It had been a very long and exhausting flight from Cairo to Chicago for the Syrian family who had fled to Egypt from their war-torn country two-and-a-half years earlier. When the parents and their five children landed on December 3 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, they were warmly greeted by about 15 people connected to First Unitarian Church of Chicago, including seven children who held welcome signs decorated with hand-drawn American and Syrian flags.
When the parents and their children, ranging in age from an infant to a teenager, arrived at an apartment that volunteers from First Unitarian Church furnished for them, they were presented with a hot meal from a local Middle Eastern restaurant and a refrigerator stocked with culturally appropriate groceries. While one little girl quickly fell asleep in her new room, Richard Farmer, who had launched the congregation’s Syrian Refugee Task Force just a few months earlier, taught the 16-year-old son how to use the wi-fi network and TV.
“Neither I nor the boy spoke a word of the other’s language, but gestures and demonstration were all he needed to learn everything,” said Farmer.
A church Facebook post showing photos of the furnished apartment went viral: within two days, it was seen by 75,000 people, said the Rev. Teresa Schwartz, who is the church’s senior co-minister along with her husband, the Rev. David Schwartz.
More than 80 people have joined the congregation’s refugee task force, including non-UUs from the church’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Schwartz said. “It has been one of my deep joys to witness the enthusiasm, commitment, and service of my people living their UU values in the world” through this effort, she said.
The congregation will continue close support for the family. “The next six months is about making them feel welcome and helping them thrive in this new environment,” said Farmer, including scheduling tutors to help the children with schoolwork and assisting the parents with finding jobs.
At least two other UU congregations in the United States have also committed to sponsoring Syrian refugees, while in Canada, 25 congregations—more than half of the Canadian Unitarian Council’s congregations—are directly sponsoring Syrian families, with most of the rest making financial donations to support the others.
Unity Temple UU Congregation in Oak Park, Illinois, is working with RefugeeOne—the same agency that is partnering with First Unitarian Church in Chicago—to sponsor a family, said its minister, the Rev. Alan Taylor. It has located and furnished an apartment and raised $8,000 to cover rent and other basic expenses for a year, and now is waiting for the family to arrive. The Rev. Howard Dana, senior minister at First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, recently contacted Taylor with good news: one of his congregants heard of Unity Temple’s plans and wanted to send in a large donation. Unity Temple is planning a fundraising appeal in late January in hopes of sponsoring one or two more families, Taylor said.
The Washington (D.C.) Ethical Society, which is also affiliated with the UUA, has organized a volunteer group that will be helping a Syrian family get established in the Silver Spring, Maryland, area, according to the Rev. Amanda Poppei, the society’s senior leader.
In Canada, where newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had promised to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas, half of the country’s Unitarian congregations are assuming formal sponsorship of families. The Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) is a Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holder under Canadian law, which means that UU congregations can privately sponsor refugee families from war-torn countries by committing to support their financial and moral well-being. While it appears Trudeau’s goal won’t be met by Christmas Day, the country is nonetheless expecting 10,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end, said the Rev. Shawn Newton, minister at First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto.
First Unitarian Congregation, which allowed American draft resisters to live in the church’s parish hall during the Vietnam War, became an early leader in assisting Syrians last February, when the congregation voted unanimously to host a Syrian family. The Toronto congregation now has committed to sponsoring five Syrian refugee families, each of which includes children. “This is part of the congregation’s long history of commitment to taking in people,” Newton said. In Canada, “there’s a deep awareness that pretty much everyone besides the First Nations are refugees, or at least immigrants.”
Sponsors in Canada are required to raise C$40,000 in a combination of in-kind donations and cash for each family of four to cover their expenses including rent and food for one year, the period of official sponsorship, said April Hope, CUC’s social responsibility coordinator. UU efforts to help Syrians “has people walking into our congregations in droves, like we’ve never seen before,” Hope said. “It’s opening doors to communication about what we are as Unitarians.”
Each of the five families sponsored by First Unitarian has been assigned a team of 10 to 12 congregants who will help them find schools for their children and take other practical steps towards settling into their new city.
First Unitarian has partnered with the Muslim Association of Canada and the downtown Toronto Mosque to raise the required funds and to settle the families in the city. So far, the partnership has raised C$230,000, with four or five donors making donations of C$10,000 each, Newton said. In celebration of their interfaith work, they are having a joint halal dinner at the church this month.
The congregation’s first family, a young couple with two toddler daughters now living in Lebanon, is expected to arrive any day, and he expects all five families to be in Toronto by February.
As the Syrian civil war heads toward its fifth anniversary, today there are more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees, over 3 million of them women and children, according to the UU Service Committee, which has raised $400,000 so far to assist them.
Despite increasing Islamophobia worldwide, notably a pledge by presidential candidate Donald Trump to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., many UUs are promoting a very different message. UUs in the Houston area, including many members of Bay Area UU Church, which stands next to a mosque, rallied in support of their Muslim neighbors on December 4. UUA President Peter Morales, who attended the rally, said, “The enemy isn’t Islam, or any other religion. The enemy is the radical fundamentalism that defines one group as the ‘good and pure’ and everyone else as bad.”