Learning to Welcome Refugees at the LCMS National Youth Gathering | LIRS
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Learning to Welcome Refugees at the LCMS National Youth Gathering

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Katie Gowan LCMS NYG volunteer
Katie Gowen, in orange, introduces the Syrian refugee experience to participants as they begin the simulation.

Katie Gowen, a young adult who volunteered with the LIRS experiential learning space at the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod National Youth Gathering, reflects on her experience in this guest blog post. LIRS staff and volunteers led groups of youth through a simulation of what Syrian refugees have endured trying to reach safety.

Over a year ago, I applied to be a young adult volunteer (YAV) for the 2016 Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod National Youth Gathering in New Orleans. It was my first time attending as a volunteer, and not as a participant.

I never expected my life to change so drastically and quickly. I never thought, “this experience is going to change my life.”

Participants are informed that their town is under attack and they have seconds to grab whatever food, money, passports, and clothes they can fit in their bags.
Participants are informed that their town is under attack and they have seconds to grab whatever food, money, passports, and clothes they can fit in their bags.

A month before the Gathering, I was assigned to work in the convention center and was placed with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) Syrian refugee simulation.

I will say that before this experience, I had no strong opinion on the refugee situations going on in our world. I would say that if anything, I had a few safety concerns about these refugees coming in. I thought about the overcrowding and the potential terrorism. I still had no strong opinion, but I could see the argument from both sides.

refugee flight simulation
Youth crouch down during “daytime” when it is dangerous to flee, as they navigate the obstacles in the refugee flight simulation.

I went into the week with an open mind, slightly disappointed that I wasn’t working with the huge inflatable bounce houses. On first impression, the LIRS team was incredible. They were kind and excited for the week. They made sure that the six of us YAVs were well prepared. They walked us through the experience and asked if we had any questions. I heard some of the facts about refugees and was shocked, but hadn’t really processed everything yet.

The next day we got there to help run the experience for groups of participants. We each got a script and were instructed to tell groups that came in what happens to refugees at various stages of their journeys. As I read off the facts to these youth, I started to feel more and more impacted by the words I was saying. Throughout the day, we YAVs took turns at different stations, explaining different parts of the refugee experience. For three days we shared with countless groups the facts about what refugees go through.

Simulation UNHCR refugee camp
Youth enter a tent made with a UNHCR tarp and see the supplies, including jerry cans for water, that a refugee family would receive.

Did you know that many refugees have less than a minute to leave their house when fleeing violence or persecution?

Or that they’re not even considered refugees until they’ve crossed an international border?

What about the fact that 82% of refugees don’t live in camps because there isn’t enough room for them there – so they have to live in urban slums in surrounding areas?

Did you know that half of refugees are children?

Children can’t sleep at the edges of tents in fear that they will be kidnapped and sold to human traffickers.

There can be up to 250 people sharing one bathroom.

Often there’s no formal education.

On average, refugees are there for 17 years.

Imagine living as a refugee yourself. To travel onward, you risk the journey to another country. You may have to pay a smuggler to get you there. If you take a boat, you hope that you have enough money to pay for life jackets.

Syria simulation rubber boat
Sitting in a raft, participants hear about the dangerous sea crossing many Syrian refugees attempt to try to reach Europe.

If you hope to resettle in the United States, it takes a minimum of 2 ½ years to get through all of the processing and screenings.

Take all of this information and imagine saying it over and over again for seven hours. I tried to not burst into tears thinking about the 20 million refugees currently living in those conditions in camps and slums around the world. The second night I was at the mass event and I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I cried for about twenty minutes. I felt so moved by the Holy Spirit to reach these kids and adults and open their hearts and minds about what refugees experience over the course of their journeys.

Lengthy security clearance process explained
In front of a poster detailing each step of the security clearance procedure, an LIRS staff member describes the lengthy process each refugee undergoes.

The next day, I went back to repeat the facts to participants. I just hoped and prayed that they would be as touched by it as I had.

One of the most memorable moments was when two girls who were going through the simulation saw how emotional this entire experience had made me and gave me a hug. They told me that they were impacted by the experience. Hearing that made the long hours and the lost voice so worth it.

Poster of Leviticus 19:33-34
In the “Hall of Welcome” a participant reflects on the biblical call to welcome the stranger while reading Leviticus 19:33-34.

It struck me to see people enter this experience without an opinion on the subject, much like me, and leave feeling moved to help refugees. I didn’t come to this experience saying, “this is going to change my life,” but in the end, it did. I may not have had a strong opinion in the beginning, but I definitely do now.

I plan on doing what I can with LIRS for as long as I can and to be a person who welcomes refugees. After all they’ve been through, they need someone there to welcome them with open arms. Especially as Christians, we need to show the love of Christ.

If you are interested in learning more about refugees, please consider participating in Refugee Sunday with your congregation. You’ll find resources like videos, sermon notes, a fact sheet, and refugee quiz to help plan your Refugee Sunday event.

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