As church groups look to help refugees and asylees, ministry that received direct encouragement from last summer’s General Assembly, one Louisville congregation continues to stand out as a possible model and inspiration.

Second Presbyterian Church has assisted the Amiri family since 2020, with the arrival of Raees Amiri and his immediate family. After the fall of Kabul in 2021, Raees’s brother and several children also arrived in Kentucky.

A third Amiri group arrived in late fall 2022, including three sisters. A recent celebration in the church library coincided with the end of the congregation’s direct financial support, although the church will continue to provide other kinds of help.

As Martha Nichols-Pecceu, a leader of Second Presbyterian Church’s refugee subcommittee, wrote in a recent email, “It's the next chapter of the Amiri story in Louisville.”

Video by Randy Hobson, Office of the General Assembly.

In a follow-up phone conversation, Nichols-Pecceu said, “As the Amiri family has grown in Louisville, our church family has also grown.”

Over 10 years the congregation has helped nearly 30 refugees, including persons from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria —war-torn nations like Afghanistan. Most of the church’s immigrant assistance has occurred since 2017.

Nichols-Pecceu said that just as the refugee subcommittee has learned more about making refugees comfortable in Louisville, “we have stepped up our communications with our congregation to keep church members connected with migrant families.” One church member created a photo scrapbook of refugee sponsorships that has been useful in strengthening church members’ awareness of refugees as individuals.

Second Presbyterian Church offers three months of rent to sponsored refugees. It also furnishes an apartment through donations and provides groceries for the first two weeks, as well as some clothing.

“We're better at knowing what items are needed and how to ask for donations, and that’s been helped by gaining even more trust in the congregation,” Nichols-Pecceu said. “After doing several resettlements it gets easier, although helping two Afghani families at one time did stretch us.”

Immigration paperwork is handled by the church’s area partner, Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Nichols-Pecceu said that the subcommittee helps some there too, calling caseworkers on behalf of families as they settle into the area.

“Maha Kolko at KRM has been a wonderful help, and we like to have her guide us and inform us. She encourages church members to step back when that might get in the way of a sponsored refugee’s growth.”

In the case of the Amiri family, Second Presbyterian Church has tried to teach family members to become advocates for themselves.

“In general, we try to get refugees to help refugees,” Nichols-Pecceu said, including navigating job searches and paperwork. The recent gathering marking the end of Second Presbyterian Church’s initial support to the new Amiri arrivals was a chance to celebrate the sisters’ growing self-sufficiency.

Even when language differences made it hard to converse, there was an eagerness from longtime and recent Louisville residents to get to know each other. “Church members brought up pictures of our families on our phones, and the sisters did the same,” Nichols-Pecceu said. “The importance of family is universal.”

Second Presbyterian Church of Louisville, January 29, 2023. Photo courtesy of John Ellis.

Second Presbyterian Church of Louisville, January 29, 2023. Photo courtesy of John Ellis.

Amanda Craft, Manager for Advocacy in the Office of Immigration Issues, encouraged congregations and individual Presbyterians to discern ways to help refugees and asylum seekers wherever they live. She detailed two overtures from last summer’s General Assembly that urge support for migrants at every level of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In addition to declaring the PC(USA) a “Sanctuary and Accompaniment Church,” the Assembly called for creating a network of immigration lawyers and interpreters to help with the complicated legal cases migrants often face. Accessing such help is crucial to many asylees’ chances of remaining in the United States.

“In Louisville, 10 years ago lawyers weren’t seeing many asylum cases,” Craft said. “Now lawyers are saturated with refugee and asylee requests.”

Legal counsel is not provided to asylees in immigration court, something Presbyterians can help with across the country. Afghan family resettlement continues to be a special challenge, in part because of congressional inaction to bring Afghan refugee status into alignment with that of refugees from other nations.

Craft praised Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) for working on the legal and interpreter network called for by the General Assembly overture, as well as the other assistance PDA provides to refugees and asylees from Afghanistan, Central America and other parts of the world.

Susan Krehbiel, PDA Associate for Migration Accompaniment Ministries, has followed the Amiri family story since 2020. In addition to coordinating PC(USA) humanitarian response and advocacy on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers and other forced migrants, Krehbiel coordinates with mid councils and local task forces to equip congregations. She is a board member of Church World Service, an ecumenical organization (of which the PC(USA) is a founding member) and national partner with KRM.

“PDA’s focus has always been the humanitarian consequences of people having to move. We take seriously our responsibility as a U.S. church in the global church family,” Krehbiel said, adding that the arrival of Afghan families in the United States after the fall of Kabul in 2020 created more goodwill toward welcoming Muslim refugees because of the direct relationships between U.S. military and Afghan citizens.

“But when it comes to long-term integration there are many hoops people of color still have to go through as migrants. Afghan refugees who arrived after the fall of Kabul were given a temporary humanitarian status instead of refugee status, changing the kinds of services available to them and requiring them to file for asylum in order to stay in the U.S.," Krehbiel said. "This creates both a procedural and emotional burden for them, waiting to hear if they can stay."

Amanda Craft (left) and Susan Krehbiel, Microsoft Teams, February 2023.

Amanda Craft (left) and Susan Krehbiel, February 2023 (Screenshot)

Craft and Krehbiel said that similar policies are impacting migration at the southern U.S. border, where policy changes have made it difficult for asylum seekers from Central and South America to enter the country.

“Just this week the Biden Administration announced a new rule that effectively bans most people from asking for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border,” Krehbiel said. “The U.S. asylum system is broken, putting people at risk of further harm, especially refugees and migrants who are from Africa and of African heritage.

“A big part of PDA’s work is helping local congregations and Presbyterians connect to organizations so they can be directly involved. We know that the U.S. immigration system is complex and how to get involved in refugee and accompaniment ministries can be confusing.  We want churches to connect with groups already doing that work instead of trying to start from scratch.”

Krehbiel pointed to Second Presbyterian Church as one model of refugee and asylee ministry.

“People from different cultures having cross-cultural relationships is key. Churches aren’t there to do for, but to do with. That means centering refugees themselves," Krehbiel said. "This is true in the way we provide humanitarian assistance and in our advocacy for more just refugee laws and practice.”

As Craft mentioned, PDA is developing a network of attorneys and people with language skills to assist individuals with their legal asylum cases, which it hopes to introduce later this year. It is also offering a brand-new discernment workshop for churches that wish to help refugees and asylees but are unsure where to start. Krehbiel encouraged any church looking to find out more to visit PDA’s website, or to email her.

During a recent trip to Eastern Europe, she was reminded of the universality of sanctuary and accompaniment work.

“We visited a train station on the border of Ukraine and saw what our partners in the Hungarian Reformed Church are doing, and how it was similar to what we do on the U.S. border," Krehbiel said. "Wherever you are, the human needs are the same.”

Accompaniment and sanctuary work can be trying for all involved because of the complexity and the challenges people face in the U.S. immigration system. “Right now in Texas, people helping migrants are under attack,” Krehbiel said. “It’s wearing on the emotional and spiritual well-being of volunteers.” 

As with the hardships, the blessings of refugee and asylee migration are shared.

“Integration is a two-way street,” Krehbiel said. “Healthy integration means we’re all changed by those connections. We use the word accompaniment intentionally because it is about our lives intersecting. I think of the Road to Emmaus. Jesus is with the travelers and after their time together all are changed.”

Cover of sponsorship scrapbook, February 2023. Courtesy of Second Presbyterian Church, Louisville.

Cover of sponsorship scrapbook, February 2023. Courtesy of Second Presbyterian Church, Louisville.

What’s next for Second Presbyterian Church’s refugee subcommittee? Nichols-Pecceu said the church is preparing to welcome a family from El Salvador, a country with which the congregation has a preexisting mission relationship.

She hopes other congregations will be encouraged by the experiences of her church, as well as other worshiping communities around the nation who are welcoming refugees and asylees. “We want other churches to feel empowered to do it and find a partner to work with,” Nichols-Pecceu said.

Craft pointed out there are more ways to be accompaniment churches than sheltering migrants or providing material support in your area. Congregations and mid councils can join advocacy campaigns at the state and national level, or provide support to refugee and asylum groups. Learn more about the PC(USA)’s immigration advocacy from the Office of Immigration Issues or by emailing the office.

Craft added that anyone can directly encourage this session of Congress to introduce and pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would help Afghan migrants on temporary statuses receive refugee status. See the Church World Service action alert from March 2022, which suggests writing to senators.

Other resource links:

Office of Immigration Issues: main page | advocacy and accompaniment | legal services

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance: refugee page | asylum seekers | congregation accompaniment toolkit

Second Presbyterian Church of Louisville: welcome page