[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Migration Ministries, or EMM, is best known as one of nine U.S. refugee resettlement agencies, facilitating the Episcopal Church’s role in helping newcomers to the United States as they flee war, violence and persecution in their country of origin. The church has welcomed more than 100,000 refugees since 1980.
But not all migrants seeking safety in the United States arrive as refugees. Hundreds of thousands of migrants apply for asylum each year, and many find new homes in communities across the country while their cases are being considered. Over the past two years, the EMM has extended its work with these migrants across the newer Voisin à Voisin program.
The program is focused on supporting asylum seekers, in part because the federal government does not offer the same financial assistance as refugees. “Asylum seekers are like a forgotten population,” Allison Duvall, EMM’s senior manager for church relations and engagement, told Episcopal News Service. As a church, “we want to provide asylum seekers with a quantity and quality of service at least equivalent to what refugees receive through federal funding.”
To accomplish this, Neighbor to Neighbor has solicited grants and donations to support its growing network of volunteer support teams, organized by congregations across the United States. Neighbor to Neighbor teams help asylum seekers with various challenges, such as applying for a driver’s license, enrolling children in school, finding help to learn English, locating doctors and identifying the safest places for children.
“We are truly the first friends of people coming to the United States,” said Reverend Chris McNabb, who is responsible for the Neighbor to Neighbor program for recruitment and engagement. Some of the help is “things that we all go through, every time we come to a new place,” McNabb said. “Part of it is just the human connection. It is walking with people in their basic needs.
Episcopalians and others interested in learning more about the Neighbor to Neighbor program are invited to attend a webinar at 3 p.m. Episcopal Church, which provided some of the financial support for Neighbor to Neighbor.
The hour-long Zoom session, “Welcoming Our Neighbor With Gratitude,” will explore how the OTU continues to support essential EMM education, advocacy, and support programs and ways that individuals and congregations can get more involved in Neighbor to Neighbor. Register in advance to attend.
Episcopalians can also directly support the work of EMM by visiting episcopalmigrationministries.org/give or by texting “EMM” to 41444. Donors should note your donation to support Neighbor to Neighbour.
Neighbor to Neighbor grew out of an upstart ministry started by Reverend Christina Rathbone, an Episcopal priest who at the time was serving at St. Paul’s Cathedral Church, Boston, Massachusetts. Seeing the need to help asylum seekers navigate their new communities, she began connecting them with Episcopalians willing to provide an initial support system. Rathbone soon partnered with EMM to give the growing network a broader national reach.
McNabb took over as program director of Neighbor to Neighbor after Rathbone began serving as rector of a Western Massachusetts congregation in August 2021. Around the same time, Neighbor to Neighbor has expanded further to include outreach to newly arrived Afghans.
After the 20-year US war in Afghanistan ended in August with the final withdrawal of US troops, about 50,000 Afghans were allowed to enter the United States under what is called humanitarian parole. Some were able to apply for special immigrant visas, while others applied for asylum. All need to find accommodation.
Many Episcopalians contacted the EMM saying they wanted to help welcome Afghans fleeing potential persecution under the Taliban. “I’m just amazed at the loyalty of Episcopalians coming forward,” McNabb told ENS. “They show up every day committed to this work despite the challenges and adversity that inevitably come with it.”
The federal government has provided temporary financial assistance to Afghan newcomers participating in the humanitarian parole program. Voisin à Voisin teams supplement this financial assistance by volunteering to help Afghans integrate into their new communities.
Each team must go through a discernment process and then undergo training on how best to welcome their new neighbors. Most teams are made up of five to 10 people from a congregation who sponsor one family or individual at a time, usually for a minimum of six months. Some asylum seekers may need support for longer periods of time, particularly when a language barrier slows down their efforts to settle.
Some teams are based in congregations near the US-Mexico border, though others are located across the United States, wherever asylum seekers live while waiting for their cases to be heard. In recent years, asylum seekers have filed around 300,000 new cases a year, with the highest number of cases involving migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Only around 30,000 were granted asylum in 2020, including 9,000 from China and Venezuela.
However, no federal agency identifies asylum seekers who may need assistance, so Neighbor to Neighbor obtains referrals from Episcopal border ministries, ministry partners, and various other asylum seeker support networks, McNabb said.
Neighbor to Neighbor volunteer teams don’t need any expertise in social services or immigration law to participate—only a commitment to walk alongside their new neighbors and make them feel welcome. Some of their experiences have given rise to heartwarming stories.
A family of Afghans, for example, was moving into a suburban apartment building, McNabb said. They were concerned about their unfamiliar surroundings and the language barrier, but as they were walking out of their apartment one day, they were greeted by a man who lived across the hall. He asked if they were from Afghanistan.
The man said he too moved from Afghanistan 27 years ago and now works as a taxi driver, according to McNabb. The man had long prayed for the opportunity to show hospitality to another family in the same way he felt welcomed by his new neighbors when he first moved into the community .
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].