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World Refugee Day 2017


At the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, ELCA World Hunger staff fielded questions and gathered feedback from the folks packing a room in the New Orleans’ Ernest Morial Convention Center. For an hour, we shared updates, heard comments about our resources and programs, and listened to stories of congregations responding to hunger and poverty in communities across the ELCA. At the very end of our time, amidst the ruffling of papers and gathering of bags as people prepared to leave for the next session, an energetic man approached the microphone. In a few short words, he silenced the room with his story.

“I have sat here and listened as everyone has talked,” he began, a thin smile on his face. “Now, I decided, I want to talk.” We sat riveted as he described how the violence of civil war came to his hometown in Sudan and how it claimed the lives of so many of his friends and neighbors. He told us how he chased after his brother, both of them running alongside other young boys, toward a truck that promised safety and an escape from the conflict. The truck bore the letters “LWF,” an acronym he didn’t know at the time stood for Lutheran World Federation. His older brother pushed him on the truck, and he began a years-long journey, first to a refugee camp and then to Michigan, where he settled and started a family.

“L. W. F. Before I even knew what those letters meant,” he said, “they saved my life.”

Today marks the 17th annual World Refugee Day, a day set aside by the United Nations to draw attention to the challenges faced by people around the world who have fled their homes – by choice or compulsion – seeking safety, opportunity, and a place to call home. It is a chance to celebrate the individuals and families who have built new lives in new places, to mourn those who have lost their lives while on the move, and, for Lutherans, to remember our own history as migrants and refugees.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 65 million people are displaced from their homes around the world, with more than 22 million fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution as refugees. This is an almost-unprecedented number of people on the move, and the work of nonprofit organizations, churches and community partners accompanying refugees and migrants has rarely been so important.

Through ELCA World Hunger and Lutheran Disaster Response, our church accompanies our neighbors in their home communities, in transit and temporary shelters, in refugee camps, and in their new homes. The intersection between conflict, migration and food insecurity is complex but undeniable. In a study released earlier this year, the World Food Programme (WFP) found that for every percentage increase in food insecurity, refugee outflows from a country increase by 1.9 percent, demonstrating the significant role food insecurity plays in forcing people from their homes. Moreover, the WFP found that food insecurity also plays a role in increasing the intensity and duration of armed conflict, another significant factor that pushes people to seek safety in other regions and countries.

Working through companions and partners, ELCA World Hunger supports projects aimed at sustainably bolstering food security, making it possible for people to feed themselves and their families in their own hometowns. For those who cannot stay in their homes, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) administers refugee camps like Kakuma and Dadaab in Kenya. Kakuma, located in northwestern Kenya, was established by the UN in 1992 with a capacity for 125,000 refugees, most of whom were fleeing Sudan. Today, more than 160,000 refugees live in the camp. While it was never intended to be a permanent home, many refugees spend upwards of ten years living in Kakuma, waiting to return to their homes or to resettle in a new place.

Adapting to life in Kakuma is not easy, but many residents, with the support of LWF programs, find ways to use their talents and skills while in the camp. Programs that focus on education and improved livelihoods, supported in part by ELCA World Hunger, address some of the critical barriers residents face. One key opportunity for economic empowerment for residents is through village savings and loan programs (VSLAs). In a VSLA, community members pool their savings and provide small loans to individuals to start or grow a business. Once the business turns a profit, the money is repaid and loaned out to another VSLA member. This gives folks in Kakuma the resources they need to support themselves and their families. Moreover, much of the work administered by LWF, including efforts toward education, economic empowerment, and human rights, is done with the participation of both refugees in the camp and members of the local host community, many of whom face their own challenges related to poverty and hunger.

KTN News in Kenya recently featured a story of a thriving bakery that started through a loan from a VSLA:



Programs like this are important ways our church accompanies our neighbors as they build lives for themselves far from home. As the number of displaced people around the world increases, accompaniment of internally displaced persons, refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers continues to meet a critical need.

At the churchwide assembly, we were reminded of that need and the role that the ELCA and our companions can play in a world facing a refugee crisis. But we were also reminded of how much our communities stand to gain from the gifts refugees and migrants have to offer. The former “lost boy of Sudan” who didn’t know what “LWF” meant when he first saw the letters is now in the TEEM program of the ELCA, developing his skills of leadership to offer his talents within the church he now calls his own.


Refugees React to Ban – Voices from Dadaab


Photo credit Faith Kagwiria/LWF

In northeast Kenya, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) helps manage the largest cluster of refugee camps in the world. At their peak, the Dadaab camps were home to nearly 500,000 people, most of whom are children, women, elderly and people with disabilities who have fled conflict in Somalia, one of the countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Today, 240,000 refugees remain at the camps, though Dadaab is slated by Kenya for closure later this year. For many young people, the camp is the only home they have known. It is safer than their countries of origin, but like other refugee camps, Dadaab was not meant to be a permanent home.

LWF, with support from members like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is working with other agencies to provide sufficient, equitable education, food and health care at the camp, but many residents still struggle to meet their needs. While the care they receive is critical, many refugees still long for a permanent home of their own. Refugees often spend years in Dadaab waiting for resettlement in a new country or repatriation to their country of origin. Resettlement is a lengthy ordeal, with numerous background checks, interviews, and delays. Some refugees at Dadaab have been in the process for up to nine years.

Abroon*, a refugee from the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, has been working toward his family’s resettlement since 2008. The news of the executive order was a significant blow to his hard work and hope.

“Finally, I had completed all the processes and was waiting for flight confirmation,” he says. “The ban simply means that the United States of America does not want refugees, and I am very demoralized. If someone stops you from going to his house, then you have no option but to go away and look for where you will be accepted and you can belong.”

Shire, a refugee in Kambioos camp, was also disheartened.

“The ban by the USA has just made me make a decision to withdraw my resettlement case,” he says. “It has been a long and tiresome process, but now I concede defeat.”

The President’s executive order for suspension of admission of refugees into the United States sent shockwaves through Dadaab. The immediate effects reverberated around the world as officials struggled to understand the order’s implications for enforcement. But in Dadaab, the effects were not merely confusing but dispiriting. Bashiir, a refugee from Ifo camp in Dadaab remarked,

“I had just finished the whole resettlement process and was only waiting for flight confirmation. Now my case is unknown. After the announcement, I could not sleep and it feels like my dreams and aspirations have been shattered.”

When the executive order was implemented, refugees awaiting travel were sent back to the camps to wait for more information. Because they were planning for resettlement, some had quit their jobs in the camps or sold their possessions to other refugees. Asad, from Ifo camp, had a flight confirmed for January 29, 2017. He notes with frustration,

“I was already in the USA in my mind, and I had finally been able to get this opportunity to belong. When I return to the camp, where do I start from? I had sold and given out all my belongings and even said goodbye to my friends. What does a human being do? I even have the ticket in my hand.”

Culan, a single mother with a disability and three children was also left in a serious lurch.

“I had bought items for my travel and back at the camp I have nothing to go back to but the many problems that exist,” she says.

While some commentators in the United States downplay the significance of the refugee ban because of its intended 120-day duration, those three months put refugees in Dadaab ever-closer to the closing of the camps. For many, it closes one possible avenue away from the violence they fled. Representatives of the LWF note that Somali refugees in Dadaab fear returning to the conflict they once escaped. Dubad, a Somali refugee, had been trained for work in motor vehicle maintenance at Dadaab, with support from LWF. “I passed my exams and even secured a job in Somalia, but due to threats on my life and family problems, I had to return to Kenya to seek refuge,” he says. Being from a minority clan in Somalia leaves Dubad at risk from ethnic violence.

“The announcement has left me hopeless since it feels like every time I seek an opportunity to get better life for me, my family and children, I get a challenge.” Unlike Asad, Dubad had not yet sold his belongings or purchased a plane ticket. But the emotional and psychological cost of Trump’s executive order have been difficult to bear. “My life is still at a threat, and I do hope things get better and that President Trump stops this discrimination and rejection.”

Even those who were not in the process of being resettled are confused and afraid. Lennart Hernander, LWF World Service’s program representative in Kenya-Djibouti, notes that young people were particularly disheartened, losing hope in the resettlement process entirely. Other refugees with family already living in the United States are fearful that their resettled relatives will be deported. These same relatives are often a vital form of assistance, sending remittances to their family back in the camp so they can buy the essentials they need to survive in Dadaab.

The United States, once the source of hope for many refugees seeking resettlement, safety and a new start, has become for some a symbol of exclusion and rejection. Ishaar, a refugee in Hagadera camp and also from a minority clan in Somalia, echoes Dubad’s sentiments:

“I had already been confirmed [for resettlement] and told that my process was successful and to travel on February 28, 2017, to the USA. I thought I was going to be safe, but now the USA has rejected me. Where do I belong since I cannot go back to Somalia for I fear for my life?”

For some, a sliver of hope remains that as borders against resettlement seal and the date to close Dadaab grows closer, new possibilities will be opened by welcoming communities around the globe. But in the wake of the executive order from the United States, the fearful prospect of returning to the places they fought so hard to escape draws closer to reality.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton released a statement yesterday that affirmed the ELCA’s commitment “to continuing ministries of welcome that support and build communities around the country” and to “stand firmly against any policies that result in scaling back the refugee resettlement program.”  Read the full statement here.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the persons quoted in the article. Quotes are courtesy of LWF World Service, Kenya-Djibouti.



A Safety Net for Refugee Children in Egypt

This story is also available as a bulletin insert as part of ELCA World Hunger’s newest “reproducible stories” series. Click here to download a copy.

Yohannes (not pictured) was 16 when he arrived in Cairo, Egypt, alone. He made his way to Egypt from Eritrea, in East Africa. It was an arduous journey from Eritrea, through Sudan and, finally, to Egypt.  Along the way, food was hard to come by. Yohannes had lost weight and was not well.

Upon arriving in Cairo, Yohannes came to St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) seeking help. He had not eaten for two days, so the first thing StARS provided was a warm, home-cooked meal. StARS, a program supported by gifts to ELCA World Hunger, offers unaccompanied refugee children food, education and psychosocial support.

Through gifts to ELCA World Hunger, StARS feeds 350 refugee children two meals a day, four days a week. And, with the help of the program, Yohannes has learned about nutrition, budgeting, and services available to him in Cairo.

Unaccompanied children in Cairo often live together in overcrowded apartments so that they can afford the rent. Some receive a small amount of financial support from the United Nations once they register, but most find it very difficult to make ends meet. Financial support from the ELCA and other partners allows StARS to employ a refugee as a chef and to provide part-time work to six young refugees as kitchen assistants and cleaners. Without this work, they would have no means to support themselves as they struggle to survive in Cairo.

For Yohannes and other unaccompanied refugee youth, StARS provides something else that is crucial to well-being – the chance to be children. The program provides food, education and, importantly, a safe space for playing sports and building friendships. “If StARS did not exist, I would go without food for the entire day,” Yohannes said. “Nobody can study with an empty stomach.”

“And here I get the chance to learn and to be with my friends.”

According to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, over half of the world’s refugees are children. Many have experienced or witnessed violence, exploitation, trafficking and abuse. Yet, the children’s resilience helps them cope in new communities, if they are given the support they need to make new friends, learn and play.  Faith-based organizations like StARS help make this possible.

Today, Yohannes is attending school. He has a brighter future thanks to the support of ELCA World Hunger and St. Andrew’s Refugee Service.

(For more on Lutherans and refugees, see here. Visit ELCA World Hunger on Vimeo for “The Kafley Family” story to hear one family’s story of finding a new home in Chicago, with the support of ELCA World Hunger and RefugeeOne.  To learn more about refugees and resettlement, visit Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service at, a long-time partner of ELCA World Hunger.)