June 20th is World Refugee Day – a day set aside each year to honor the courage and determination of those who have been forced to flee their homes. With record numbers just released 6/19 by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, it is also a day to challenge those of us with the freedom to impact the lives of refugees through advocacy and action.

In advance of World Refugee Day and Refugee Awareness Month, our Resettlement Director Karissa Pletta travelled to Washington D.C. to represent Tennessee and World Relief Memphis for Refugee Advocacy Days on the Hill, sponsored by Refugee Council USA. The goal was simple: spread awareness and advocate for refugees in line with God’s call to welcome the sojourner and treat them as our own. World Relief Memphis’ position is somewhat different when compared to some of the other 33 states that were represented, as our state government is not entirely behind our cause. But instead of being deterred, this simply illustrates the need for our advocacy.

In Karissa’s meetings with members of Congress, she led discussions on exactly who we are and what we do. While some discussions confirmed informed understanding of the issues, others revealed gaps on the topic of refugees. This gap manifests itself most clearly in the misunderstanding of commonly used terms. For example, the words asylee, refugee, and illegal immigrant were frequently used interchangeably by people with the ability to impact policy. Understanding these terms is critical to navigating the nuances of these policies and our organization’s programs and goals as a whole. For example, there are no “illegal refugees” in the U.S. as all refugees living in the United States are formally invited to the country by the government after in-depth vetting from both the UNHCR and the U.S. State Department. Asylees are people in the U.S. who formally sought protection from the same causes of conflict and persecution as a refugee and were then invited by the U.S. to permanently settle and pursue a path toward citizenship.

Once key terms were understood and agreed on by both parties, Karissa moved to discuss RCUSA’s “big asks.” With the number of refugees being allowed into the country at an all-time low (30,000 ceiling for the U.S. this year, which we are not on pace to meet), we are asking that the administration be held accountable to reaching the refugee ceiling this fiscal year, and to raise the ceiling to 75,000 refugees for fiscal year 2020. This is still below the pre-2016 annual average of 95,000 that had remained steady since the Refugee Act was unanimously approved by both parties in Congress in 1980.

Our second ask was inviting members of Congress to cosponsor two new pieces of legislation. The GRACE Act would set a minimum refugee admissions goal at 95,000 each year (the average referenced above) and mandates quarterly reports on refugee admissions, which would increase accountability. The NO BAN Act would repeal the refugee bans, asylum ban, and Muslim bans and would prevent the administration was setting such bans in the future. The third ask was that members of Congress would support robust funding for refugee related accounts in order for organizations to continue not only working with refugees here in the United States, but also overseas in refugee process and resettlement. Finally, the fourth ask was encouraging members of the House to join the Bipartisan Congressional Refugee Caucus.

This was Karissa’s first opportunity to meet with government officials, and the opportunity reinforced how important it is for residents and citizens to communicate vital, reliable information to better inform representatives as they consider and influence legislation. As Christians and as citizens, it is our responsibility to change the ongoing narrative about refugees, to tell the correct story, and to encourage the ongoing education of our communities. However, this is a big task, and we alone cannot complete it. With the help of friends like you, a movement can begin that will change the trajectory of the path in which we are headed.

How can people actually participate in promoting the true narrative of the refugee and immigrant community?  World Relief Memphis has multiple onramps for all people to engage, no matter where they are on their journey of understanding:

  1. A simple yet important step in this process is first educating yourself. Without sound knowledge, the passion for serving refugees could be squandered with confusing dialogue. Follow @worldrelief, @wrmemphis, @matthewsoerens, @jennyyang318 for updates on refugee matters. Read Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, who have researched, written and advocated for refugees and immigrants for over a decade.  Consider attending a future class or seminar series on Migration in Light of Scripture by World Relief Memphis staff.
  2. Speak with your close friends and family. Sharing what you’ve learned and expressing your feelings and passions about this cause to those who understand and love you the most is both cathartic and helpful for gaining a more rounded understanding of how other people feel about welcoming refugees and immigrants.
  3. We believe fully in the power of prayer. Pray for refugees awaiting resettlement and family reunification. Pray for individuals and families we have welcomed to Memphis who are seeking stability and in early steps of holistic integration. Pray for our office and the other organizations that work with the refugee and immigrant community. Pray for our government officials who are in positions to create positive legislation.
  4. Prayer and action work congruently. Be a friend and neighbor to immigrants and refugees around you. Let them know you respect their strength and resiliency and want their stories to be heard. Need to be introduced? Become a volunteer for World Relief and work hand in hand with us in answering God’s call to assist the foreigner and sojourner. Click here to learn more about our volunteer opportunities.
  5. Call your representatives: Ask that they hold the administration accountable to the 30,000 cap this Fiscal Year. Invite them to cosponsor the GRACE Act which would ensure that the refugee ceiling won't go below 95000 (the historic average). Encourage them to also cosponsor the NO BAN act which would repeal the refugee ban, Muslim ban, and asylee ban. Ask for them to support robust funding for refugee programming.
  6. You can donate monetarily and/or compile welcome kits of necessary items or gently used furniture that refugees desperately need when they first arrive in America. Click here to learn more.

After the events on Capitol Hill were over, Karissa had this to say: “I am thankful for the beautiful reminder of how powerful God is in orchestrating all things. I am thankful for the conversations we had with five different members of Congress. I am thankful for the opportunity to join others and learn how advocacy can be done by every single one of us.”


By Nathan Spencer