Helping to Resettle Refugees

By Ellen Motoviloff Miller

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25:35). Every immigrant starts as a stranger in a foreign land. Christ enjoins us to welcome the stranger, the immigrant, just as we would welcome Him if He came to us.

Helping immigrants to settle in this country can very well be the most meaningful outreach project your parish can undertake. We are a nation of immigrants and their descendants. We of the Orthodox Church are in many cases the descendants of recent immigrants—their children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren.

This country gave our ancestors a chance. Now others are being given a chance. Sponsors are needed for new immigrants to the U.S., especially immigrants who are refugees. A definition of terms is helpful here.

The term “immigrant” is usually reserved for a person admitted to the U.S. under a quota system which limits the number of people coming to live here from other countries on an annual basis. An immigrant is given “permanent resident status” once he/she is admitted. This legal status is known as “having a green card.” After five years, a permanent resident may apply for U.S. citizenship.

The term “refugee” is reserved for a special category of immigrants. They are people who flee their country of origin because of “a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” This definitive wording comes from the U.S. Refugee Act of 1908. “Refugee status” confers the right to hold a job here and eligibility for social welfare programs. After one year, a refugee can apply for “permanent resident status.”

The U.S. government, on a case-by-case basis, permits some people to enter for emergency reasons. These persons are given a different status—that of “humanitarian parole” or “public interest parole.” With this designation, they are not eligible for the standard assistance programs. These individuals need an affidavit of support and guarantee of a job before they can emigrate here.

Role of Voluntary Relief Agencies in Resettlement

Once our government, after much study and foreign policy deliberation, recognizes that a particular group deserves “refugee status” and grants that status, voluntary relief agencies assist in bringing the refugees to our shores and in resettling them. Of a dozen or so agencies, some are charitable extensions of religious denominations—i.e., Episcopal Migration Ministries and U.S. Catholic Conference Migration and Refugee Services; some, such as the International Rescue Committee and Tolstoy Foundation, are not. To obtain a copy of the list, send your request to Interaction, 1717 Mass. Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

The agencies, through designated representatives, meet weekly at the Refugee Data Center in New York City. They go over the computer printout of cases approved by the U.S. government and divide up the case load so there is equitable distribution. Each agency then seeks a sponsor for each assigned case. The sponsor can be the congregation of a church, a family, even one person who can prove he/she has the resources to provide what is needed.

Help in understanding the problems refugees face and in organizing a resettlement plan is available from highly experienced experts in the field. The help is in a handbook—Face to Face: The Ministry of Refugee Resettlement. The “how to” part of this article was condensed from this handbook. It is obtainable for $5 (this includes postage and handling) from:

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
390 Park Avenue South
New York, New York 10016-8803

Special thanks go to Ms. Lily R. Wu, an LIRS staff person who produced the handbook. There is no doubt that it has saved those who have undertaken refugee resettlement inestimable time and energy.


We of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in Harrisburg, PA, assisted in the resettlement of an Orthodox family of four from Kharkov, Ukraine.

Our priest, the Very Rev. Daniel Ressetar, was contacted by a social service professional who works in the Harrisburg office of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). He was told that a family had contacted an LIRS representative in Ukraine in hopes of finding sponsorship by an Orthodox parish in America. The search was lengthy and ended up on Fr. Dan’s desk. Our parish council was unwilling to undertake sponsorship. Fr. Dan and his Matushka, Theodora, felt the request could not be turned down. They decided to personally undertake the obligation. A core of supporters in the parish pledged to help Father and Matushka in any way they could. But the bulk of the legwork and paperwork fell to Father.

Neither Fr. Dan nor any of us parishioners who were involved had the handbook in hand, so no organized plan was followed to prepare for the arrival of the couple, in their 30’s, and their two young daughters. Still, everything got done—an apartment was found, clothes were provided, food was donated, medical care was arranged for. The couple, though highly educated as civil engineers, had not learned to speak English before coming—so they had to start with low-level jobs which did not require fluency. As they progressed, they became more and more independent—which is the goal in resettlement. A sponsor’s job is done when this is achieved.

This was not our parish’s first experience with immigrant/refugee resettlement. For a long time, the oldest member of our parish has been a Russian man who had been in a concentration camp in Germany until the end of WWII. Many such displaced persons were admitted to our country in the 1950’s.

Through the Methodist Church, this man and his wife were brought to the U.S. and given a sponsor. The couple came to a chicken farm north of Harrisburg in 1951. They worked there for room, board, and spending money for several years. When the sponsor sold the farm, the couple relocated to the city where the husband found employment in a mattress factory. Speaking very little English and out of touch with the agency which brought them to the U.S., they survived in very bad living conditions. Somehow the man found the address of our parish. Though barely literate in Russian, he scrawled a letter which Fr. Dan received—but was unable to answer because the return address was undecipherable. With the help of God, Fr. Dan did find him. Tragic circumstances had put the old man in the hospital where care-givers could not understand him. A call from the hospital to Fr. Dan to serve as interpreter brought the two together.

That was the start of Fr. Dan’s experience in refugee relief. He was responsible for getting the man and his wife a good apartment in a secure, high-rise for the elderly. Soon after, the wife died. Fr. Dan handled all the man’s correspondence and dealings with the IRS and immigration.

Ultimately Fr. Dan helped the man become a U.S. citizen. In his 90’s as of this writing, the man has maintained independent living, and is by no means a candidate for an old-age home. An indispensable part of our parish life, he attends church every Sunday—and Saturday whether there is a service or not.

We have always had a nucleus of people in our parish who could speak Russian. Since our parish belongs to the Orthodox Church in America, that was started by Orthodox missionaries from Russia over 200 years ago, we have always felt very close to the Church in Russia especially when it suffered under Communism.

Helping Refugees From Other Countries Under Persecution

God knows we would be unChristian if we helped only people with whom we have special ties. God gave us a chance to prove ourselves in this regard when the former Soviet Union began to break apart. Age-old rivalries between different nationalities erupted in violence, sending waves of refugees fleeing for their lives. Among these were Christian Armenians escaping from Moslems in what was then the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. The Armenian refugees were unable to find relief in Armenia which was strapped for resources. The Soviet government in Moscow was unable or unwilling to martial the necessary resources to help the hoards of beleaguered Armenians who were arriving in the capital daily. To the rescue in this hopeless and desperate situation came the U.S. government which gave these Armenians “refugee status.”

Catholic Charities served as a sponsor for some of these refugees in the Harrisburg area. Nothing was in the local news about this; so our church, like the rest in the area, was in the dark about the people who were beginning to arrive and about why they were coming. A parishioner working for Catholic Charities in a building near the refugees’ shelter heard the new arrivals speaking in Russian. Not knowing that the language was common throughout the former Soviet Union, the social worker assumed the refugees were Russian. He went ahead and arranged for rides to bring them to our church. That was the beginning.

The Armenians were glad to find Russian-speaking people and appreciated our warm welcome. Car pools were set up to bring an increasing number of Armenian refugees to our church. Some have stayed; many have gone on as they have adapted to life in the U.S. Among their number, Father performed seven baptisms. He and several parishioners served as interpreters in the securing of Social Security cards and drivers’ licenses. Other help our parish provided: creating resumes, driving refugees to job interviews, filling out immigration forms to bring stranded relatives here, marital counseling, finding apartments, and social opportunities for fellowship.

In the meantime, Father encountered at the shelter another group of refugees who, once they found out he was Orthodox, also wanted to come to our church. They were Coptic Orthodox whose home country, Eritrea, was once part of Ethiopia in northern Africa. They too had fled fighting and persecution as well as famine—living under desperate conditions in the Sudan before coming here. They were a religious people who greatly missed being able to practice their faith. Car pools were arranged to bring them, too. Now they drive themselves to our church in their own cars. Father enlisted the same type of help that was provided for the Armenians. Also Father cut through red tape to get a much-needed eye operation for one of the daughters.

There was no way we could have anticipated these challenges that God had in store for us when we were undertaking the building of a bigger church several years ago. Now we know why we needed the extra room!


1. Plan to have a parish meeting to determine whether people are interested in sponsoring a refugee individual or family. Find out if there is a resettlement agency in your area, and arrange to have a representative to answer questions at the meeting. If after deliberation and prayer the answer is “yes,” get in touch with the agency of the invited speaker or contact one of the agencies on the Interaction list (mentioned earlier.)

If you want to sponsor an Orthodox refugee, the matching process may take longer than if you are willing to sponsor someone non-Orthodox. The percentage of refugees who are Orthodox is small, and these may be assigned to any of the listed agencies. Keep in mind that there are many worthy cases and the need for sponsors is great. The purpose of sponsorship should not be to gain converts but to be the means of showing God’s love and care.

2. Just as soon as your group is matched with an individual or a family, begin the preparatory work by calling together all interested parishioners. These should meet and form a core committee responsible for setting up and coordinating the sponsorship. The committee should be chaired by someone with organizational skills, a person who knows how to delegate and keep track of who is doing what. The chairperson is the one who comes up with a daily schedule for the refugees. Have the LIRS handbook on hand from the start as a guide.

3. Set the goal of your project and have that goal ever before you to keep your experience positive and focused. For every sponsoring group the goal is the same: to help the families become self-sufficient in 30 days, others in 6 months to a year. The key factor: how quickly the refugees get jobs.

4. It would be ideal if you could set up committees as suggested by the handbook. However, the same tasks, while more of a burden if not spread out, can be accomplished by a small group of dedicated individuals. What follows are general ideas drawn from the handbook.

Handbook Guidelines

Housing Committee: Find and arrange for temporary, then long-range housing. Prepare the residence for the arrival. Call the utility companies and consider having a phone installed. Upon arrival, demonstrate operating appliances, cleaning procedures, and garbage disposal. With an interpreter, teach home security and basic maintenance (provide basic household hand tools).

Employment Committee: Arrange a trip to get Social Security cards. Be sure to take along refugees’ I-94 forms which prove they entered the U.S. legally and have the right to work here. (Make photocopies, keep originals in a safe place.) Find entry-level jobs so refugees can work as soon as possible. Later, work that is more in tune with their backgrounds or training can be found. On the job exposure to English on a daily basis can speed learning the language. Assist with job applications, resumes, interviews, physicals, work clothes, tools.

Medical Care Committee: Go to the welfare office with the refugees to get medical assistance cards. Find out which medical facilities/doctors take medical assistance patients. Take refugees for TB tests, which are required, and for medical and dental checkups. Arrange for an interpreter on these visits, and to explain simple home remedies that you provide—aspirin, antacids, etc. Help refugees obtain health insurance once they are employed.

Education Committee: Enroll children in preschool or public school. Find tutors to work with students in language and homework. Provide an English-foreign language dictionary. Find an English as a Second Language (ESL) class in your community and provide for refugees getting to and from it. Emphasize the importance of speaking and listening skills with reading and writing to come later. Interaction and practice in communicating generate more improvement than independent study and book learning.

Food Committee: Stock the kitchen with donated and purchased foods. Make plans for grocery shopping and then go with the refugees. Help them find foods to which they are accustomed. Introduce them to American eating and methods of cooking. Explain how frozen foods and other packaged items are prepared.

Furnishings Committee: If possible, find out clothing sizes ahead of time and gather donations. Let the refugees choose from the collection. When the refugees arrive, go to buy shoes that fit properly. For unmet clothing needs, take the refugees to department stores, thrift shops, and garage and rummage sales. Each refugee should have three changes to allow for laundering. Demonstrate use of laundry machines. Gather donations of home furnishings and place them in the refugees’ residence before their arrival: linens, beds and bedding, basic furniture items, cooking and eating utensils, cleaning materials, stove, refrigerator, radio/TV, calendar. Arrange to buy essentials that have not been donated. Provide for any needs that arise after their arrival.

Transportation Committee: Find and bring an interpreter to the airport to help during the refugees’ arrival. Provide the welcome at the airport. Arrange for their transporting to and from ESL class, jobs, stores, church, and medical appointments. Teach refugees to use public transportation. Explain routes and fares. Provide a map of the area and general information about the locale. Offer guidance in buying a used bicycle and/or car in due time. Help them obtain drivers’ licenses. Explain insurance needs.

Business and Finance Committee: Work on the details of a budget for the sponsorship. See that necessary funds are available for initial rent, food, and spending money. Teach the refugees how to use money and the bank. Help with the preparation of income tax forms. Help with arranging identification for check cashing. Teach them how to budget. They have promissory transportation loan notes issued to them by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). These loans must be repaid in installments based on the refugees’ jobs income.

Public Relations Committee: The meaning and value of the resettlement project can be communicated to the congregation and the community at large with the aid of photos, home videos, a journal of experiences, and a spokesperson. Respect the refugees’ right to privacy. The story in the media could generate support and good will for your church as well as for the refugees.

5. Expect that the refugees’ adjustment to life here will be rocky at times. Cultivate patience and understanding. Encourage a positive attitude. Contact with other refugees dealing with the same problems may be beneficial for those you are sponsoring. In being helpful, take care not to foster dependency. Don’t look for thanks from those whom you have helped—rather, thank God that you were blessed with the means to share with those less fortunate.

Editor’s Note: The Office of Humanitarian Aid at the OCA Chancery has a list of persons with “humanitarian parole” from Russia who are seeking sponsors.

Questions For Discussion:

1. Has your parish received new immigrants within the past year? If so, how has the parish welcomed them?

2. What have been their experiences in adjusting to life in the United States?

3. Are there ways that you have been able to help them? or could help them?

4. What positive experiences have resulted from their presence in the church community? What problems have you had to deal with?

Ellen Motoviloff Miller is a free-lance writer who lives in York, PA. She, her husband, and teen-aged son are members of Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Harrisburg, PA. A former editor with Scholastic Magazines in New York City, she has written for a number of Orthodox publications over the years.