The kids attending summer camp at Faith United Methodist Church in Jacksonville are learning that the word “camp” can mean more than survival. It can mean fun.
The church partners with World Relief Services (WRS) to host a four-week camp for refugee children. This year about 50 children from Asia, Africa and the Middle East attended.
“When they arrive, they are placed in public schools, often a grade level behind their age. They often don’t have English skills, and their education level may not be very high,” Faith’s Rev. Barry Andrews said.
WRS started the camp ten years ago to help the children prepare for public school and get acclimated to their new country.
“Refugee children pick up English pretty quickly, but there is a lot for them to adjust to: a new country, a new city, a new school. Their situations vary. Some of them come from war-torn environments, where there was little access to education,” WRS Community Engagement Director Travis Trice said.
Unlike a typical summer camp, this one focuses on academic subjects in the morning.
“The classes are English, math and geography,” Andrews said. “We don’t know their language, so it’s immersion teaching.”
Volunteers provide a hot lunch, including the youth group at Callahan United Methodist Church.
The afternoon is all about fun. Three days a week, the children learn to swim at the YMCA. There’s a day of arts and crafts, and on Fridays they have taken field trips to the zoo, the beach and a museum.
Transportation is provided by Faith, which has hosted the camp for three years.
Kim’s Open Door, a nonprofit that serves at-risk children, coordinates the volunteers, organizes lunches and provides arts activities. Many of the children Kim’s Open Door serves are refugees living in the neighborhood around Faith. It’s an affordable neighborhood with several apartments where refugees, resettled by WRS and other agencies, live.
Kim’s Open Door, based at Faith, is an evangelical group that provides education, arts and strategic events, including Bible studies, dance classes and other classes, to help the children get acclimated in their new home. They are both Muslim and Christian, and some are members of Faith.
“Faith is a small church. Our average attendance is 100, and about half of the people here on Sundays are born overseas. They are from all over: Sierra Leone, Congo, Burma, Philippines, Tanzania. We have a Hispanic service, too,” Andrews said.
“They are loyal United Methodists. Many of them became Methodists in refugee camps, and when they get there, they look for a Methodist church.”
Some of the children at the camp are Muslim.
“This is our chance to reach Muslims with the gospel of Christian kindness,” Andrews said. “They are finding out that Christians are good people.”
Another benefit of the camp is that the children are making friends with other refugee children and learning to interact in American culture.
This might be the last year for the summer camp because WRS’s financial resources have dried up, Trice said.
“This year was a struggle,” Trice said.
WRS and other refugee resettlement agencies lost their federal funding when the Trump Administration all but shut the door on refugees, especially those from “high-risk” nations that include Muslim majority countries.
“We took a large funding hit, cut about 80 percent of our staff. We are the last World Relief Services office in Florida,” Trice said. “Though we don’t use federal money on the camp, one of the ripple effects is that things like summer camp are nearly impossible to do.
“We’ve never seen a reduction like this, and we’ve been here since the mid-70s,” Trice said. “We don’t get into politics, but we are concerned about policy. It affects how we minister as Christians.
“The Administration is trying to dismantle the refugee program. We used to resettle 600 a year. We had 82 in 2018 and zero in 2019. We’re funded per capita. We get $1,100 per client for the office, and $1,100 goes to each client. If there are no clients, there is no funding.”
Trice said he is hoping WRS can find private money to continue to provide case management and other services.
And its partnerships with churches like Faith are also important.
“Faith is a smaller church, but they are our flagship church partner,” Trice said. “We have over 100 churches that have become involved in the last five years. Faith is by far the most active and helpful.
“We need churches to be a welcoming force,” Trice said.
Serving refugees is about developing relationships and helping them learn how to live in an American culture. It can be as simple as showing them how to use a vacuum, shop in a grocery store or celebrate American holidays.
“That’s what family does. The church is supposed to be that,” Trice said. “Faith has been that and so much more. I use Faith as an example of how much a little church can do.”
Editor’s note: After this story was written, the local WRS office was notified that it will close August 1 because of the lack of new refugee arrivals.
—Lilla Ross is a freelance writer in Jacksonville.