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Maryland leaders discuss refugee welcome at regional Interfaith Dialogue

Sunderland, MD-- Nearly 150 leaders from across Maryland filled the Mt. Hope Community Center in Owings on Sunday afternoon for the community interfaith dialogue:  “Compassion for Our Neighbor: Standing with Refugees Here and Abroad.”  The event featured expert panelists, faith leaders, and round-table dialogues about the international and Maryland-specific situation of refugees and immigrants and today’s needed community response.

One panelist, Casey Leyva, the Associate Director of Resettlement for World Relief, shared the gravitas of the international situation:  “In 2015 alone, 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes, the equivalent of 24 people during every minute of every day.  This is the most number of people displaced since World War II.  Only the most vulnerable refugees are eligible for resettlement in another country, and the United Nations, not the individual, decides where the refugees will be settled.”

Clergy from the 3 Abrahamic faiths--Judaism, Islam, and Christianity--related their religion’s approaches to compassion, hospitality, and solidarity for these individuals who are some of the world’s most vulnerable.  Reb. Betsy Roth, rabbi at the Jewish Congregation Beit Chaverim of Prince Frederick, recounted the story of the patriarch Abraham, who is remembered for his compassionate welcome to guests from foreign lands: washing their feet, offering shade, and providing a hearty feast.  Roth’s words were read by Roberta Safer: “These acts of Abraham once reflect how we as humans are created in God’s image.  God is a giver and so, we too must learn to emulate God and give.  Giving is a learned, not an innate, behavior.” 

In recounting the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan, Rev. Nicholas Szobota, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in West River, noted that the responsibility of compassion for the neighbor transcends the boundaries of national identity, ethnicity, and belief:  “ ‘All’ must truly mean ‘all people,’ regardless of their particular faith or other cultural identities.”  Imam Aamir Sheikh, leader of the Masjid AlAnsar of the Islamic Society of Annapolis, 
shared that Islam calls individuals to practice hospitality and for people to create a society that is hospitable:  “Central to our faith are acts of the heart that make great differences in the lives of others: selfless deeds, leaving behind jealousy, and providing so that migrants and complete strangers have what they need.”

Dr. Patricia Maclay, representing the Steering Committee for Montgomery County Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Neighbors (MCIRRN), was selected as a panelist to offer a “boots on the ground” example of how neighbors in Maryland have recently organized to support refugees.  Marclay said that in October 2015, in the wake of the well-known photos of children refugees, leaders in Montgomery County gathered to build an infrastructure that “supports America’s commitment to welcome refugees.” Now, a mere 13 months later, the Montgomery County Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Neighbors, or “Neighbors” for short, involves 20 interfaith and community groups, and has sponsored 16 refugee families from 5 countries.

Pat Shannon Jones, Director of the Immigration Outreach Service Center (IOSC) described that organization’s 16 years of work with immigrants from 114 countries: “We walk the journey of all those who come to us.  We provide legal services, long-term direct services, and commit to raise the voices of immigrants to power.  We have listening sessions, build relationships, and together carry those voices to our elected officials and anyone else who needs to hear the voices of immigrants.”

Listening, sharing, and relationship-building occurred around the 12 round tables on Sunday as community dialogue followed the panelists’ presentations.  People who were previously strangers discussed: How do your core beliefs or faith guide your response to welcoming action?  What change do you want to see within 100 days? and What goal should this regional group attempt next?
Matthew Tate, pastor of Emmanuel UMC and co-President of the Calvert Interfaith Council: “What is so important about an event like Sunday’s is to be able to hear the stories of stranger.  To hear someone's story is to recognize their humanity. If we don't see the stranger as human, it becomes that much harder to love them.”  

Owen Brown, a panelist and President of IOSC, shared “If you ask any immigrant about their greatest concern, other than getting their status adjusted, their greatest concern is fear. Fear is simply not knowing what is and what isn’t.  So, although most of us gear around providing tangible support to immigrants, we also need to address the fear factor that most immigrants carry with them as they attempt to lead their normal lives.”

Brown urged: “The voices that tout the disadvantages of the illegal immigration system are louder than those that tout the benefits of the legal immigration system.  I urge you to educate yourself about both systems.”  Maclay used humor address what she called the “elephant in the room,” concern about refugees being dangerous: “Refugees go through a 9-step vetting process before entering the country. 

Many people ask: should we ban refugees because we are afraid they are terrorists?  Every day 3 or more women die of domestic violence; do we ban relationships? You are more likely to be killed by dogs than a refugee; do we ban dogs? Heart disease is the number one reason for deaths in our country; do we ban bacon? Since 9/11, the statistics of a refugee causing harm to an American citizen is...drum roll...zero.”

Calvert and Anne Arundel County interfaith and community organizations and congregations have been working together for over a year, including organizing this event to deepen relationships, educate, exchange ideas, and create collective power for solutions.  Leyva stated “The President and Congress do have the ability to reduce, slow or cut the program of refugee resettlement.  I don’t know what they’ll choose. But we’re working and praying for favor and ask that you do the same.” 

Planners of the event emphasized raising up the next generation of leaders better equipped to practice compassion, hospitality, and solidarity.  Twenty youth and children, including youth from refugee families, gathered separately in the Mt. Hope facility for youth-oriented activities on the same topic.  Susan Mandile, a teacher in Calvert County public schools and a member of Broadview Church, led the youth activities: “The kids had to think about what it would be like to be a refugee, to suddenly find out that they would have to leave their home.  They had to decide which route to take, what few items to take in their backpack, and what it would be like to live in a new place.”

Dr. Mehmet Saracoglu, Director of the Rumi Forum in Maryland and co-moderator for Sunday’s event, reflected “The timing and context of this program was significant.  We looked not only at the refugee crisis from a global and a local perspective, but also challenged ourselves by referring to our faiths, morals, and values. I believe that, in Rumi Forum`s Honorary Chairman, Fethullah Gulen`s words, one day, ‘fists clenched with anger will turn into warm hands embracing others, and humans will once again discover their own ascending values.’ "

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