Some recommendations on what the UCC and Disciples can do to address the situation of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced

Some recommendations on what the UCC and Disciples can do to address the situation of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced

Recommendation:  Iraqi refugees being resettled in the United States should be offered pastoral care by UCC and Disciples congregations.

Background:  During Fiscal Year 2008 the U.S. government agreed to admit up to 12,000 Iraqi refugees through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program.   By the end of the Fiscal Year, over 13,000 had arrived.  In Fiscal Year 2009 the U.S. government plans to admit 17-18,000.  Some of these refugees have arrived and will be arriving through the UCC and Disciples resettlement agency – Church World Service (CWS).  UCC and Disciples congregations are needed to become co-sponsors with their local CWS affiliate in resettling these refugees and helping them make the adjustment to life in a new country.  Other refugees will be arriving through a Special Immigrant Visa processing (up to 5,000 families are expected in Fiscal Year 2009) because they were translators and interpreters who assisted the United States.  They will also need the care of congregations.

Rationale:  Cultural and religious differences make it difficult for refugees to adjust to life in the United States.  Those refugees that have experienced traumatic events in their lives are additionally burdened in their ability to make the transition from their country of origin to their country of resettlement. 

Refugees who have a supportive American community can more easily make the transition to a new life within the context of the American culture.  UCC and Disciples congregations can offer support in:

  • providing a joyful welcome when their plane arrives in the United States; 
  • providing housing, food, and clothing;
  • registering children for school;
  • helping find jobs as appropriate to the skill level of the refugees as is possible;
  • providing needed health care, both physical and mental; and
  • providing friendship. 

The refugees arrive from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey.  There is also some indication that a few will be processed out of the American Embassy in Baghdad, without having to flee the country.  Legislation has been passed by Congress to mandate this processing, but a safe system has not yet been established to make this a viable option for very many Iraqis.

Some of the refugees being resettled will be Christians who have had to flee because of their religion.  UCC and Disciples congregations can be particularly helpful by supporting them in their faith journey as they transition to a new culture.  For those who are Muslim, UCC and Disciples congregations can be supportive in helping them gain access to their faith community by partnering with mosques in the resettlement process.

Because U.S. media is very interested in the resettlement of Iraqi refugees, care must be exercised in giving publicity about arriving Iraqi refugees.  Congregations can be helpful in protecting those who are afraid of the impact that media attention might have on relatives left behind and they can also be helpful in assisting those that want to tell their story to the American public.

Because CWS can resettle refugees only where there is a CWS affiliate within 50 miles, Iraqi refugees will be arriving to some or all of the following cities.  Congregations in these cities are urged to consider becoming involved in the resettlement of Iraqi refugees:

Phoenix, AZ
Los Angeles, CA
Sacramento, CA
Denver, CO
New Haven, CT
Miami, FL
Decatur, GA
Chicago, IL
Indianapolis, IN
Louisville, KY
Lexington, KY

Grand Rapids, MI
Minneapolis, MN
Omaha, NE
Lincoln, NE
Concord, NH
Buffalo, NY
Syracuse, NY
Rochester, NY
Greensboro, NC
Durham, NC
Columbus, OH

Portland, OR
Lancaster, PA
Knoxville, TN
Dallas, TX
Austin, TX
Ft. Worth, TX
Amarillo, TX
Houston, TX
Richmond, VA
Harrisonburg, VA
Seattle, WA

The following congregations have already resettled Iraqi refugees.  Their experiences can be helpful to other congregations exploring the possibility of resettling Iraqi refugees.


  • Central Christian Church, Lexington, KY (refugee couple)
  • Crestwood Christian Church, Lexington, KY (refugee couple)
  • First Christian Church, Portland, OR (special immigrant visa family of four)
  • Bethany Christian Church, Lincoln, NE (refugee family of four)
  • Crestwood Christian Church, Lincoln, NE (same)
  • CrossBridge Christian Church, Lincoln, NE (same)
  • East Lincoln Christian Church, Lincoln, NE (same)
  • First Christian Church, Lincoln, NE (same)
  • Havelock Christian Church, Lincoln, NE (same)
  • SouthPointe Christian Church, Lincoln, NE (same)
  • Southview Christian Church, Lincoln, NE (same)
  • Central Christian Church, Grand Rapids, MI (refugee family of two)
  • First Christian Church, Charleston, SC (refugee family of three)
  • Ashland Christian Church, Ashland, VA (refugee family of six)
  • Independence Christian Church, Ashland, VA (same)
  • Slash Christian Church, Ashland, VA (same)
  • Zion Christian Church, Beaverdam, VA (same)
  • Smyrna Christian Church, Bruington, VA (same)
  • Philippi Christian Church, Deltaville, VA (same)
  • Rappahannock Christian Church, Dunnsville, VA (same)
  • Ephesus Christian Church, Foneswood, VA (same)
  • Westville Christian Church, Mathews, VA (same)
  • West Point Christian Church, West Point, VA (same)


  • Congregational Church of Brookfield, Brookfield, CT (refugee family of three)
  • Spring Glen UCC, Hamden, CT (refugee family of three)
  • First Plymouth Congregational, Englewood, CO (refugee family of three)
  • UCC church sponsors of Iraqi refugees
  • Congregational Church of Brookfield, CT
  • First Congregational Church, Fairfield, CT
  • First Plymouth Congregational, Englewood, CO
  • Grace Immanuel, Louisville, KY
  • Plymouth Congregational, Grand Rapids, MI
  • Rock Spring UCC, Arlington, VA
  • Spring Glen, Hamden, CT

To become involved in the resettlement of Iraqi refugees contact:

Disciples –  Jennifer Riggs
Phone: (888) 346-2631 or (317) 713-2643

UCC –  Mary Kuenning Gross
Phone: (216) 736-3212

Recommendation:  Advocate for and support Iraq refugees who have fled their homes into neighboring countries and internally displaced persons still in Iraq, who should be offered protection and assistance until durable solutions can be found to their situations.

Background:  It is estimated that one in every six Iraqis has fled to seek safety.  With 2.2 million Iraqis living in precarious conditions in countries surrounding Iraq and with durable solutions (such as resettlement or returning home) available to only a few of them, Iraqi refugees need to be provided assistance and protection.  Another 2.3 million Iraqis are internally displaced within Iraq where 59% live in rented shelter (often without basic services), another 19% stay with relatives or host families (causing overcrowded conditions and placing a burden on their hosts), 7% live in collective settlements, and 7% stay in public buildings. The remaining 8% live in precarious situations such as tents, in camps or near host homes.  Refugee advocates call it the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis on the planet, deteriorating more quickly than Myanmar (Burma) or Darfur.

Rationale:  Most of the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees have fled to Jordan and Syria.  Others are in Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey.  A great burden has been placed on these countries and they are unable to meet all of the needs of the refugees within their borders.  Refugees in the region are increasingly running out of resources, running out of savings, and having difficulty paying their rent.

Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention.  That means that refugees in those countries have very little legal protection, are banned from working and are subject to changing requirements for entry or stay.  Syria introduced visa restrictions October 1, 2007, and Jordan closed its borders at the end of 2005.  About 50 to 60 Iraqis are arrested in Lebanon each month and given the choice of staying in jail or returning to Iraq.

Most of the Iraqi refugees would ultimately prefer the durable solution of returning home, but that is not possible at the present time, so to ensure the futures of their children in safe and stable environments, Iraqi refugees hope for resettlement.  Both the Iraqi government and the U.S. military acknowledge that Iraq is not ready to manage large-scale returns.  Between September and December 2007, 45,913 Iraqis returned from Syria, but almost 70% said the reason for their return was their inability to afford living in or find work in Syria.  Most of the returnees were male members of families investigating the local security situation before potentially returning with their family.

A few Iraqis are getting the opportunity for the durable solution of resettlement in third countries.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has, so far, identified about 17,000 as being eligible for consideration for admission to the United States based on dangers they would face upon returning to Iraq.  Sweden has taken 9,000 in 2006 and about 18,000 in 2007.  Many other countries are taking a few hundred.

Internally, the displaced are made up of 63% Shi`a Muslim and 32% Sunni Muslim.  Almost half of the members of Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities have fled abroad, but the religious minorities who are internally displaced are particularly at risk.  Christians remain especially vulnerable because they have much fewer possibilities to organize networks of protection for themselves. 

In 2007, the United States provided $171 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraqi refugees and those internally displaced.  In January, the United States announced a contribution of $20 million to meet the health needs of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.  The U.S. government is proud that it has provided almost one billion dollars in humanitarian assistance since 2003 for Iraqis in Iraq and neighboring countries, but these efforts fall far short of the real needs.  Advocacy is needed to urge the U.S. government to be as generous with the victims of war as they are in supporting the war. The President has requested only $764 million for the State Department’s Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) account for Fiscal Year 2009, only a portion of which will aid Iraqi refugees and internally displaced.  Refugee advocates are calling for the MRA to receive at least $1.7 billion.

The World Council of Churches Statement on Iraq and Its Christian Communities points out that the suffering of the Iraqi people remains largely unrecognized and unresolved.  The statement calls on WCC member churches to support displaced people inside Iraq and Iraqi refugees abroad.

The Disciples and UCC support refugees and internally displaced persons in Iraq through Church World Service (CWS) and Action by Churches Together (ACT).  CWS has worked in providing medical supplies to hospitals in Iraq.  Those supplies are helping 48,000 patients; antibiotic and analgesic drugs are benefiting 4,000 patients; and new equipment is helping 1,560 patients per day.  CWS is also working with others to build the capacity of Iraqi non-governmental organizations, providing them training in project monitoring and evaluation.  Additionally, CWS provides the food for about 88 families that are trying to re-integrate their institutionalized children back into family settings.

ACT (who works in the area through the Middle East Council of Churches, International Christian Orthodox Charities, and Norwegian Church Aid) has issued an $873,000 appeal to support refugees and internally displaced persons.  It is distributing food and hygiene items in Iraq, supporting two educational youth centers in Bagdad, building 25 shelters for vulnerable families in a remote area of Iraq, providing food assistance and winter coats to 600 Iraqi families in Jordan, and assisting 1,200 families in Syria.

To further support the work of CWS and ACT, Disciples should give to Week of Compassion and UCC members should give to One Great Hour of Sharing. 

Recommendation: Because the United States has played such a large role in the situation that initially displaced persons from Iraq, advocate for the United States to admit greater numbers of Iraqi refugees through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. 

Background: While people are flooding out of Iraq, Iraqi refugee arrivals in the United States are little more than a trickle.  Even so, that doesn’t begin to meet the needs of the millions of refugees in need of protection and the opportunity to start their lives over.

Rationale:  While several countries are offering resettlement opportunities to Iraqi refugees, the United States carries the largest moral burden for caring for those that have been displaced by a war carried out mainly by the United States. 

Local resettlement agencies in the United States report that they are processing thousands of refugee interest forms filed by Iraqi-American citizens seeking to sponsor their relatives who have fled Iraq.  For example, Chicago’s Assyrian community numbers close to 100,000 persons who originally came as refugees from the Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War.  The largest numbers of arriving Iraqi refugees are going to join family members in Michigan and California.

Increased security concerns of a post-9/11 world have complicated refugee-screening, which now requires cooperation among several agencies.  The resettlement process involves the United Nations, the U.S. State and Homeland Security departments, multiple security checks including those by the FBI and CIA, health screenings, the International Organization for Migration, and the efforts of U.S. voluntary organizations to work out the arrival details.  All of this can take from six months to a year.  In the meantime people live in precarious conditions.

Only those refugees who can prove that they have met the criteria of “past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution” because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinions can be considered for resettlement in the United States.  In the case of Iraq, minority groups (such as Christians) might meet those criteria easier than other groups.  Christians represent only four percent of Iraq’s population, but they make up 40 percent of its refugees.

Historically, there is a precedent for admitting thousands of a country’s refugees for resettlement in the United States.  The U.S. government has admitted a million Vietnamese since 1975, over 600,000 Russian Jews from the Soviet Union, over 150,000 Bosnian refugees since 1993, and 15,000 Kosovo refugees in the spring of 1999.  We have a noble history as a country of responding with generosity during refugee crises.  But we haven’t done that yet in the situation of Iraq.

Disciples and UCC congregations are urged to advocate for increased numbers of Iraqi refugees to be allowed the opportunity for resettlement in the United States.



Ms. Jennifer Riggs is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Director of Refugee and Immigration Ministries.  Ms. Mary Kuenning Gross is the UCC’s Executive for Refugee and Immigration Ministries.