In October of 2015, as the flood of refugees into Europe increased, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a letter to its members expressing concern and compassion for the millions of people worldwide who have been forced to leave their homes and seek refuge.
Church members were encouraged to continue to make contributions to the Church Humanitarian Fund, through which assistance is provided to refugees, and to participate in local refugee relief projects as their time and situation allows.
At the annual Women’s Conference three weeks ago, the officers of the women’s auxiliaries of the church responded to the First Presidency’s request by introducing a new relief effort to help refugees in their local neighborhoods and communities.
Sister Linda Burton, general president of the Church Relief Society, encouraged the women of the church to reach out to the refugees. She said, “There are more than 60 million refugees, including forcibly displaced people, worldwide. Half of those are children.
These individuals have undergone tremendous difficulties and are starting over in different countries and cultures. What they need is a friend and an ally to help them adjust to their new home, a person who can help them learn the language, understand the systems and feel connected.”
The initiative, “I Was a Stranger,” takes its name and focus from scriptures in the Old and New Testament:
“For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in:” (Matt: 25:35)
“But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. “ (Lev. 19:34)
A new website, Iwasastranger.lds.org, was launched to support the initiative which includes two short videos, and answers the questions of how and where to serve, suggesting agencies to contact and ways to help.
Elder Patrick Kearon, presently assigned in Europe, described the vast number of refugees who arrive with only the clothes they are wearing and what they can carry in a small bag. “A large proportion of them are well educated,” he said, “and all have had to abandon homes, schools, and jobs.”
Elder Kearon noted the frustrations in governments and across society as efforts are made to define who are refugees and how they should be dealt with. His comments did not focus on that issue, but rather on the people who have been driven from their homes and countries by conflicts they had no part in starting.
Describing the efforts of innumerable individuals from many countries who are providing shelter, medical care, clothes, food and every kind of assistance they can, he said that the reality of the situation is hard to believe, in the abstract.
He offered the example of “a pregnant woman from Syria in a refugee transit camp desperately seeking assurance that she would not need to deliver her baby on the cold floors of the vast refugee hall where she was housed. Back in Syria she had been a university professor.”
Elder Kearon expressed concern that news of the refugees’ plight not become commonplace as the initial shock of the story wears off. There are millions of refugees in camps around the world who are and will continue to be in need of help.
In a recent talk, Patty Haller, the assistant director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, spoke of the number of refugees internationally, describing their lives and the process by which they may eventually be resettled in another country.
The process of documenting, interviewing and verifying refugees is lengthy, usually taking 18-20 months for those seeking refuge in the U.S. The interviews are conducted and decisions made by U.S. security agents.
Most refugees are women and children who spend between 5 and 10 years in a refugee camp. Of the 20 million people certified by the U.N. as refugees, only one-half of 1 percent will ever be resettled — anywhere. Most will stay in their first refuge.
Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them. They come from a variety of backgrounds, have a variety of accomplishments, have contributed to society in many ways and will continue to do so.
Elder Kearon concluded, “This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us. ‘Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’”
We may not choose those refugees who are resettled in the United States, but once they are here, they need our support in learning about and adjusting to a new home. They need a friend.
Glenna M. Christensen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.