Jenny Ansay has a question for the 31 governors who have signaled that they would not accept Syrian refugees in the wake of the November 13 terrorist attack in Paris. It’s the same question she has for members of the U.S. Congress who voted to pause acceptance of further Syrian refugees.
“Do you even know any Syrians?”
Jenny does. As an attorney for Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors, a ministry of the United Methodist Church, Jenny works with teams of volunteers at three Chicago-area United Methodist Churches that provide free immigration legal services to low-income immigrants. Northern Illinois JFON is part of the Justice for Our Neighbors network, a United Methodist ministry founded by UMCOR in 1999 with 25 staff immigration attorneys and 40 immigration clinics around the country.
Northern Illinois JFON currently serves seven Syrian clients, which, Jenny acknowledges, isn’t a huge number. But, because of the nature of the attorney-client relationship, she learns about their lives in a very detailed way.
“I know them really well,” she says. “And I can say, without reservation, that they are all exactly the kinds of people we want and need to have in the United States.”
“We just want to live”
Amira was the ministry’s first Syrian client in Northern Illinois. Warm, loving and the mother of three girls, she is usually found in the kitchen, making Syrian specialties—baba ghanoush, falafel—for her new American friends. Her young daughters have recovered from the trauma of their early life and are happy in their new school.
Amira has long opposed the human rights violations carried out by the Syrian government, the opposition, and terrorist groups. She believes there is a peaceful way to bring reform. But Syria has become a dangerous place for people who believe in peaceful ways.
“Oh my God, if I have to go back to Syria,” she says in her halting English. “There is too much killing. I cannot go back.”
Marwan, also a Syrian client at Northern Illinois JFON, is an emergency room doctor. He got into trouble with his superiors because of some Facebook posts he made criticizing President Bashar al-Assad. That was the extent of his anti-government activities, but it was enough.
In most countries, doctors are valued; in Syria they are targets. Disregarding the Hippocratic Oath, the Syrian government persecutes doctors who may or may not be treating enemies of the state. “If you treat the wrong person, they are suspicious of you,” explains Marwan. “If you have the wrong religion, or you look or sound anti-government or you have friends who are anti-government, or you post on Facebook, or you watch television shows that are anti-government, then they will hurt you, torture you, kill you.”
The doctor shakes his head, searching for the words to explain what coming to America means to him and other Syrians. “We aren’t aiming to take anything from you,” he says fervently. “We just want to live.”
Finding comfort, aid, and refuge at United Methodist Churches
Refugees are granted protection by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees because of their fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Refugees are among the most highly vetted immigrant groups admitted into the United States and must undergo fingerprinting, in-person interviews, and thorough background checks. The process that the U.S. uses to screen refugees is much more thorough than the method used by countries in Europe.
The Justice for Our Neighbors network serves nearly 3,000 immigrants each year, including hundreds of refugees who need assistance to obtain their green cards. The majority of our JFON clinics are held in United Methodist Churches, where volunteers help with clients’ immigration applications while also learning their stories.
For many of these vulnerable immigrants, coming to a church to receive legal services is a source of comfort and safety. Clinic volunteers prepare food for their visitors. Their children play alongside the children of clients. Volunteers within the United Methodist Church have the opportunity to engage with their neighbors from across the globe—118 countries in 2015—and appreciate the journeys they have made to be here.
Marwan reflects upon his first encounter with Jenny at a JFON clinic. “She didn’t hesitate, she didn’t say she ‘would think about it’ or ‘let me check my schedule,’” he says, his soft voice tinged with awe. “She immediately said she would help me.”
For her part, Jenny is equally impressed by all seven of her Syrian clients. “It can’t be an accident,” she says, “that all the Syrians I know are exactly the kind of people the U.S. should be welcoming. They are all lovely people. They are all Muslims. They are not terrorists.”
JFON is proud to provide a space for United Methodists to know their neighbors.
National Justice for Our Neighbors is an Advance of the United Methodist Church, Project #901285.
Featured photo courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov.