Through the Eyes of a Refugee: The Mission Field Coming to Us

EvansHWebRefugee:  An outsider, a stranger.  Someone forced to leave their homes, their countries, and many times, their loved ones and families, for the purpose of finding safety in another location.  Our world has reached a staggering high for displaced individuals.  Time Magazine recently reported that 1 in 122 people is now a refugee, an internally displaced person or seeking asylum.  The average number of people displaced each day in 2014 was 42,500 (Time Magazine, Special Report.  Exodus.  October 19, 2015).

In 2014, I traveled to Rwanda with a team of psychologists, social workers, and counselors to meet with local caregivers, offering training in trauma healing. We visited the Kigeme Congolese Refugee camp.  As we walked through the camp, children greeted us and followed us around, holding hands. The conditions were humbling, sobering. Most of the camp’s 18,000 refugees had already lived there for two years—separated from their families and unsure when (or if) they’d be able to go back home. Yet, they sang of hope for return.

Just a year later, some refugees like those we met have made their way to us. The US plans to resettle approximately 50,000 Congolese refugees, and this year, 250 of them have already relocated to Kentucky.  I visited these new immigrants in Louisville, and as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I began to see their traumatic transition firsthand.   I saw my country through the eyes of a refugee.

I witnessed what it is like to start over with minimal to no resources.  Even the small percentage of refugees who make it to the US face seemingly insurmountable barriers.  In a new place and culture, they need to learn to navigate every area of life, from the marvel of accessing running water to the use of common household appliances.  We witnessed an organization, Gate of Hope Ministries, as they ministered to their city’s refugees by accompanying them to doctor’s appointments, translating for them at school meetings, providing cell phones or household items, advocating for  activities for their families, and guiding children and teenagers as they settle into American life.

We witnessed advocacy and empowerment. Nzeyimana, a Rwandan immigrant who works for Gate of Hope Ministries, provided us with a driving tour of Louisville, pointing out areas where immigrants live and sharing some of their stories as we traveled. She sees their trauma and her care for them is evident.  She provides listening ears and she advocates for them.

One example of Nzeyimana’s advocacy has been to create a space for a community garden.  “Africans are used to farms. We know they need a place to farm.” Nzeyimana and her friends found an empty lot in the city and organized a petition to obtain the land.  Next year, approximately fifty people will have opportunity for space in the garden, including individual plots and commercial sections which will yield produce that will be sold at a nearby grocery store and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Nzeyimana is also advocating for more mental health resources and greater collaboration among helping organizations.  She inspired a local church to organize a monthly clothing closet for donations.   In addition, refugees come to the US having endured great trauma from countries affected by war and from years of living in meager conditions in refugee camps.  She desires to become more equipped to address the trauma so many refugees have experienced.

We witnessed the joys and challenges of cultural and familial interaction in a new context.  Refugee parents are raising children in a culture that is not their own.  Children become affected by two cultures.  They may sacrifice some of their family’s culture in order to assimilate and be accepted by peers, but they may feel torn between two identities.   As we visited three families, each taught us something about the joys and challenges of interacting with more than one culture.

We visited with one family including two parents and 7 children who had arrived in the US 2 weeks earlier.  Within their first week here, they were already learning how to access emergency medical services for one of their children.  I sat and talked with their 18 year old son who seemed lonely and eager.  He shared some of his observations about American culture, and expressed his fear of being here and starting new.  He said, “This is like coming to the Promised Land.  I just wish I could go back and visit my friends, even for one weekend…” I tried to befriend him, inspire and encourage him, and to give him hope.

Another visit included meeting a father and 2 of his 8 children.  His wife was working, and we learned that due to physical challenges, he is unable to work.  Gate of Hope Ministries’ staff member, Nzeyimana, challenged him to find support to share his history and the trauma he has endured during his life, thinking this may alleviate some of his physical symptoms.  As we sat in a dark room, I helped his 10-year-old daughter with her homework.   She was struggling with her school work, and I encouraged her to persevere.  Later I learned she has a learning disability and has only limited support from her school.

Finally, we met a woman who arrived 1 year ago and recently moved to a new apartment.  She insisted on cooking for us, an example of her seemingly unlimited hospitality.

We witnessed opportunity.  Why have I never truly put myself in the shoes of a refugee in the US?  Driving in a rental van with a Rwandan woman devoted to this ministry and accompanying her during these visits gave me an inside perspective on the refugee crisis impacting our world.   It was a sobering privilege to see firsthand the challenge of relocation, the cultural tensions, and the suffering many refugees carry with them—and to offer a small measure of kindness by listening and helping.

Refugees carry with them stories of trauma and loss that add significant challenges to their transition.  Clement Zenko, a Rwandan trauma healing caregiver, explains:  “It is very difficult to imagine the situation of a refugee. They have run to escape danger, often unexpected . . . . Take an adult person and put him in a situation of a baby immediately after birth. He is naked, nothing in his hands, nothing in his pocket.  Anyway, we can’t talk about a pocket because he has no clothes, no bank account, no property, and he is alone.”

As a person from the US attempting to support a refugee family, sitting in a bare apartment with people who speak a different language and who come from a different culture can be awkward and daunting. To serve an African family in your own town does not include the glamour and adventure of traveling to foreign country. It requires far more dedication and staying power than a one or two week mission trip. But this, my fellow Christians, is our call to practice hospitality. God has called us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19, 20) and this is the mission field coming to us.  It is here in our midst.

I asked Nzeyimana what type of contact their ministry has had with US churches.  She respectfully gave an example of asking support for one specific project:  “You know how it goes with big churches.  Sometimes there is bureaucracy and it takes a long time to make a decision of what they can do and whether or not they want to do it…”  Meanwhile, the needs exist.  An 18 year old is lonely, reluctant to leave the house and to meet new people, longing to play soccer.  A 14 year old with learning difficulties needs someone to sit with her and help her experience accomplishment in an area of her life.  A woman raising her nieces and nephew needs someone to encourage her to endure when she is weary of parenting adolescents.  A man needs encouragement in finding a job, a woman in navigating the grocery store.

There are barriers like language and cultural difference, but my visit to Louisville proved that these barriers aren’t enough to keep us from the opportunities to follow Christ’s example as we seek to love the sojourner (Deuteronomy 10), practice hospitality, show dignity, and learn. To provide a point of connection during a fragile time of relocation is to equip and empower the receiver, the giver, and the country we can now both call home.

How would Jesus respond to refugees? He understood the journey of a refugee.  He left his home.  He was a stranger.  He was rejected.  He came so that he would “gather those who are cast out, heal those who are brokenhearted, clean and heal wounds, and lift up the humble (Psalm 147:2,3,6).  The Body of Christ joins Christ’s mission because to follow Him is to not only love the aliens and strangers, but to remember:  this is not our home.  We, too, are temporary exiles, waiting for our true home.

How to help. This blog seeks to describe the needs of refugees around our world and near our own communities. Opportunities and needs to support refugees in the US and around our world will only increase in the months ahead.  Each of us needs to consider our response.  To consider how you may assist refugees:

  • Learn about your local refugee population.

  • Find agencies in your area that sponsor refugee resettlement. Identify needs and opportunities to support these agencies.

  • Volunteer as a co-sponsor to support and assist refugees in their adjustments to our communities.

  • Assess resources available to those who have relocated. Resources should include what will assist and equip refugees with their spiritual, emotional and physical development.  Where there are gaps in resources, consider how you, your family, your faith community,  or others in your sphere of community influence can fill this need.

  • Consider a role beyond giving money or short-term contact. Offer the value of a long-term commitment of friendship.

Heather Evans, LCSW, has been a social worker for over 14 years.  She serves as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in a private counseling practice in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. She is also Co-founder and Chair of Aftercare Team of VAST (Valley Against Sex Trafficking) Coalition in the Lehigh Valley, PA.  Heather has been a member of NACSW since 2001.

Social Justice and Black Mama Trauma: The Social Workers’ Role

Pamela B.The past several years has been rife with racial tension resulting from what some perceive as the unjust killing of several black teenaged males.  From Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown and beyond, cries for both justice and peace have ascended to heaven and to the high courts of our land.  Those who have lamented the most are the black women who birth black boys, the inconsolable women who suffer “Black Mama Trauma.”  This reaction of Black mothers evokes the ancient text, “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:28). These Hebrew mothers also experienced the lives of their boys being snuffed out because of a miscarriage of justice,  though in this case as the result of a “legal” order of a pharaoh and king.

“Black Mama” is an endearing epithet for women in communities of the African Diaspora, who are the parents of Black children, whether biological or fictive.  They are momma, big momma, auntie, and grand-grand. They are the women who enfold the young in their arms to comfort them when they are heartbroken or physically ill.  But they are also those who scold sternly in the way that Toya Graham did.

The video of Toya Graham[1], the mother caught on camera scolding her son during the Baltimore riots went viral on the Internet and was shown repeatedly across the network news shows. Here was a traumatized Black mama acting out the pain triggered by her fear that her unarmed boy was going to be gunned down by the police.  By almost any metric, what she did wasn’t appropriate.  In fact, the state of Maryland launched a child protective services investigation because of her hitting her son repeatedly in the head on national television.  Still, social workers know that hers was a visceral response.  When she recognized her son headed into the midst of trouble, this black mama had a gut-level intuitive reaction.  “If I can just beat some sense into his head,” one can almost hear her say, “I can keep him away from the bullets that seem to only target black men – unarmed black men.”

Social workers know what happens when trauma goes unacknowledged, when the struggle to heal must happen in the context of denial of injury. With regard to walking alongside those on a healing journey, Christian social workers have a “peculiar” calling.  Consider the story of Rizpah in the Hebrew sacred text.

In Samuel 21:10, after King David allowed her sons to be sacrificed as political pawns, Rizpah refused to allow them to be further humiliated in death. The text states she was there for an entire harvest season.  She was there by day to ward off the birds and by night to keep away other predators.  She could not have done it alone.  There had to be others.  As social workers, we must be those others supporting and at times relieving Black mothers from the fight so that they can take a healing breath.  We must help mothers of slain black bodies challenge the social norms  that promotes the killings.  And if the killings do occur, we must metaphorically stave off the vultures and other scavengers.  How do we do that?

We advocate for social justice.  We insist that the media not denigrate their sons in death; we lobby legislators for the passing of just laws and repealing of unjust ones. We provide trauma-informed mental healthcare.  We ensure that we abide by the second ethical principle identified by the NASW, which is that social workers challenge social injustice (National Association of Social Workers, 2007).  It is in both the challenging of social injustice and the application of the social workers’ ethical responsibilities that will contribute to the healing of Black mama trauma.

Pamela A. Bridgeman, LCSW,, has been a member of NACSW since 2005. She is currently in private practice in Cartersville, GA, and is a part-time instructor in the Kennesaw State University School of Social Work and Human Services.

[1], 2015

Spiritual Leadership

In my 22 years as a professional social worker, I have benefited from the friendship, wisdom, and mentoring of Catholic sisters who are among the most credible and authentic witnesses to the transformative power of God’s love and action in the world.

Last summer I attended  a conference entitled “Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times” to celebrate the release of a new book of the same title from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). In addition to leading their own congregations, Catholic sisters lead social service agencies, advocacy organizations. universities, hospitals, schools, and many other initiatives which typically address very complex social challenges within an institutional-context. They walk a similar path to social work (many of them are social workers), and have much to offer to our profession in terms of models of organizational leadership. Given their objective to further the mission of the gospel in today’s world, their way of leading has particular resonance for Christian social workers.

Exemplifying humility in her keynote address, Sr. Marie McCarthy, SP shared that “Women religious did not set out to develop a way of doing spiritual leadership. [They] set out to live their lives with authenticity – faithful to our call, rooted in prayer, and deeply grounded in gospel values.” So for Christians, spiritual leadership requires living our call as fully and authentically as possible, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-4).

Sr. Marie noted that this way of leading is not really a model or style of leadership. She said it is “a set of dispositions, a way-of-being-in-the-world that, when fostered in the leader, contributes to creating an organizational environment in which deep, authentic transformation of the individual and of the whole is possible.

This set of dispositions includes:

  1. Taking a contemplative stance or “taking a long a loving look at what is.” A contemplative stance lays aside seeking, grasping, and prejudging. It can awaken us to in new ways of seeing and give authenticity to how we assess and respond to a range of situations, contexts and challenges. Sr. Marie says that a contemplative stance is “the heart of a leadership that is both spiritual and transformative.”

  1. Centrality of relationship: Conjoined with a contemplative consciousness is a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of everything , and the importance of being in right relationship to self, others, God, and all of creation. If we take the centrality of relationships seriously, we will better tend to the interpersonal dynamics in our organizations, task groups, communities and staff teams. We will see the role of leadership as a function of the whole and may be better able to practice inclusivity, collaboration and collegiality where “the group leads together, and the leader helps the group articulate and tend the vision. ” 

  1. Solidarity with those who are poor and marginalized: In her 2012 Presidential Address, Sr. Pat Farrell, OSF identified solidarity with people who are poor and marginalized as crucial to the prophetic voice of leaders. She offers that standing in solidarity with the poor situates us in the truth, keeps us honest, and gives us hope as we live in exile. (Leaders, especially prophetic leaders, often find themselves in exile.) When speaking of those in poverty, she asks rhetorically “Have they not taught us… resiliency, creativity, solidarity, the energy of resistance, and joy?” Being in solidarity with people who are poor informs how we engage as leaders with our organizations and communities; it calls forth the prophetic voice in each of us.

  1. Seeing Process as Fundamental: Taking a contemplative stance, the centrality of relationships, and standing in solidarity with people who are poor make clear that process should be central to our work. This can be particularly challenging for leaders who need to “get things done.” But part of leadership involves “living the questions in a discerning way.” And we can live these questions together in the community of our agencies, staff teams, task groups, or wherever two or more of us are gathered to help build God’s Kingdom on earth.

These four pillars of spiritual leadership deeply resonate with me as a social worker who strives imperfectly to live life, both personally and professionally, that is faithful and authentic God’s call for me. In this fast paced, technology-driven world, it is challenging to slow down to take a long and loving look at what is, to make space in our day to tend to relationships, and to take time to process with others our experience and direction going forward. For leaders who may be removed from the day-to-day experience of people in poverty, it is challenging to be intentional about making these connections and experiencing people who are poor and marginalized as partners in healing the brokenness in our communities and our world.

The articulation of these elements as components of spiritual leadership offers an important reminder (and pathway) for leaders that following basic Christian principles in our professional spaces (e.g., all people have dignity, the relational aspect of God, preferential option for the poor, the importance of prayer), will help us walk the talk of justice and leadership in the workplace.

Linda Plitt Donaldson is an Associate Professor at the Catholic University of America, National Catholic School of Social Service (see her faculty profile). She teaches courses in social policy, macro practice, homelessness, and social justice. She has been a member of NACSW since 2008.

No Fear of Bad News

Sherri S.Two days ago I was caught off guard by a post about ISIS putting men in a cage and lowering it into a pool to drown them. They made sure to have underwater cameras to film the agony and fear of their final moments of life. I am appalled and sickened – and if I’m totally honest, I am also afraid. There is no end to the horror and I sometimes wonder if the entire world has finally lost its collective mind.

As a social worker I know I need to be aware of what is happening in the world around me. After all, these are the things I am called to address. As a human being, however, I often find myself wishing for that one little corner of the world to which I can escape and never have to hear another news broadcast for the rest of my life. In my fantasy this is a little island in the South Pacific where the weather is always perfect and the sharks are well-fed and friendly. They bring breakfast to your little hut every morning in a canoe and there is nothing to do all day but swim and sun and fish and eat and sleep. Anyone want to book that vacation with me?

Do you ever look around you and think, “What is the point? I’ve spent ten (or twenty or thirty) years working to make the world a better place and it’s just getting worse every day.” Or, “What difference have I really made?” If we’re realistic, though, we know we’ll never change the whole world. I’m not sure we’re actually called to do that. We are called to the work for which God has equipped us. For some of us that is policy reform and change at a macro level. For others, it’s one-on-one work – the kind  that transforms the world for one person. That may not seem like much, but when you consider the potential ripple effects of a transformed life, it is staggering.

God’s plan to redeem the world has been in place since before he created it. Nothing in history has been able to derail that plan. Nothing. No insane, sadistic leader. No war. No natural disaster. No falling away of God’s people. There has always been a remnant that holds fast to the hope they have in Christ. Hebrews 11 is testimony to all those who trusted and believed.

This is all stuff we know and have heard our entire Christian lives, so why write about it now? Because if you’re like me, sometimes even when we trust in the promise, we get tired and overwhelmed. Sometimes we need to be reminded that in the grand scheme of things our job is not to change the world in our own power. Our job is to stand in the gap and stay faithful even when things seem hopeless. Even on days when we view the horror that people inflict on one another.

I believe that God often lets us view the fruits of our labor so we don’t become discouraged. I also trust that while we work in this earthly realm, God and the forces of heaven are doing battle in the heavenlies to bring about his purpose.

We must keep working, yes. But we must keep our focus on the One we serve. When I focus on the news and the things meant to strike fear into our hearts, I become afraid. Those forces of evil can begin to seem unstoppable but God has not given us a spirit of fear. In fact, the most frequently given command in scripture is “Do NOT be afraid!”  There are no extenuating circumstances where that command does not apply. None. Not poverty, not hunger, not homelessness, not cancer or AIDS or Ebola. Not even ISIS.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the scripture in Romans 12 that tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. If you are struggling with something right now, I urge you to camp there for a while and let God do His thing. For me, the transformation comes when I take my focus off those fear-inducing things for a while and instead of dwelling on defeat and despair,  I let God draw me to worship and praise. God is busy in the world, never caught off guard, and He is the unstoppable One!

Thank you for your service, wherever you are. Thank you for standing in the gap even when you get tired and discouraged and afraid. God esteems that and will bless you for it. Let’s remember to pray for one another. That is the foundation of all we do. As for all that bad news…

“He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.”  Psalm 112:7

Sherri Stone is a hospice social worker in the panhandle of Florida. She blogs about hospice at and about life at She is also a writer with a book about hospice and grief in the works. Her debut fiction novel, Sacred Ashes was released in May and is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Book two in the series, Secret Sins, is due out later this year.

Growing Use of Technology in Social Work: What Do Ethics Have to Do with It?

Nick Cross

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) last updated the Social Work Code of Ethics in 2008. As a point of reference (1, 2) that was when the Wii Fit and iPod Touch were released and the year Hulu launched. It was also the year that the Apple App Store was created and the year the Android operating system launched.

Yes, a lot has changed in 7 years.  And at a rapid pace. A document like the Code of Ethics is supposed to transcend time and be applicable in a variety of settings.  At its core, the Code does provide the ethical standards needed to thrive in today’s social media and Internet crazed society.  However, reading through the Code of Ethics, there are very few references to anything “electronic.” In the edition of the Code prior to 2008, there was one reference to technology in the Informed Consent section, and another in record keeping. Nothing has been added since.

As with other areas of social work practice, NASW created a “Standard of Practice” for technology.  The NASW & ASWB Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice was published in 2005.  I highly recommend reading through it at some point.  NASW has published many blog posts and other articles related to social work practice and technology, but nothing that would carry the same weight as these Standards or the Code of Ethics.

To me the below quote from the introduction really summarizes the entire document:

“Social workers should acquire adequate skills that use technology appropriately, and adapt traditional practice protocols to ensure competent and ethical practice. “

Below I’ve written a one sentence summary of each of the 10 Standards of Practice.

Standard 1 – Ethics and Values - Social workers should act in an ethical manner abiding by the NASW Code of Ethics.

Standard 2 – Access – Social workers should advocate for clients to have access to technology.  This also means that social workers need to present their services in an accessible manner.

Standard 3 – Cultural Competence & Vulnerable Populations - Remember that when you can’t necessarily see the client you are serving, you might not see the nuances of non-verbal cues and/or cultural barriers to treatment.

Standard 4 – Technical Competencies - Social workers should “become proficient in technological skills and tools required for ethical and competent practice.”

Standard 5 – Regulatory Competencies – Social workers are liable for laws governing their home state and the client’s home state relating to practice and any laws governing your method of communication.

Standard 6 – Identification & Verification – Make it easy to verify your identity.  And obtain offline contact info for your client.

Standard 7 – Privacy, Confidentiality, Documentation, and Security – Make sure you get informed consent related to technology usage in your agency and takes steps to safeguard data.

Standard 8 – Risk Management – Have proper infrastructure in place to protect yourself and clients.  Risk management, document everything and backup your stuff!!

Practice Competencies

Standard 9.1 – Advocacy & Social Action – Use technology to help advocate for clients, both collective advocacy and case advocacy.

Standard 9.2 – Community Practice – Social workers should be aware of technology and advocate for its use when it could improve the community or their client’s situation. “Social workers should strive to ensure access to technology and the benefits of technology for all members of the community.“

Standard 9.3 – Administrative Practice – Social workers should be aware of and implement technologies that can improve the administrative functions of an organization/agency.

Standard 9.4 – Clinical Competencies  - Social workers should understand how the dynamics of the Internet are impacting their clients, including feasibility for online interventions. How does using technology impact (good or bad) the client?

Standard 9.5 – Research – Research using technological tools should follow ethical standards and use informed consent to ensure privacy, and use technology tools that allow for high credibility.

Standard 9.6 – Supervision - All rules and laws governing supervision remain in place if using online supervision.  Supervisees should be aware of licensing requirements and standards for online supervision.

Standard 10 – Continuing Education – Online continuing education is valuable but participants should be aware of rules related to continuing education credits and verify validity of hours. Providers of continuing education should take steps to verify identity of practitioners and accessibility of content.

There is a lot to think about and dig through within NASW & ASWB Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice. I hope you take some time to dig deeper on your own. How have you applied these Standards within your current practice? What are some areas that you have questions about?

This post was edited from a published article by Nick Cross in NACSW’s July, 2014 issue of Catalyst. Nick Cross, LGSW, is a School Social Worker in Minneapolis and Social Media Consultant. He has been a member of NACSW since 2003 and can be found on Twitter at @mps_crossSSW.

Sharing thoughts for Christians in Social Work