Editor’s Note: the author is the co-founder of No Poor Among Them, which brings Latter-day Saint approaches to ending poverty.
On February 9, 1846, Hosea Stout (former Chief of Police of Nauvoo and bodyguard to Joseph Smith) stood on a small, frozen island in the middle of the Mississippi river with his sick and nearly drowned family, and watched as their beloved Nauvoo temple burned. They had just left their home behind, driven out by mobs that, as Hosea put it, “had graciously annulled the Bill of Rights in favor of the Saints.”
Nine months later, at Winter Quarters, Hosea wrote:
“One-half of my family, so dear to me, has been consigned to the silent grave. We who yet remain have often been brought to the verge of death. Often in storms and rains I have stood trying to hold my tent from uncovering my sick family — expecting every moment to see them exposed— which would have been certain death.
“Often I have lain and contemplated my own sickness and feeble situation without food for myself and family and death staring me in the face. I could only contemplate what would become of them in case I was called away. How often I have beheld my family— one by one— yielding up the Ghost, warning me of what may follow. How often in sorrow and anguish, I have said in my heart: ‘When shall my trials and tribulations end?’ But amid all these adverse changes and heart-crushing trials [I have never] regretted that I set out to follow the counsel of God and to obey the spirit to flee from the land of the gentiles.”
By the time he reached the Salt Lake Valley, Hosea had buried a wife and three children.
Fast forward to 2013, downtown Salt Lake City, at the offices of Catholic Community Services’ Refugee Resettlement Program. As I’d done many times before, I sat across the desk from an incredibly endearing family from Nepal. Their English was surprisingly good, considering they’d been in a refugee camp for the last several decades, waiting to find a new home. With a smile on my face I welcomed them to Utah as one of their new case workers.
As I sat with them, I pointed to a black and white picture on my wall of a man whose face was a map of hardship and grief. I said, “This is a picture of my ancestor, Hosea Stout. He also came to Utah as a refugee. As his descendent, I have a profound gratitude for what he survived in order to find a peaceful life for his family. I know that you, like him, are incredible survivors. And I sincerely hope Utah will treat you as well as it has treated us.”
Mormon pioneers were, by definition, refugees. They fled their home due to severe persecution, crossing an international border in search of safety and peace. Their plight was so similar to that of today’s refugees, that I could easily create the world’s hardest (and most heart-wrenching) game of “Who said it?” right here on this page, if I were to pull in random quotes from Mormon pioneers and modern refugees. In other words, we, as members of the LDS Church, should be the first ones off the starting block when it comes to supporting and welcoming refugees. It really is that simple.
Honestly, the Church has done a fantastic job of bringing the plight of refugees to light, especially over the last year and a half, since the incomparable Relief Society General Presidency echoed Brigham Young’s famous imperative to ‘bring them in from the plains’ (cue the Nancy Hanson song). And many good LDS folks have answered the call.
But we can do better.
These incredible survivors, who have often faced torture, trauma, death of family members, and other horrors we can only imagine, have very understandable needs. We may not all be able to help with some of the big stuff—jobs, counseling, etc.—but we can definitely help with the small, yet vital, stuff. Refugees often end up in the shadows, in our own communities but invisible, working two or three jobs but never really making friends. This isolation is the last thing they need, or should be suffering, when they’re in our own backyard. The community of Saints. The land our ancestors called Zion.
It’s our job to reach out to them and show them what we really believe.
To get started, here’s what the Church recommends (and I agree):
- Get informed about the needs in your community
- Volunteer with an organization you admire (IRC, CCS, or Asian Association of Utah)
- Make a new friend
- Do something you enjoy with someone new
- Invite someone to your family night
- Try some of these great ideas
Seven Challenges Refugees Face (which you can help with):
- Learning a new leanguage
- Building a new support network of friends
- Understanding different cultural customs and practices
- Providing the appropriate academic support for their children
- Accessing basic services, such as medical care
- Finding transportation
- Securing employment
You can also donate directly to these organizations, and even help those refugees who haven’t been resettled (that’s about 99% of them), and who are still in dangerous situations. One of the highest-rated organizations that I’d recommend is the International Rescue Committee. They are on the ground in vital areas, such as Syria and Yemen, where millions of children are suffering. You can donate directly to them here.