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Amid COVID-19, Creating a Beloved Community for All

When there is a crisis, people that are already pushed to the margins feel the effects tenfold.

The transition to the United States is difficult for refugees and asylum seekers who are escaping dangerous situations to resettle and build a safe new life for themselves and their families. The COVID-19 pandemic is only exacerbating the already thin safety net of transitional support.

“Housing is tenuous, work is tenuous, securing food is tenuous for people who are newcomers. We knew when the crisis hit the population at large, that meant this community would be hit even harder.  This community does not have reserves. This is not a matter of living check to check or week to week. For the people we work with, it is day to day.”

Rev. Deborah Lee is the executive director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, where she has been on staff since 2009. She was first compelled to join this work when, as a youth minister, she saw how immigration policy was harming young people and separating families. Working at the intersection of spirituality and social movements, Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity mobilizes congregations to take a stand on issues of social justice like immigration and mass incarceration. It brings communities of faith together with people on the front lines who are targeted and excluded to form a beloved community. Together, they determine the actions to make sure people can thrive and that human dignity is being elevated.

Victor Aguilar and Hugo Aguilar, released detainees, embrace in front of the detention center. Rev. Deborah Lee, background, celebrates with them. (Richmond, CA, 2018)

In the last five years the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity has supported over seventy asylum-seeking families in their transitions. Now, in the pandemic, the organization is finding ways to help people survive even as resources are hard to come by. The San Francisco Foundation provided a $10,000 grant that has helped activate volunteers to do virtual accompaniment, helping newcomers navigate services and resources in a way that is safe for new families and for the volunteers, connecting through email, phone calls, WhatsApp and texting.

There are many lists of resources in circulation, but for a newcomer, questions arise trying in to navigate them— from questions simple as, is this address near me? am I eligible?— to determining if filling out the form will put the person in danger. The virtual accompaniment provides navigation support for resources in the near-term, and for determining what long term support looks like.

In addition to service navigation, the personal connection helps create a network of moral support. Often times refugees and asylum seekers are not only carrying the weight of loss of income that they are experiencing here, but are sources of remittances and survival for family back home. It is another layer of stress on top of the current stretched circumstances.

“Immigration can feel remote for people that have not experienced it,” Rev. Lee explained. “We try to make it real by creating moments where people meet each other and where people that have firsthand experience can be respected and heard.”  Every month Interfaith Movement holds a prayer vigil in front of ICE in downtown San Francisco (currently happening virtually) during which people who have lived experience with the immigration system can share their stories. Recently, someone who just won release from immigration detention shared his experience of losing a year of life in detention and facing the risk of dying of COVID-19 in the facility.

“What keeps me going is the love and connections with people, survivors of these policies of institutional racism. Their resilience, courage and spirit is food for the soul.”

Advocacy work is a core part of this, Rev. Lee explained. It is not a choice. As policymakers are already making decisions about what the Bay Area, state and beyond will look post-COVID-19, they are advocating to have people at the table that are most impacted by the crisis and policies to help create the solutions.

“We were here before COVID we will be here after COVID. We are part of the civil society and will continue to advocate for human dignity and human rights. We know it may be someone else excluded next time, so how do we keep pushing for policy that aligns with our values of inclusion and equity. How can we keep pushing the needle forward towards deeper understanding?”

Read the original article on the San Francisco Foundation‘s website.