With the worldwide refugee crisis reaching historic levels, Memphis is playing a role on a smaller but still important scale. Multiple organizations are helping the 200 or so refugees who are relocated to Memphis every year.
Much of the attention on the worldwide refugee crisis is centered on Syria, and rightfully so. Since the beginning of fighting in Syria in 2011, some 4.6 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Over the past year, 1.1 million refugees arrived in Europe. But only about half of them are from Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in its most recent annual report released last summer showed the number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to 59.5 million, up from 51.2 million the previous year. Globally, one in every 122 humans is either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum.
In Memphis, there are just 19 Syrians, including Mahmoud Al Hazaz, whose story was reported by High Ground last month
The Syrian crisis began in 2011. Refugees have been coming to Memphis since 1975 through Catholic Charities, and since August 2012, via World Relief Memphis.
Steve Moses has worked with refugees for 10 years. He is the office director at World Relief Memphis and is part of a team of 12 that brings in some 200 refugees a year to the city.
That number is middle of the road, he said, noting some U.S. cities get many more. Refugees come to Memphis from all over the world, including Somalia, Iraq, the Congo, Nepal, Afghanistan and Sudan.
“Most Memphians don’t understand that we really are more than a black and white city,” Moses said. “I heard we have five Ethiopian restaurants and you know what? They’re run by Ethiopians. We’re the fifth-fastest growing state when it comes to immigrants. Our cultural intelligence needs to grow as a city, but as far as loving people we’re great.”
Love was the foundation for Renee Lamb when in 2012 she decided to bring Peace of Thread to Memphis. Lamb knew the organization’s founder in Atlanta.
The concept is simple. Peace of Thread empowers women who have come to the U.S. seeking refuge from war, persecution and poverty to make a new life for themselves and their families. Peace of Thread provides jobs for women to create hand-made purses and bags. The items are sold at events around town and select retailers, including Miller Station in Senatobia, Bingham & Broad and The Rev on Brookhaven Circle.
“Most women don’t have an education or even if they do it doesn’t really apply here,” Lamb said. “There are cultural differences and language barriers. These women when they get here they have had struggles. This is one way we can help. We live life with them.”
Peace of Thread trains the women to sew 15 pieces with fabric it provides that is donated by businesses and individuals around Memphis. The women take sewing machines home where they basically operate as subcontractors.
“We’re just helping teach them how to have a business,” Lamb said. “We’re teaching them empowerment. This is a hand up, not a hand out. We want them to do bigger things than what the government does.”
Lamb’s desire to help refugees began in 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq and she saw how women and children were caught in the middle of the chaos. She started collecting food and volunteered to go to the country that summer, but a bombing canceled her trip.
So her efforts shifted to Lebanon and she began spending two weeks a year there working with refugees from Iraq and eventually Syria.
What Lamb saw was only the tip of the iceberg of what’s occurring in the region today, including Europe, which is the entry point into the western world for refugees from African nations and the Middle East.
The growth in number of asylum applications in Europe since 2010 shows how the crisis has skyrocketed. In 2010, there were 208,380 applications. It was 562,675 in 2014. It more than doubled to 1.2 million in 2015.
Of those 2015 applications, 357,000 were from Syria. And while Syria is only part of the overall refugee story, a focus on what has occurred there since 2011 is telling.
A UNICEF report in July 2015 looked at the refugee crisis there and its effect on children. It found that before the conflict, almost all children attended school and the literacy rates were above 90 percent. By mid-2015, four out of five Syrians were estimated to live in poverty and 7.6 million were internally displaced.
The unemployment rate neared 60 percent. Some 2.7 million Syrian children were out of school, the report found.
Children often work six to seven days a week doing everything from farm work and working in shops to begging and prostitution.
In short, a whole generation of humans will be lost to what could have been possible.
In the U.S. “we only became aware of it around Labor Day when a (Syrian) boy washed up in Greece, but it’s been going on for four years,” Moses said about Americans’ slowly building understanding of the crisis. “The U.S. has taken on 280,000 refugees and only 2,000 are Syrians.”
When refugees arrive on U.S. soil they face many barriers, with language a big one.
“People ask all the time how does someone get from Somalia or Iraq to Memphis,” Moses said. “It’s a long, year-long process. Once they get on a plane we get an email. We have to find them housing. Help them enroll in school, English as second language classes.”
Refugee Empowerment Program began in 2002 in an effort to empower the refugee community by encouraging, educating and equipping individuals, families and the refugee community at large. The organization offers programs that focus on after school, summer and adult education.
What started in a room at Leawood Baptist Church with 12 children has grown to include an after-school program with 200 pre-kindergarten to college age students.
English as a second language is a big focus, but general literacy is the overall theme. Rhodes College developed an ACT program for high school students, for example. A mentorship program is always in need of individuals who can give a one-year commitment.
The organization also works with the ESL teachers in every school the students attend so they can help with any issues.
“I don’t think people in Memphis realize how diverse it is,” said Cam Blackmon, Executive Director of Refugee Empowerment Program. “Come to Binghampton or Poplar at Hollywood and see women in African garb, then you begin to say, ‘Wait, where are they and where do they come from?’ We have a diverse city and we aren’t aware of it. … We need to think about all the people here and their needs. To be pilots and doctors and struggle to come to this country.”
There are many ways Memphians can help on an everyday basis, from volunteering to be a mentor to donating fabrics to Peace of Thread.
“The reality is one refugee said years ago, ‘We’re not asking Americans to add us as a program on your calendar,’” Moses said. “We’re asking people to invite them into your life and walk along with you. We’re trying to get back to hospitality. That means loving strangers.”
Lamb said there are many basic needs to help refugees acclimate to the U.S. quicker. She recalled an in-home visit where Peace of Thread was training someone to sew. She quickly saw how hard it is to acclimate, even in the most basic ways.
“It was so hot in the apartment in the summertime,” Lamb said. “She had never switched the thermostat from heating to cooling. Most women in the program came out of Africa. Most lived in the bush or a village. They cooked over fire in a pot. So there are a lot of things that come with being a refugee.”