As Fewer Refugees Enter the US, One Christian Group Decides to Go to Them

Exodus World Service volunteers visit with Syrian refugees during a trip to Lebanon in Sept. 2019. Photo by Heidi Zeiger

“I didn’t used to live like this.”

The words resonated with Elizabeth Shuman. The speaker — a woman dressed in beautifully designed fabrics, a scarf covering her hair — had invited Shuman and other volunteers into her home in Lebanon and taken great care to show them hospitality.

But the home was a tent made from tarps, insulated against the crisp air as best as possible.

The woman and her family were refugees from Syria and the tent housed all the belongings they had remaining.

It was a moment of connection for Shuman, who could see herself in the woman’s place.

“I value serving people well. I like to make tea for people. And I was imagining, what would it be like if I didn’t have my grandma’s teapot that I could serve or didn’t have a special room that I could make tea for people in and just had to serve them wherever I was?” she said.

“It’s easy for us to think of refugees as ‘those people’ and not be able to think of ourselves in their position.”

The encounter was part of a pilot trip organized in February by Exodus World Service for volunteers to learn from Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

As fewer refugees are arriving in the United States, organizations that work with refugees — many of which are faith-based — are finding new ways to reach out to those who have been forced to flee their home countries.

That includes the nine agencies authorized by the U.S. government to resettle refugees, which have closed offices and laid off staff over the past few years. Six of those agencies are faith-based.

It also includes groups like Exodus, a Christian nonprofit based in the Chicago suburbs that works to build bridges between Christians and refugees who are resettled in the area.

Exodus hasn’t been decimated in the same way refugee resettlement agencies have — in fact, it’s grown, partly because of increased interest and awareness, according to the organization — but it also has shifted its programming. That means adding programming for refugees who have been in the U.S. longer.

The drop in refugees arriving in the U.S. also means Exodus now is going where the refugees are.

A team of eight Exodus volunteers recently traveled to Lebanon, where they met refugees, heard their stories and learned more in order to better advocate for them at home.

The volunteers also distributed food in tent settlements and partnered with another organization on the ground to lead a three-day Kids Club for refugee children.

And the organization started fundraising to support a classroom for those children after hearing requests again and again from parents for education.

“So many of them did want to share their stories and begged us to share their stories with others and just wanted to feel seen and heard, and it was such a deep honor to get to be with them and hear their stories,” Shuman said.