With the Syrian crisis spinning out of control, a group in Charlotte springs into action to serve those fleeing. By Deb Blackwood
They come—an elderly couple slowly walking down the driveway … a mother with a preschool child … neighbors chatting softly—they come to learn, to acclimate to this new city and country. They come as refugees resettling in a new home. As I walk into the reception area of Galilee Ministries of East Charlotte, an elderly couple smile and we exchange a quiet greeting with bows and a smile: “Good morning, Namaste,” all three of us recognizing the grace and humanity of the other, meeting here in a space created to serve.
The latest refugees are those seeking asylum from the civil war that started in Syria four years ago. Since the war’s outbreak, more than 200,000 people have been killed, and nearly 4 million people have fled Syria. Another 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country, bringing the total number forced to flee their homes to more than 11 million—half of the country’s pre-crisis population, according to information from Episcopal Relief & Development. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is currently developing a plan for taking in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.
As a country, we have almost become inured to the plight of those fleeing their own country by the constant barrage of media coverage—an NBC reporter talking on camera when a young pregnant woman a few feet away fainted, streams of frantic fleeing refugees clamoring at the hastily erected razor wire barricades at country borders. So many, so desperate, so determined.
North Carolina accepted 2,000 refugees last year, with over 600 of them finding resettlement options in Mecklenburg County. More than one third came from Burma, where the prevailing Buddhist-influenced government has singled out the Chi, a people who have faced persecution, extrajudicial killing, and forced labor.
In January 2014, Bishop Anne Hodges-Copple convened a meeting of Episcopal deacons of the Charlotte Convocation to see how needs of the people in East Charlotte—many of them these new refugees—might be met at the former St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church facilities on Central Avenue. Over the course of the next year, the group expanded to include other clergy and lay members representing a number of Episcopal congregations in the county, and conversations expanded to include service providers, advocates tor the east side, and people with experience working in that most ethnically diverse part of Charlotte. Galilee Ministries of East Charlotte is the result—the living resurrection of Christ’s presence in that space, in which we are drawing on resources and people in the East Charlotte area to serve refugees, immigrants and low-income residents of the area.
Six months after opening, and on a chilly fall morning, Galilee Center is alive with the sound of English classes and neighbors arriving at the Help Center with school forms or landlord issues. Loaves & Fishes volunteers are working with the Galilee Center coordinator to get an emergency referral for food for a Latino family. The back parking lot is filled with neighbors picking up hot peppers gleaned from a farm in Concord, and there’s extra excitement because there’s also fresh fish today. Church volunteers are greeting everyone with a hot cup of coffee or tea, and a hug and a bow, and some English practice. The colorful flags of 72 countries hanging in the “flag hall” (formerly the parish hall) are matched by the colorful saris and brilliant hijabs of the women who bring their children for reading with the library volunteer who’s come today. Later, elementary kids will come to do homework and to be tutored. And a small group is meeting in the gathering room to plan a crafts circle for fellowship, English practice, and just maybe a little bit of extra income for families.
Most importantly, the gift of hospitality is being shared, and love and hope are in the air.