Opinion: Faith organizations are key in global refugee response

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“Sometimes my husband sits with me and says, ‘I can’t believe where we were and where we are now.’ In Syria, my family and I were happy, life was good. Now we live in a small tent.”

Samar’s family are Syrian refugees in Lebanon. With a population of 6 million, Lebanon hosts over 1 million refugees and a third of those households face food insecurity. Fortunately, private resources are lending support, including local faith communities. Samar’s family received monthly food assistance from a local church. Her children, who had been out of school for four years, finally received access to education through a church-based program, which helped them catch up. According to Samar, “the church-based education center has not only helped them academically, but emotionally.”

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Like Samar, Nour and her husband were also forced to flee Syria, with their 1-year-old son, newborn daughter, and nothing else. But Nour viewed church aid differently. “We arrived in Lebanon in the beginning of winter and it was really cold. Our neighbors told us that there was a church helping Syrians. I didn’t want to come as I was a conservative Muslim.”

Nour’s skepticism is shared with potential aid actors who fear partnering with faith groups. But 85% of the nearly 25 million refugees fleeing violence, conflicts, and disasters are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, with their own economic and development challenges. Bypassing faith-based organizations also bypasses much-needed and responsive resources.

Local faith communities are often first responders on the frontlines of meeting daily basic needs. But like refugees and migrants, faith-based organizations can face discrimination. Stereotypes unfairly paint all faith-based aid as conditional, subject to proselytizing or discriminatory theology. It is also true that some faith communities will rush in with food, care, and compassion without knowing “best practices.”

They may provide inappropriate goods, require church attendance, or school children without accepted curriculum, which will hamper their ability to assimilate if and when they can finally attend a regular school.

Professionalizing local aid, including faith-based aid, is an opportunity to expand capacity and partnerships, called for in the recent U.N. Global Compact on Refugees. The global compact seeks more equitable, effective, and predictable distribution of burden and responsibility to better address the burgeoning needs of refugees.

For example, MERATH, a Lebanese faith-based organization in the Middle East and North Africa region, improves local aid with ongoing training and support to meet key international humanitarian standards. MERATH helps local Christian churches and organizations implement long-term, community-based relief and development programs more effectively.

MERATH’s work is among the reasons why, when Nour did eventually turn to a local church for help, she said, “the love I have seen from these people is unlike anything I have seen from any place. I felt comfortable. They greeted me and gave me help without conditions.”

Halfway around the world, in southern Mexico, a Catholic refugee shelter offers another stereotype-busting view of faith on the frontlines. La 72, named to commemorate the 72 migrant victims of a drug cartel massacre in 2010, was the first refugee shelter in Mexico to institute safe and dignified, culturally sensitive support for LGBTQ refugees and forced migrants.

Since its founding in 2011 by Franciscans, the shelter estimates that it has cared for nearly 75,000 refugees, primarily Central Americans fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, including women, children, unaccompanied minors, and LGTBQ people.

Faith-based organizations are neither more nor less likely than secular organizations to offer special services to LGBTQ populations, according to an analysis by Oram, which specializes in protecting particularly vulnerable refugee populations.

When my organization, working with The UN Refugee Agency, looked at local faith communities responding to refugees and asylum-seekers, including La72, one young man from Honduras memorably told our researchers: “The discrimination [toward LGBTQ populations] in Central American countries never stops, it’s part of your daily life. And it’s filled with such hate. And then to arrive in Mexico, to a unit specifically dedicated to LGBT … it’s like being in heaven … a space where discrimination and stigmatization is not allowed.”

La 72’s firm “zero-tolerance policy” toward discrimination affords some refugees the opportunity to embrace their authentic identity for the first time.

As tough as it can be for faith-based organizations to garner trust, Muslim organizations can face some of the toughest roadblocks. Virtually every Muslim charity operating in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa, due to poorly designed anti-terrorist legislation, finds their funding and participation stalled by Western banks and financial services. Although not exclusive to Muslim organizations, bank de-risking has particularly affected these organizations.  

Ignoring faith doesn’t make it go away. It can even be disrespectful and dismissive of the very people we seek to help.

Religious belief and practice can be important coping strategies that offer needed psychosocial and spiritual support. Imposing an unbending Western secular framework is a mistake. A more nuanced understanding of the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality and the role to be played by faith participants is needed.

With 44,400 people forced to flee their homes every day, sidelining faith partners is untenable. With a common commitment to relieving suffering, more equitable and effective care for refugees and migrants is possible by broadening partnerships to enhance what private sector, faith communities, and international financial institutions can bring to the table by working together.  

It’s time to include faith-based organizations, and respect local faith communities for who they often are — key participants on the frontlines of global refugee and migrant response.

About the author

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    Jean Duff

    Jean Duff is the president of the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, which provides humanitarian policy makers and practitioners with research and evidence about effective ways to collaborate with local faith actors for the benefit of displaced and marginalized people.

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