Forced displacement is a growing and urgent global crisis. A multitude of conditions, including religious persecution, force people from their homes to pursue safety and the well-being of their families. As the worldwide refugee crisis becomes increasingly dire, churches have an opportunity to profoundly affect displaced people by extending compassion, hospitality, and advocacy.
Tariq is a refugee from Pakistan who arrived in New York City in 2007. Upon arriving, he connected with an SBC church that helped him settle and assist his family in joining him in the United States. Tariq and his family started a ministry in their neighborhood that serves immigrants in getting settled and integrated into life in the United States. I had the privilege of interviewing Tariq about his family’s journey.
Tell us about your experience in Pakistan before you moved to the United States?
In Pakistan, I worked for a nonprofit called CARITAS, a Catholic organization that serves impoverished communities with assistance in development and poverty alleviation. I worked to coordinate agriculture development and identify community needs to figure out how the nonprofit could help them. Some more extremist groups in Pakistan were opposed to the organization I worked for because it was faith-based. I began receiving threats that if I didn’t cease my community work, I would be killed, and my family would be harmed. My family started receiving threats as well.
In Pakistan, there are blasphemy laws that are used to persecute religious minorities. These blasphemy laws are often abused. Christians, as well as other minority religions, are often falsely accused. If two people can confirm someone has broken the blasphemy law, an individual can be thrown in jail, even executed, and are often attacked by mobs.
How did you come to the United States?
Given the threats against my family and me, I decided to flee Pakistan to the United States while my family moved to another place in Pakistan and went into hiding to avoid threats. In 2007, I applied for a visa through my job at the nonprofit. I was connected with someone in New York City who worked for the organization. It took a while to get all of the paperwork confirmed, but I moved to New York once I received my visa.
What was your experience like when you arrived in the United States?
I felt like a stranger because I was in a new country and didn’t know anything about the city. Thankfully I met a friend from Pakistan who gave me a place to stay for the first year.
I got connected through a reference to a church called New Hope in Queens. They prayed for my family and me to be able to be reunited. They prayed for me to get a green card and for my wife to get a visa, and both of those eventually happened. They encouraged me.
They also paid my rent for several months while I could not find work and invited me to share my testimony at church. After a few years, they helped me earn my Master’s degree and begin my career in social work.
When my wife arrived with our first child in 2010, she felt we should start an organization that could help people in our same position. That year, we created a nonprofit in our community called International Community Care Foundation. Our objective was to support new immigrants to the United States in order to empower them, build their links to communities and churches, and help them adjust to a new home. We also sought to help people who were being persecuted back in Pakistan.
How do you serve other immigrants in your community?
Our church helped us to start our community organization by supporting us financially and with volunteers. We host an ESL program, a children’s program, we connect immigrants to job opportunities, and we help them apply for green cards and citizenship. We have helped over 40 women train in English and eventually get connected to jobs. All of our programs are hosted in our apartment complex.
We started the children’s program when we realized some moms could not attend because they were watching their children. At the children’s program, we teach English and math, share Bible stories, and put on fun activities.
The community of immigrants who join us is diverse. We have Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and people from South Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
What would you like people to know about those who are seeking asylum?
In many countries like Pakistan, life is tough for groups that are persecuted. You are very vulnerable because the blasphemy laws are set up to be used against you at any time. Often women are forcibly converted. It is very dangerous and frightening to be persecuted, but it also puts you in a situation where you lack financial opportunities and often lack basic needs like food. Also, being in that situation can affect your faith, and Christians need encouragement to persevere. I would love to see more people from the United States support and encourage those persecuted worldwide. There are organizations that you can support that help persecuted Christians.
How can churches support displaced people in the United States?
The support of a church and community can transform a refugee’s life. It certainly transformed my life. The most important thing for me was that I had a community that welcomed me and encouraged me to grow in my faith. This helped me persevere through difficult times.
Beyond that, financial support and guidance can help get refugees on their feet. It is costly to get legal aid to apply for asylum. It can cost up to $10,000. If you are new to the country, this can be very difficult. Sponsoring someone for asylum is a great way to help.
Once refugees are established, they can turn around and support other people who are new to the country and need help. Each church can make a significant impact by even helping one person. Also, finding organizations that support refugees and immigrants is a great way for churches to help.
The answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you would like to learn more about Tariq’s organization, International Community Care Foundation, visit their website, Facebook page, or e-mail [email protected].
To learn more about how the refugee and asylum process works in the United States, visit this ERLC explainer.