Refugees find solace through Northside church

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By Alexandria Stryker

A joint effort between the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church and Northern Area Multi-Service Center is creating opportunities for the Northside’s newest residents — refugees from Africa, southern Asia and the Middle East.

The organizations have created the New Neighbor program to help refugees apply for their lawful permanent resident status after living in the United States for one year. A collaborative volunteer effort, the program came about when Christina Powers, the program’s supervising immigration attorney, met a NAMS employee who told her that a lack of on-site legal services had created a backlog of citizenship applications. Powers approached the Allegheny church’s Reverend David McFarland about the issue, and New Neighbors was born.

NAMS, an organization that provides a variety of community services in the Pittsburgh area including refugee resettlement, refers clients to the church for help with legal paperwork. They review each refugee’s background and refer only those who are likely to be successful to the program — there is an “extremely high bar,” said Powers, as the federal government approves less than 1 percent of these types of applications. The refugees, who vary in age from infancy to elderly, hail from all corners of globe, including Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq, Burma/Myanmar and Namibia, according to Powers.

Volunteers meet at the church and assist by reviewing the forms with clients and confirming information for submission. As many of the refugees do not speak English fluently, NAMS-provided interpreters act as transcribers and translate word-for-word for both the clients and the volunteers. The church has hosted six workshops and completed about 60 applications so far, but since it typically takes between six to eight  months for papers to be approved, one of the program’s refugees has received resident status and the rest of the applications are being processed.

According to Shane Freeman, head of the church’s Justice League, the program has been running since late winter of 2016 and currently holds one to two sessions per month. Although volunteers were originally drawn from the congregation, word has spread about the event, and people from different congregations or with connections to the Allegheny church’s members have become involved, Freeman said.

The program is in line with Unitarian Universalism’s particular emphasis on social justice activities. Although the church’s doctrine is drawn from a number of religious and intellectual sources, their principles include a recognition of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” according to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s website.

Freeman projects the church will continue the program “as long as we’re needed” and clients need help. He noted that the nature of the work entails that, if possible, “we want to put ourselves out of a job” in the long run.

Interested in participating in the New Neighbors program? Email justice@alleghenyuu.org or visit the church’s Facebook page to get in contact with staff about volunteering.

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