Five Ways Americans Can Help Refugees Right Now


Displaced by war, violence and poverty, hundreds of thousands of people are at this moment searching for a better place to raise their family and build a life. Today we have a guest post from Mallory Sutika-Sipus, specialist in international migration and human rights law who brings several years experience working with displaced populations from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo and elsewhere.

Five Ways Americans Can Help Refugees Right Now

By Mallory Sutika Sipus

It is nearly impossible to look away from news of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, as shocking images and stories of refugee deaths and exploitation comprise a 24-hour cable and radio news loop as well as a host of viral social media stories. I’ve spoken to several friends and acquaintances outside of the human rights and forced migration communities who are in the grips of trying to process and understand the issues surrounding the crisis. Seeing images of such suffering might have you wondering what you might be able to do to help reduce refugee suffering in some small way. There is a list going around the internet that includes places to donate, etc but it is admittedly a bit Eurocentric. Unfortunately the refugee crisis is not a strictly European phenomenon and there are some things Americans can do right now to help refugees – without leaving their own communities.

1. Educate yourself on what it means to be a refugee.

Generally speaking, refugees are people who were forced to flee their home country out of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This official definition of refugee was determined by the 1951 Convention on Refugees. Today, refugee law also includes the 1967 protocol as well as a body of case law. You do not have to be a lawyer to understand refugee basics though! With so many resources out there, you can spend 5-20 minutes reading the Cliff Notes/FAQ version or just poking around the UNHCR website. In doing so, you will gain a better idea of the context of the refugee crisis, putting you in a position to effectively engage others.

2. Respectfully challenge ignorance of others

Now that you understand what a refugee is, speak up when you hear other spew ignorance and hate. It can be intimidating, especially when others may speak with arrogance. No one is asking you to ruin your friendships, but you can still stand up for what you believe and correct misinformation. Refugees are not “illegal immigrants” because the 1951 Convention specifically grants that protected class of people the right to seek asylum. Moreover, I encourage you to challenge the conceptions of refugees as poor, lazy, or monolithic. The truth is that many (if not most) refugees are among the middle or even upper classes in their home countries – after all, it takes resources just to even attempt to leave. The poorest and most vulnerable are often left behind trying to survive the conflict. Refugees are homeowners, engineers, doctors, teachers. Refugees are grandparents, brothers, and children. Refugees are people. Help others internalize this.

3. Write your Congressman/woman, and ask them to stop refugee child detention in the United States

It is easy to look and Europe and think, “My goodness, what are they doing?” It may be more difficult to look inward at our own policies towards refugees. Unfortunately many Americans have a blind spot with regards to refugees and immigration here at home. It is standard practice to place asylum seekers in the US in “detention processing centers,” – prisons – sometimes for months on end, until they are found to meet the legal definition of a refugee. Thousands of unaccompanied minors have come into the United States and are currently in institutions such as these. If you want to take action to help refugee children today, one of the best things you can do is call, write, or email your Congressman and tell him/her that you are watching their actions on the treatment of these children. Urge them to actively pass legislation that takes asylum seekers – especially unaccompanied children – out of detention immediately. So many of these children have already survived nightmarish circumstances, let us help them begin to heal instead of treating them like criminals.

4. Donate to an organization that works with refugees directly

If you are able and willing to make a monetary (or goods) donation, do so. Obviously, you are always able to donate to big organizations like UNHCR or Save The Children, but also consider the less obvious. Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) does good work directly in the field while maintaining an impressive devotion to their message and neutrality. St. Andrew’s Refugee Services in Cairo and small grass roots organizations like them are a worthy cause. Church World Service also has a variety of refugee related activities throughout the world. As long as you do your research, chances are you will find an organization that will put your money into programming you believe in.

5. Reevaluate your perception and interaction with refugees in your own community

One would be hard pressed to find a major metropolitan area without refugee community members. Surely they are in your own community, but have you given it much thought? You do not have to run out and volunteer with a local organization that provides integration services. (Though by all means, if you feel compelled – do! Such organizations are always chronically short staffed and underfunded, so they would likely appreciate a free set of hands, even for basic administrative tasks). Challenge the way you think and interact with unfamiliar people in your community. Adjusting to life in a new country is always complicated and somewhat intimidating – America is no different. Maybe you have been annoyed with the woman who seemed to be holding up the grocery checkout because she struggled to understand the clerk speaking English. Or maybe you have avoided a store or restaurant where you know the employee is from “somewhere else.” Remind yourself that we are all from somewhere else, and offer a smile. Reach out and have a conversation when it is appropriate. You never know where that person has been or what their story is, but offering patience and kindness instead of fear and animosity will only make your community a better place – refugee or not.