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Refugee Immigration Ministry: Building community with uprooted people

November 16, 2011

The Rev. Ruth Bersin, executive director of Refugee Immigration Ministry, a Jubilee Ministry in Boston, was all set to launch into her Power Point presentation, “Building Community with Uprooted People,” one of nearly 50 workshops scheduled over three days at the Everyone Everywhere 2011 conference.

The Rev. Ruth Bersin

But as the people who had gathered for the workshop introduced themselves, Bersin discovered she needed to change tactics. That’s because a big chunk of her audience were young men from Sudan who had been refugees themselves. Suddenly, Bersin was no longer the expert. They were.

“When I realized the room was full of people who had been through this trauma themselves, I just flew through the Power Point, and then let them share. Lecturing at them wasn’t the way to handle that group,” she said. “We shifted into a dialogue, and it was very productive for me as well as for them.”

Refugee Immigration Ministry is an interfaith community-based organization founded in 1986. Its volunteers bring clients into relationships in their communities, help them find jobs, learn English, hone computer skills and offer them spiritual guidance.

This last part is particularly important, because refugees are, by and large, people who have been traumatized. Many have been raped, beaten, tortured and forced to watch while family and friends were brutalized. “Recovery from trauma like this is a spiritual journey,” Bersin said.

34 million refugees or other displaced people

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are nearly 34 million people in the world who are either refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced persons, returnees or stateless persons. Many of these are clinically depressed, and many exhibit signs of post traumatic stress disorder. Nearly all are forced to go through some kind of cultural adaptation, Bersin said.

The primary task for care givers helping refugees adapt to a new homeland is to restore dignity, she said. “When one is traumatized, trust is the first thing that is destroyed,” she said. “But I have seen over and over, that it only takes one person whom the client can trust for trust to be restored.”

Step Two, she said, is remembrance. “We cannot heal when we deny what has happened. I also think it is interesting to consider how many religious rituals are examples of remembrance.”

This is followed by release or forgiveness. “Desmond Tutu has stated that there is no healing without forgiveness,” Bersin said. “I realize that forgiveness has been used too glibly and has gotten a bad rap. However, even if you can only get to the point of releasing the anger to the justice of God, it helps to let it go. The alternative is to let it consume you.”

Then comes restoration, and reclaiming ones identity and sense of self. After that, one is ready to move on to self-donation, which leads to the capacity to explore both intimacy or of solitude.

“By the final stage, one is able to reintegrate ones self and move forward with deeper wisdom,” Bersin said.  “A theology professor of mine once said that Jesus had to walk among the damned before he could rise as our redeemer. There is something about going to the depths that helps people arrive at a deeper integration. Going through the worst doesn’t mean life is over. It means we can be called on to become more. It’s a lot of hard work to find healing, but it’s a spiritual journey.”

 Refugee resettlement and the congregation

Bersin said refugee resettlement can be a satisfying if difficult ministry for congregations to undertake. “The church is the church when it’s doing mission, and this is an important form of mission,” she said. “It’s an ongoing, longterm commitment. It changes the congregation immensely when they reach out and do this. We are called to welcome strangers because we will be enriched by it. You can’t do this work and not be enriched.”

But she cautions that volunteers sometimes fall prey to their own generous hearts, and this is why case management is so important for refugees. “If we don’t have a case management plan underneath, volunteers may do too much, and take away refugees’ initiative, and that’s not helpful,” she said. “Out of the goodness of their heart, they want to give too much, and that has to be controlled. There has to be a disciplined sharing of community. Otherwise people will do too much, get burned out and quit.”

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