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World Renew
Photo by World Renew

Peter Vander Meulen says he considers the photo of a three-year-old boy who recently washed up on a Turkish beach to be “almost like a holy icon.”

The image and story of the boy sprawled on the sand as waves roll in captured the pain and sorrow — for all the world to see — of the current crisis of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, says Vander Meulen, coordinator of the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice

The boy was escaping with his family from the war in Syria when the boat in which he was riding capsized.

“That picture is almost like a holy icon that gives a window into another universe that many of us don’t get into,” says Vander Meulen. “This photo encapsulates the tragedy that is going on in Syria and Europe.”

Thousands of refugees have been flooding into Europe in recent months, escaping fighting that rages between factions in Syria.

Some countries such as Germany have offered new homes to the refugees, while others are refusing to help.

As Europe seeks to cope with the crisis, the CRC is joining the effort to resettle additional refugees in the U.S. and Canada. In addition, OSJ is advocating with other groups for the U.S to boost the number of refugees that can come into the country, says Vander Meulen.

“OSJ has been deeply involved in this issue for many years. We support resettlement and groups that do this work,” he said.

Because of this, his office has been getting calls from churches all over the denomination asking how they can help, said Vander Meulen.

He notes that three things are badly needed: Advocating for the rights and needs of refugees; financial support for this ministry of advocacy, and active sponsorship to resettle refugee families on the part of more CRC congregations.

OSJ has recently issued an advocacy alert and needs signatures on a petition to increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the U.S. That alert can be found here.

Gifts to support the ministry of resettlement and advocacy are welcomed and can be easily given via the OSJ web page.

If churches in Canada are interested in resettling a refugee family, Vander Meulen says, OSJ refers them to World Renew, the CRC’s resettlement agency in that country.

In the U.S., OSJ refers people to the CRC’s resettlement partner Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, Mich., which has been resettling refugees since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

Deb Hoekwater serves at Bethany as the CRC’s “sponsorship developer” and can help churches in West Michigan work through the various stages of sponsorship for a refugee family or unaccompanied minor.

She can also link churches in other areas to resettlement agencies that can help. To connect with Hoekwater, email dhoekwater@bethany.org or call  616-965-8082.

After finding sponsors and volunteers to assist in the resettlement process, Bethany recently brought four Syrian families to live in West Michigan, said Dona Abbott, who is responsible for Bethany’s resettlement programs in Grand Rapids.

Abbott said she estimates her organization will be able to resettle 25 Syrian families in the coming months.

That number may change, she said, if the U.S. government raises the number of Syrian refugees it allows in the country.

President Obama on Thursday increased the number of Syrian refugees that the U.S. will admit from fewer than 2,000 this yeart to at least 10,000 in the fiscal year beginning in October.

In coming weeks, Obama and Congress will likely be talking of making that number larger as European countries try to respond to the flood of refugees crossing their borders.

“In our work, we depend on the response of the faith community reaching out to help,” said Abbott. “It is affirming and a blessing to see that that is already happening.”

Abbott says Bethany will continue to resettle refugees from other areas such as the Congo and Eritrea at the same time it ramps up its program to assist families from Syria.

The civil war in Syria has been going for nearly six years and shows no signs of stopping, meaning the refugees will continue to leave and in many cases they will have a hard time ever going back, said Abbott.

Of the recent Syrian families that have come to Grand Rapids, she said, several of the people show signs of the trauma they endured escaping Syria and then finding their way to a haven in one of the European countries.

“We are seeing significant medical issues. We see people suffering long-term damage from violence and even torture,” she said.

Despite the challenges these and other Syrian families face, she says, churches are stepping up to help. She is also convinced that the faith community, in West Michigan and beyond, will continue to do its part.

“Our’s is a Christian nation and sets an example of how a Christian nation responds when there is a refugee crisis in the world,” she said.

To explore how you can help refugees and find a range of resources, visit www.worldrenew.net/refugees.