In January, between semesters at Montana State University Billings, sophomore Carter Knight spent two weeks in Memphis, helping the World Relief organization in its efforts to resettle foreign refugees.
This summer, the Billings native will spend three months in Africa, part of the time in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, helping people with disabilities and then working with refugees in several other countries.
But he has one project to complete before he leaves for Africa in three weeks. Today, he and another young volunteer are driving to Spokane with about 30 “welcome kits” that World Relief will give to the 500-plus refugees that Spokane is pledged to take in this year.
Most of the headlines and much of the bitter public debate about refugees have focused on Syrians fleeing that broken, war-ravaged country, Knight said, but the issue is much broader than that and the United States needs to be part of the solution.
“The fact of the matter is, they’re coming from everywhere to everywhere,” he said. Individuals might not have the power to change public policies in regard to immigration and refugee resettlement, he said, “but what we do have is the power to care for those refugees that are here.”
Knight, working with Community Leadership and Development Inc., coordinated the welcome-kit project. CLDI is a Christian organization that works to provide affordable housing and other services, mostly on Billings’ South Side.
Eric Basye, director of the nonprofit organization, said he and 20 to 25 other Christian leaders from 10 Billings churches started talking a few months ago about how Billings could respond to the refugee crisis.
For starters, they decided to offer their help to Mary Jo Michels, who lives in Billings and works on refugee placement for Lutheran Family Services. She will be helping to settle an Iraqi family that is coming to Billings within the next few weeks, and Basye and the other church leaders will be helping furnish an apartment for the family.
They also decided to get involved with World Relief, an organization that for more than 70 years has worked with evangelical churches and others to “serve the most vulnerable” in programs dealing with refugees, sex trafficking, health and child development, economic development, and peace efforts.
Building the welcome kits seemed like a straightforward way to assist the refugee resettlement program. World Relief has guidelines for creating five kits—household, cleaning, child and baby supply, kitchen and bathroom kits. It asks that each collection of supplies be packed in a large plastic bin that can also be used by refugee families.
Over the course of a month, different groups of volunteers—families, Bible study groups and the like—assembled kits. Knight said he was surprised by the enthusiasm of fellow students at MSU Billings, who created six kits.
Late Wednesday afternoon, volunteers loaded up a CLDI Suburban and a covered trailer with all the kits. Knight, who intends to serve an internship at CLDI when he gets back from Africa at the end of summer, planned to leave for Spokane early Thursday with a young man currently working as an intern for the organization.
Mark Kadel, director of World Relief’s Spokane office, said the group has been bringing refugees to Spokane for resettlement for 26 years. He said World Relief brings in up to 600 refugees a year and this year expects the number to be around 550—in a city with a population of 210,000, in a county with a population of 450,000.
In recent years there had been a slowdown in support for the resettlement program, Kadel said, but with the eruption of the Syrian refugee crisis in the past nine months, “we’ve been inundated with help. What we’re seeing is an overwhelming response.”
Perhaps 10 percent of the people the agency hears from are opposed to taking in more refugees, but when he and other people in the organization fully explain the program, Kadel said, most people turn into supporters.
Asked why support in Spokane is so strong, given the large, well-publicized demonstrations of opposition in nearby Missoula and elsewhere in Western Montana, Kadel said World Relief has been “proactive with the media in getting the truth out.”
There are nearly 20 million refugees in the world right now, Kadel said, and in any given year the United States admits about one half of 1 percent of those refugees into this country. Refugees on average spend 17 years in refugee camps, often in appalling conditions, before being resettled, Kadel said.
Because of the rigorous process involved in screening refugees before letting them come to this country, he said, those who are admitted are “the most carefully vetted people ever allowed into the United States.”
This is a nation of immigrants, Kadel said, and “we really don’t have the right to close the door behind us.”
For Basye, it’s not a question of politics or governmental authority but a simple challenge to his faith and his commitment to the teachings and mandates of Jesus. The Bible commands believers to love and serve those on the margins, he said, and no one in today’s world is more marginalized than the refugees fleeing war and terror in their homelands.
Knight said that a church friend of his commented on Knight’s Facebook page that accepting refugees is virtually welcoming terrorists into our midst, but he, like Kadel, thinks the truth of the refugee situation would surprise most people.
For starters, he said, “most of the refugees are going to be grandmothers, mothers with children.” And as he learned during the internship with World Relief in Memphis, Knight said, many refugees are highly educated and bring valuable skills with them.
One refugee he met had managed a factory in Iraq and in Memphis was literally stacking crates in someone else’s factory. The man’s wife, a college professor in Iraq, had gone back to school to learn more about computer technology.
Knight also said that government aid to the refugees is available for only three months. That’s why World Relief strongly emphasizes job training and getting people into jobs as quickly as possible.
And while many of the refugees are Muslims, Basye said, CLDI, as well as World Relief, is committed to serving everyone regardless of faith, race or gender. In everything they do, he said, CLDI representatives never make a secret of their commitment to their Christian faith, but they don’t engage in outright proselytizing, either.
Knight recalled how, in Memphis, he accompanied a Muslim Somali man and his two children to help register the kids at an elementary school. On the way home, because of an accident on the freeway, they were stuck in traffic for a couple of hours.
Knight said he and the father had a long, deep talk about their faiths and belief systems, how they intersected and where they were at odds. He was careful to address only the father, not the children, he said, and the result was a fascinating conversation.
You get the feeling that Knight wishes more Americans could have that kind of experience, could learn to open their arms and their hearts to refugees.
“The danger is not that they’re here,” Knight said. “The danger is that they’re here and we don’t love them.”
Related story: Discussion of refugee crisis planned by church
St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Billings invites area residents to engage in constructive conversations about Syrian refugees on Saturday, May 21, from 1 to 4 p.m. in the church, 180 24th St. W.
With a target of 10,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled in the United States by Sept. 30, Montanans are discussing whether Syrian refugees would be welcome in this state or if security issues are more important than the welfare of Syrians.
Participants will join in small groups, with some members in favor of settling Syrian refugees in Montana and others who are concerned about the safety and security of citizens if Syrian refugees are permitted. A facilitator will encourage each person to tell his or her story and background, after which participants will explore any areas of common agreement.
The goal, according to a press release from the church, “is to learn to listen to others and to share our opinions in a civil manner, trying to understand each other without a need to come to any conclusions.”
For more information or to register for the free event, call the church weekday mornings at 656-9256 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please state whether you are for or against the acceptance of Syrian refugees. This project is supported by a peace-making grant provided to St. Andrew Presbyterian Church by the Yellowstone Presbytery.