer (front) while husband K.T. looks on. A UMNS photo courtesy of Virginia Sowell.
View in Photo Gallery

Getting churches involved

Woolard is encouraging more churches in the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference to get involved. In the Atlanta area, he added, the new district superintendent “is firmly behind our refugee program. That’s going to help us work with these other churches.”

Churches were actively involved in refugee resettlement historically until the process became so specialized, Van Laningham said. Only about10 percent of the 500-plus refugees who came to Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta this year had church support.

“What we are trying to do is to get reconnected with congregations,” he explained. “The key word is hospitality. We can provide the apartment, we provide all the services, we provide all the training.” Only a three- to four-month commitment is required “because the whole process is built on self-sufficiency.”

Churches also can work together on refugee ministry. In Decatur, Columbia Presbyterian Church and Avondale-Patillo United Methodist Church always have a joint worship service on the July 4th weekend. “Last year, they collected furnishings and, between the two of them, they fully furnished a beautiful apartment,” Van Laningham said. “This year, they’re taking an offering for our work.”

Churches get as much as they give by working with refugees, he noted. “We provide the church with an opportunity to practice hospitality,” he said. “Churches that practice hospitality become larger in their hearts, become more welcoming and, therefore, they grow.”

Sha Thang can attest to the reward on both sides. “A lot of talented people are refugees,” she said. “They work hard and really want a better life and a good life. If you help them out, their life will be much better.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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