AT THIS MOMENT the world is experiencing the highest level of human displacement on historical record. Sixty-five million people are displaced—forced from their homes by violence, persecution, or disaster.
Not all of these displaced people are classified as refugees. A refugee is someone who flees a home country because of persecution, war, or violence, having a well-founded fear of persecution. People are classified as refugees only after they have been approved for asylum in a receiving country; until then, they are classified as asylum-seekers. Others are internally displaced, homeless for the same reasons as refugees but still within the borders of their home countries.
Refugees account for a small percentage of migrants into the United States, and they’re admitted into the country only after being subjected to an intense vetting process.
The story is a bit different in Europe, where asylum-seekers walk or paddle over borders. As a result, in 2016, an average of 14 people died every day in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to flee to Europe. This makes the crisis more severe in such areas. The United States has time to vet asylum-seekers, while Europe is attempting to vet them in the midst of crisis.
Since the average refugee has been displaced for approximately 17 years before resettlement, many children spend their entire developing years in migration, or without a home or country.
The crisis has given pause to many in the Wheaton College community. From mobilizing churches to trauma and clinical research, historical analysis, relief work, tutoring, and more, we present profiles of the ways various members of the Wheaton community are responding.
The Thought Leader
In December 2015, Dr. Ed Stetzer, now the executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism and the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission, and Evangelism, helped organize evangelical leaders to respond to the global migration crisis.
“My desire was that there be a voice from evangelicalism that said something different than the fear narrative,” Dr. Stetzer notes.
He says that they only expected 10-20 people to attend the event, but ended up with 120.
At the event, Christian leaders signed a “Christian Declaration on Caring for Refugees.” Dr. Stetzer says that this declaration “helped create a counter-narrative.”
Then, in January 2016, the GC2 Summit convened for the same reason—to make more Christian leaders aware of the global migration crisis. At the Summit, Dr. Stetzer emphasized facts over fear, saying that they were simply trying to “be informative and point people to entities” that help.
One of these entities is World Relief, where Matthew Soerens ’06 currently works as the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization.
The Church Mobilizer
As a student at Wheaton, Soerens was introduced to World Relief by a friend who was connected with a refugee family. Now Soerens works with churches across the country to help them understand refugee issues and how to respond in ways guided by biblical values. World Relief’s mission is not only to help refugees resettle, but to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable. Soerens remembers the story of one refugee family welcomed by a Southern Baptist church in Tennessee. The church had such an impact on the family that they became Christian. “That’s the story we would love to see—and we get to see,” Soerens says.
To foster these connections, World Relief helps churches form “Good Neighbor Teams.” Teams are made up of church members who meet in groups with resettled refugees once a week for six months. The hope is to build friendships. The organization is also expanding its work in the Middle East to help churches in those regions—churches with very few resources and significant risks. While the risks for these churches are great, their work is often successful. Researchers like Dr. Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) and the Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech associate professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, have found that the work of churches among refugee populations has contributed to trauma relief.
The Disaster Researcher
Dr. Jamie Aten is the executive director of HDI, a social science research center that helps the church prepare and care in the midst of disasters. While researching and working at disaster sites in recent years, Dr. Aten and his colleagues have observed the trials of displaced people. They have also seen how the church might be able to care for them. HDI was invited to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya in 2013 to do research because the camp was more stable than its counterparts, and the United Nations speculated that its success was related to the work of churches in the camp. HDI’s work in Kenya—led by Dr. David Boan, associate professor of psychology, and Dr. George Kalantzis, professor of theology—included a study that identified grassroots, faith-based peace and reconciliation strategies used by churches on-site. Dr. Aten noted that, in one memorable instance, rumors spread that the camp’s food supply was going to be cut. In response, refugee pastors assembled and began “working on a chalkboard to figure out how to increase their tithe” so they could give food supplies to more vulnerable people. Dr. Aten is also struck by how prevalent the exposure to trauma is for refugees. After resettlement, trauma is compounded with other stressors. Wheaton alumni like Issam Smeir M.A. ’01 are caring for refugees facing trauma on a daily basis in countries all over the world.
The Trauma Clinician
Issam Smeir M.A. ’01 is at the forefront of trauma relief for global refugees. A child of Palestinian refugees himself, Smeir has always had a heart for those displaced by war. As a student in Wheaton College Graduate School’s clinical psychology master’s program, Smeir began to work through his own trauma. He remembers when an Israeli stu-dent opened class with a prayer for peace. Later, the student invited Smeir to his home for a meal. While playing with the Israeli’s children, Smeir realized, “This man is just like me.”
Smeir is now a trauma clinician. He helps refugees heal from the hidden wounds of war. According to Smeir, refugees are the most traumatized population on earth. Working with people who have witnessed horrific trauma, many of whom are suffering from PTSD, Smeir assists his clients to reprogram their brains “so that they have the power to remember their memories without reliving them.”
Since 2011, Smeir has been traveling regularly to the Middle East, building a community of Arabic-speaking experts in the field of trauma rehabilitation. He’s encouraged by the response. Recently in Lebanon, he met with 30 Christian leaders from around Syria and trained them in trauma therapy. He says that “the church has become a place of refuge.”
However, the church as a place of refuge is not a new concept. It has been seen as such for hundreds of years, according to Associate Professor of Theology and History of Christianity Dr. Jennifer Powell McNutt.
Dr. McNutt has researched how the church has served as a place of refuge throughout history. She presented a TowerTalk last fall (above) on the history of migration and Christianity, focusing on the city of Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. “Migration, the need for refuge, is part of the story of Christianity,” Dr. McNutt says. “The churches of the past, Geneva in particular, grappled with how to care for refugees.” Despite fears and concerns, the people of Geneva “figured out ways to care for people: they raised money, provided scholarships, figured out how to give healthcare, and how to provide shelter and basic needs.” Dr. McNutt also encourages her students to engage with the current migration crisis through hands-on projects, like awareness campaigns and partnering with World Relief. Dr. McNutt’s greatest surprise during her Modern World Christianity class in spring 2016 was how much her students could do for the local community. Even though the crisis may seem far off, Dr. McNutt says, “There’s a lot we can do here.” Such wisdom can inform the church’s current response, including the frontlines relief work that alumni including Julia Wallin ’09 are doing around the world.
The Front Lines Relief Worker
After graduating from Wheaton, Wallin moved to Jordan and was inspired by refugee women who, she says, changed her life. When the crisis in Syria peaked, Wallin worked in emergency relief for internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing from violence. She managed a project delivering assistance to IDPs and coordinating emergency response to sudden displacements from bomb-ings or seizures. Working at the source of the crisis has “reiterated our need to take a holistic approach to community healing.” She believes that the response can’t focus only on the symptoms—displaced populations—but must also address the cause.
“The migration will not stop until there is stability,” Wallin says.
Stability requires work.
“The average length of displacement for protracted refugee situations is about 20 years—which represents decades of limbo for the refugees, and significant life events: marriages, deaths, births, and more,” she notes.
Finding ways for children to continue schooling and for adults to continue earning wages and developing trades, Wallin explains, “will be essential for the rebuilding of their home country once it becomes safe enough for them to return.”
Even though she’s traveled the world to provide direct aid, Wallin is quick to say that you don’t need to go to these lengths. Instead, people should “develop a personal ministry of hospitality and welcoming,” some-thing that current students on Wheaton’s campus are practicing weekly by serving resettled refugees in after-school tutoring programs.
Christy Bodett ’19 serves refugees at the Hawthorne Elementary School Homework Club. She was humbled by an experience of visiting three refugee families living together in a two-bedroom apartment with no furniture. Despite these difficult circumstances, Christy observes, her students “have learned and grown in ways that we cannot take credit for. God is working in every difficult situation.”
Eric Hoskins ’19 works with a tutoring program at Lowell Elementary School in Wheaton. He’s motivated by his love for the child he tutors. He says that his favorite part of tutoring is “when we walk our students home.” Eric sees his work as an opportunity to focus on the child’s potential: “I’ve learned to care about a person without knowing or needing to ask about details about their past.”
Eric is concerned about the “millions of members of my generation born and raised in refugee camps around the world with little access to education,” and is committed to serving resettled refugees close to Wheaton’s campus.
While the statistics may be impossible to comprehend, these stories demonstrate that it is possible to engage the global migration crisis at a personal level. May our faith move us beyond the facts and into the field.
Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis by Stephan Bauman M.A. ’01, Matthew Soerens ’06, and Issam Smeir M.A. ’01 (Moody Publishers, 2016)
“The Refugee Crisis: A Church Historian’s Response” by Associate Professor of Theology and History of Christianity Dr. Jennifer McNutt
“Christian Declaration on Caring for Refugees: An Evangelical Response”
Humanitarian Disaster Institute
Wheaton’s Office of Christian Outreach
World Relief Good Neighbor Teams
All facts and figures credit World Relief, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the United States Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration as of December 2016.