How Church World Service is welcoming refugees in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County
Written by Brad Jenkins

First Pres’ November mission focus is Church World Service, a global organization with a Harrisonburg office. CWS began in 1946 in the aftermath of World War II . The organization is a faith-based group transforming communities around the globe through just and sustainable responses to hunger, poverty, displacement and disaster. Refugee resettlement forms the basis of the group’s work. CWS in Virginia empowers refugees, immigrants, and asylum-seekers as they rebuild their lives in safety and security.

First Pres has been working with CWS to co-sponsor an Afghan refugee family since March. The family includes a single mother and her four children, along with her brother and wife and their two children.

We asked Emily Bender, the Harrisonburg office’s communications director, more about the group’s work.

How has Church World Service been involved with Afghan refugees following the 2021 evacuations?

In August 2021, the world watched the largest humanitarian evacuation in United States history unfold live on our televisions. CWS in Virginia responded swiftly and compassionately by building our capacity (adding staff and opening a new office) and working with volunteers and community partners to serve new Afghan neighbors arriving to the Shenandoah Valley. Since then, we have served hundreds of Afghan arrivals, providing food, clothing, and a safe place to call home as well as employment and legal services. CWS Virginia’s Legal Counseling staff continue to meet with new Afghan neighbors to identify legal options and advise on next steps. Because Humanitarian Parole is a temporary immigration status, it does not have a path to permanent residency. Legal Counseling staff are providing initial consultations to discuss immigration legal options for Afghan neighbors. Through the Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) program, CWS Virginia provided evacuees reception services, housing access, food, clothing, access to health care and public benefits, school enrollment for minors, cultural orientation and limited financial assistance.

What challenges are newcomers to our community facing?

Refugees are ordinary people facing challenging circumstances. Just like you or me, they dream of a promising future, hope for safety and dignity for themselves and their families, and desire freedom and the chance to enjoy basic human rights in a stable home. Nobody chooses to be a refugee. Refugees have been forced to leave their home country because their lives or safety are at risk. Under international law, a refugee is defined as a person who has left their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Refugees might experience fear or grief or frustration because of the overwhelming challenges they may have had to face. But every day, we witness refugees demonstrating resilience and courage despite the enormous undertaking of rebuilding a life. Virginia is deeply enriched by the individuals who have chosen to work hard, create, and thrive here, no matter where they are from. It is our responsibility to continue our legacy of hope and hospitality by offering help to those who have fled their home countries in search of safety.

Any stories stand out from your work during the past year?

One thing that comes to mind is the celebration of the arrival of several new American citizens who were born here shortly after their parents arrived. We are so glad that they made it here safely since otherwise they would have been born into very unstable and dangerous conditions.

How can we pray for you and partner with you?

I would just ask the church to pray for the needs of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide and in our community. I would ask for prayers to bless the work of Church World Service as we speak words of welcome and act together to extend hospitality to strangers. We know the Shenandoah Valley is a place of welcome and hospitality. But it takes many of us working together, whether that’s giving financially to protect refugee resettlement from the threats of unreliable federal funding, volunteering to form new community networks for new arrivals or really just investing however we can in the wellbeing and safety of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.