Religious unification for refugees

Story and photos by WESLEY RYAN

Rampant violence across the globe has displaced 65.6 million humans and neighboring countries are showing hesitation toward accepting them. Religious organizations have taken the opposite approach: donating time, resources and money toward the better treatment of refugees.

To address the safety concerns many Americans have, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning people from countries that were perceived as being incredibly violent. However, the ban was found to be discriminatory toward people from Muslim-majority countries and it lacked justification for national security. Syria, Libya, Iran, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia were no longer banned, at least for a short amount of time.

The ban was not only seen as discriminatory, but also seemed unnecessary, considering what refugees have to do to be granted asylum. Refugees have to undergo various types of screenings, tests and interviews, including biometric scans and in-depth interviews about their life.

Religions have taken an opposing stance. Deciding to preach unity, they’ve opened their arms toward refugees.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is concerned about the temporal and spiritual welfare of all of God’s children across the earth. With special concern for those who are fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution. The church urges all people and governments to cooperate fully in seeking the best solutions to meet human needs and relieve suffering,” said the response published by the LDS church against the ban toward the Muslim dominated countries.

Last year, the LDS church donated $5 million to nine different resettlement agencies in the United States, including a partnership with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

The LDS church has even rearranged parts of its own budget so it can permanently donate time and resources toward refugee resettlement and a better life. Sharon Eubank, the director of LDS Charities, credited this generosity toward everyday Mormons when interviewed by the Deseret News.

“The members of the church responded so generously to the letter from the First Presidency and then the invitations at conference,” Eubank said. “We were able to probably quintuple the number of refugee relief projects we were able to do. That’s amazing. Now that won’t happen year after year, but for one year to be able to quintuple the amount of aid that we were able to give to refugees was amazing.”

Mormons are all too familiar with religious persecution, having been chased out of states like Missouri and Illinois, Mormons were forced to create a life in the middle of the desert in Utah. That place is now called Salt Lake City and is also home to 60,000 refugees.

These refugees were forced to leave their homes out of fear of being persecuted, killed or tortured. From a city built on the hope of religious freedom it’s no wonder Mormons have taken so kindly toward refugees.

“The LDS church is the main reason the state of Utah helps refugees out so much,” said Gerald Brown, refugee coordinator for the state of Utah and assistant director of the Refugee Services Office. Donating millions of dollars to refugees and encouraging its members to donate their time has greatly helped the refugee community.

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Bishop Abraham Zurita of the Whitehall Ward in West Valley City, Utah.

Abraham Zurita, a bishop in the Whitehall ward (congregation) in West Valley City, is no stranger to the problems of coming to America. As an immigrant from Mexico, he has lived through the struggles of becoming an American citizen. Preaching a coexistence between citizens and refugees he wants to bridge the gap between the two. As one of the leaders of his church he ensures that they praise kindness and equality.

“We in the congregation have all kinds of people from all kinds of cultures, backgrounds, language and sometimes we even help other beliefs too,” Zurita said. “Helping all of them is a big task. It takes a lot of resources and a lot of money.”

It’s understandable to have people not completely rely on the church, but one person or family can’t do everything themselves. In order for a new family to survive they need help comprehending what is going on around them and what they need to do. Some refugees speak little English and have to guess on where things are, can lead to trouble for both the family and the community they live in.

“Immigrant or a refugee, when you come to a country, you’re by yourself here. And the biggest problem is language,” Zurita said.

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Bishop Abraham Zurita’s tithing envelope for the Whitehall Ward.

It doesn’t matter if the refugees come alone or with a family, trying to understand a new country can be scary and overwhelming. Resources like the LDS church’s EnglishConnect help refugees develop stronger English speaking skills. Without resources that help integrate people into society the person could end up making mistakes in their daily life or even when filing important paperwork.

Zurita and his ward teach classes for refugees in case they don’t know English or enough of it. They will give refugees food if they can’t survive on their own yet. They’ll even support families if their medical bills become too costly. Zurita emphasized the fact the Mormon church can’t do everything, but he believes the church is beneficial toward the refugee community. But, Zurita is right when it comes to refugees, “It’s never enough.”

Located on 1090 S. State St. sits Calvary Baptist Church and for the past 43 years Pastor France Davis has spread his message of unity. Creating programs to help refugees find housing and transportation, Davis has continuously tried doing what he believes is right.

“We open our home. We open our church. We open our community,” Davis said as he passionately talked about sharing the differences we have with refugees.

Davis went on to explain the importance behind this, stating that these people’s religious beliefs is what kept them going for so long. Preaching in their native language allows them to share the story they’ve lived through but also demonstrates the tenacity refugees have. Whether it be Swahili or French, all are welcome, Davis said.

Being a pastor for over four decades, you start to see a lot of change happen in the country, but you also see an enormous amount of repetition. The restrictions being placed on African countries isn’t unique to Davis, considering he believes that this is the same racism we’ve had for years.

On the other hand, Zurita doesn’t believe that the restrictions being enacted are racially or religiously motivated, but, instead, out of fear. Constant attacks and repeated civil wars can start to push a narrative into the minds of everyday Americans. Fear is contagious and can be ingrained into the deepest parts of our society.

“Closing the door is not the answer,” Zurita said. “I don’t get Donald Trump. He has his motives. He acts in random ways that is hard to read. But with… I hope it’s not religiously based and [just] fear from terrorism.”

The current presidential administration has taken steps to prevent the acceptance of refugees. Understanding that there is a fear of something that the people don’t understand, it has taken steps try to stop the fear from spreading. Restricting travel from certain countries was one step it tried taking and now with the recent New York City attack Trump has requested stronger vetting. However, the administration has received a lot of backlash for what it’s tried to accomplish. From the elimination of DACA to the ban on seven countries, there have been thousands of people upset with the decision. The administration has no plans on stopping what it believes is right for the country.

Religions on the other hand, have taken a different approach. Spreading hope, they wish to send a message to the president. Preaching the message of opening up our hearts and communities to these people.

“All people have worth and value. It is not a time to threaten the world or promoting conflict within the country or out of the country,” Davis said.