The Refugee Crisis
Today, the worldwide refugee crisis is the worst it has been in recorded history. Captain Swetha Vincent, an officer assigned to the Salvation Army’s International Social Justice Commission (ISJC) in New York City, and Captain Paula Mendes from Brazil, currently serving in the ISJC’s Officer Capacity Building Program, talk about how the Army helps people caught up in this harrowing and often tragic scourge against humanity. First and foremost is the restoration of their worth and dignity as human beings.
Captain Vincent, How has this crisis challenged your heart, your perspective, and your worldview?
My first year of public high school in Chicago shaped my perspective about people seeking refuge. Mirsada, my friend from Bosnia, was 15 and I was only 12 when we were freshmen. I wondered why she was so much older than me, but still a freshman. That was when I heard the term “refugee” for the first time. It was 1994 and Mirsada, like the rest of the Bosnian community at the high school, had fled the Bosnian war. My young mind could not comprehend all that my friend had already endured. She told me that she witnessed her sisters gang raped and assaulted by soldiers in the middle of a detention camp. Her father and brothers had been killed. She and her mother were the only survivors of their family.
Refugees long for home, a place to belong, and a place that is safe. Such a familiar place becomes a part of our identity. Refugees are often discussed in terms of an “issue” to deal with. I do not think of them as an “issue.” To me, they are people with faces, names, and stories. They are human beings made in the very image of God.
What are some of the preconceived notions that people have regarding this crisis?
Many people assume refugees are poor, are looking to take advantage, are violent, and are uneducated.
Captain Mendes, what is your experience with refugees?
In my current appointment in Brazil, we have a large group of Haitian refugees in the city. Feeling that our building was being underutilized, I contacted a church whose members were helping the refugees. Several other Salvationists and I attended a meeting with the church people and the Haitian association. We brainstormed how The Salvation Army could support this cause. After a few meetings, we decided to host classes on Saturdays to teach them Portuguese, baking, and sewing.
In 2018, we officially started the program with a group of about 14 volunteers from the nearest corps, Home League, Catholic church, and friends of the Army. The program included a nursery for children and a lunch program for around 80–90 people every Saturday.
I was also appointed to support the Army’s emergency response to the Venezuelan refugee crisis. I went from the south (Joinville) to the North (Boa Vista) to take part. I joined four officers from Brazil and Argentina. Team members rotated monthly.
In partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we had access to shelters and offered help. We developed workshops for children that focused on health and social issues such as the prevention of violence. The shelters also provided recreation for children by offering something as simple as watching a movie. The reality of their lives as displaced people is that they had no entertainment and no access to schooling. So we also started some arts & crafts activities.
I spent five months in Boa Vista, helping to recruit and train staff who now work on The Bridge Project. This initiative helps many women refugees.
Also assisted by this project are members of the LGBTQ community, the elderly, and other “vulnerable” groups. This is the preferred designation, rather than “refugee.” It helps avoid xenophobic reactions, particularly to the Venezuelans.
What is your passion in this regard?
I must be sincere and say that I never thought about working with refugees. That was never my passion. Last year though, they came into my life in such a strong way that I could not ignore them. I was just trying to use our building better, but then I started to know their names. I heard their stories and I saw that sometimes the only thing they needed was my friendship as a “welcoming Brazilian.”
I rejected this label of “refugees.” They became my brothers and sisters; people who I pray for, hope for, and support any way I can. Everybody who is vulnerable must somehow receive our full attention as the Church.
I understand that the greatest need among refugees worldwide is to have someone to talk to because they feel so alone. How is your team addressing this need?
Captain Mendes: In the shelters, they have a lot of people around them—social workers, employees from other Non–Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and the military. They are not “alone” in the sense that they have nobody around; the problem is most people see them as a number; a “need” to address or a part of an issue, but not as humans with faces, names, and stories. When we were there, we would ask their names or talk about their tastes and ordinary things like the weather, the food, and their children. They needed to be seen as people, not as “refugees.”
Captain Vincent: While the ISJC is not directly involved in working with displaced people, I feel that it is our responsibility to raise awareness and teach others about this group of vulnerable people. The first step is awareness, which leads to further action.
The Refugee Summit coordinated by the ISJC in 2018 was an attempt to share how The Salvation Army is responding to the crisis. Lt. Colonel Dean Pallant, then the ISJC director, was involved in establishing the connection between the UN and Brazil and Argentina. This allowed the officers to respond to those Venezuelan refugees who were crossing the border into Brazil.
The ISJC is in contact with Salvation Army territories or commands that are serving refugee communities to see how we can support or advocate for them.
What do refugees typically talk about?
We have conversations that go beyond the basic “refugee” topics. We talk about Brazilian culture, the World Cup, food, music, places to go, hairstyles, tattoos, and so on. They are just people like you and me. Some Venezuelans are in shelters for months. They don’t think about it all the time. The shelter becomes their house where they develop a routine.
At the refugee camp near Bangladesh, Lieutenant Richard Bradbury’s team distributes solar lamps to the people living there.
It is interesting that The Salvation Army handed out solar lamps. Light is needed for practical purposes in a camp where there is no electricity. Light is needed to be able to move around freely, safely, and to be able to function after the sun sets.
How many times do we think of light being necessary to relieve psychological stresses? Imagine the trauma that a person experiences, especially in the Rohingya community where murders (ethnic cleansing) takes place in the dead of the night. A post by Richard sheds light on the plight of the survivors. He wrote:
“One man told us that night time was a time of significant psychological stress for many people in the camp due to their experience in Myanmar. Most of the violence, the murders, and the rapes had taken place in darkness. He told us he was anxious at night time. He humbly told me how the simple light we had supplied helped relieve and avoid psychological stresses for him and many others who had lost family members in the night.
“Often we are so busy trying to meet the immediate, practical needs of people who are victims that we forget they are people, first. In doing so, we devalue their feelings, their relationships, and their pain. We rob people of their dignity. We somehow make out that they are some sort of subcategory, less worthy and less vulnerable.”
by Warren L. Maye
What action can we take?
We must ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be a Christ follower?” What does it mean to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth…?” What does it mean to love our neighbor? Verses such as Deuteronomy 10:18 state, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” We must ask ourselves, “what does it mean to live out this principle?” Our response must be motivated by the love of God and not by the fear of people.
- for refugees to be resettled
- for healthcare and basic needs
- for their children who are left without education and other necessities
- for governments to be open to receiving people
- Go out and seek opportunities to serve. Be proactive and don’t wait for someone to knock on your door.
- Listen to the voices of refugees and use your voice to raise awareness and advocate.
- See how others are already engaged in working with refugees and join them.