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World Relief calls for doing more, not less for world’s 65 million refugees

Neema Choir with refugees from many African countries brings messages of faith and hope.

World Relief celebrated with fanfare its welcoming of the 10,000th refugee to the Inland Northwest since the regional office first opened in Connell in 1989.  In 1992, the Spokane office opened.

In October, Tatiana and Olav Bichir, and Tatiana’s parents, Ivan and Galina Zgherea, from Moldova brought the number to 10,002. A large welcoming party greeted them when they arrived at the airport.

This year World Relief helped 150 refugees it has recently resettled become citizens and helped 279 find housing, said Mark Finney, the director of the Spokane office, speaking at the gathering of about 700 people at Life Center Foursquare Church.

Songs by the Neema Choir of refugee children from Africa, a procession with the flags of the 48 countries of people who have resettled in Spokane, and speakers sharing insights into changes over the years were part of the ceremony.

Linda Unseth, who founded the Connell and Spokane offices, told of starting in a small office in the original location of Life Center in a small building in North Central Spokane.

World Relief Spokane, which is connected to the National Association of Evangelicals, grew from a staff of one to 30.

Mark said the staff includes a resettlement team helping when refugees first come to find housing, jobs and English classes; the employment team to help refugees gain skills to find jobs that fit their interests, and the legal team to help refugees file for permanent residence and citizenship.

Staff also help recruit volunteers as individuals, congregations and other organizations to be involved in nourishing the lives of refugees so they flourish and “fold into the fabric of Spokane,” he said.  “Volunteers become the hands and feet of God.”

Joe Wittwer, pastor of Life Center through its years of partnering with World Relief, said, “Refugees are fascinating people with amazing stories.  They add much to our churches and communities. Just as food tastes better with spices, they add flavor to our lives.”

He also cited biblical reasons (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) to welcome refugees and immigrants in the repeated references to the Israelites having been mistreated as slaves in Egypt and being called in freedom to treat people not only with respect, but also to love them as themselves.

Joe reminded that Jesus’ family were refugees in Egypt fleeing Herod and that all Christians are foreigners where they live, because they are “citizens of heaven.”

As refugees come, he sees that God is bringing “all nations to our doorstep so we can love them and share our faith.”

In addition to refugees joining some churches out of gratitude, they have established Russian-, Burmese-, Bhutanese-, Swahili- and Chin-speaking churches, which help resettle new refugees.

Mark said that 119 churches have partnered with World Relief, along with many school, health and social service agencies, and employers.

Shamsa, a young woman from Somalia, told of fleeing war in Mogadishu when she was 18.  Her twin sister and brother were shot in front of her.  Her family stayed in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where there was no education or jobs.  Her father died of a stroke.

“Coming to America is my dream come true,” said Shamsa, who arrived last year. “Here I feel safe and free.  I go to school and work.”

She expressed appreciation for people who helped her have a new life and called for people to continue to receive other innocent people who face death.

Mark reminded that refugees, by international law, have fled their home country and cannot return because of persecution for political, religious, cultural or other reasons. 

Only 13 countries receive refugees as the U.S. does, and he said the refugees go through two years of security, medical and background checks.  Many wait up to 10 years.

Looking forward, he said that the world has 65 million refugees, more today than at any point in history.

“While many are calling us to do less than ever and have us turn our backs on victims of war and violence, we need to stand with the vulnerable.”

Fewer than 45,000—down from 85,000 in 2015—refugees have been allowed into the U.S. in this year, one-tenth of one percent of the world’s total.

Along with calling people to be involved as volunteers with refugee families, he said World Relief does advocacy to educate elected officials and the community on the value of refugees and the U.S. heritage of welcoming refugees.

“We should not let our fears divide us.  We need to be a community that cares,” he said.

To reinforce that point, the Neema Choir closed with the song, “We Are Not Forgotten.”

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