Q&A with Stephanie Plotas
Stephanie Plotas is a US-2 from Michigan who works at the Iskashitaa Refugee Network in Tucson, Arizona. Today, she talks about what it’s like to be a young adult missionary and why supporting refugees is so important. You can learn more about the US-2 program at www.umcmission.org/gmfellows.
Q: What inspired you to become a young adult missionary?
A: I’ve been participating in Volunteers in Mission trips ever since I was 14. After college, I wanted to work in an area of social justice, and I wanted it to be with a faith-based organization, because my faith is very important to me. I also wanted to be a part of a long-term program like US-2 so that I could experience highs, lows and everything in between, and start to become more integrated in a community that was not my own.
Q: Tell us about the challenges facing refugees and why you see this as a justice issue.
A: In their countries of origin, refugees face persecution and war. In order to receive refugee status from UNHCR, they must flee from this first country to a second country (usually a bordering nation). But many second countries don’t have the infrastructure to support the number of refugees that they receive, and refugees often end up living in camps with little access to healthcare or social services. Refugee resettlement allows people a chance to become integrated into a third country such as the United States or Canada.
||Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
But, of all the refugees in the world, less than 1 percent resettle to a third country. The United States receives about 70,000 refugees every year. To be able to come to the States, the refugees must undergo a long and difficult screening and interview process, during which they must often relive traumatic events to prove to interviewers that they are actual refugees.
Resettlement agencies assist refugees upon their arrival to the United States, providing them with a minimally furnished apartment, orienting them, helping to enroll the children in school, finding ESL classes for the adults, and paying their rent for a set number of months. However, after three months, the refugees are expected to have jobs and to begin paying rent on their own. They are also expected to begin repaying the cost of their plane tickets after six months in the States.
Considering that most refugees do not speak English when they arrive, this is a daunting task. Refugees who had degrees in their home country are often unable to use them here. For example, men and women who were engineers and dentists in Iraq cannot practice here and are forced to take entry-level jobs.
Because very few refugees are able to come to the United States, many have family back in refugee camps. Misconceptions about the U.S. mean that these family members in refugee camps have an expectation that their relatives will be sending them money every month after they get settled. This puts pressure on refugee families and many have to decide if they will pay rent, buy groceries or send money to their relatives overseas.
Refugees have witnessed or experienced unthinkable trauma or torture in their home countries. They have lost their homes, possessions, security, family and friends. As Christians, we are called to stand up for the rights of the mistreated and oppressed. We’ve been instructed never to mistreat the foreigner, because we were once foreigners in Egypt (Exodus 22:21, 23:9).
Most refugees exist in a state of limbo: unable to return home, unable to leave the refugee camp, and unable to go elsewhere. For refugees who have nowhere else to go, we can welcome them and do whatever we can to provide justice for them here. Our country is meant to be a place with opportunity for all.
Q: What is your role at the Iskashitaa Refugee Network?
A: I am the Food Justice Coordinator and I have two main roles: coordinating our food preservation workshops and working as a liaison to faith-based communities. Our organization’s primary program is harvesting, and most of our harvested fruit is redistributed to refugee families and organizations throughout Tucson that serve the food insecure.
We retain a small portion of the harvested fruit to use in our food workshops, where we make a wide variety of products, including marmalades, jams, syrups, dressings and relishes. (These products are then sold to support our programs.) At the workshops we have a mixture of refugees and Americans volunteering. The refugees practice English and learn basic culinary protocol (such as washing hands or letting dishes air-dry). This is helpful because many of them will receive their first jobs in the food industry. Some of our products are made with recipes we learned from refugees. We try to promote cross-cultural exchange during our times in the kitchen. I attend all the workshops as well as coordinate the workshop times and volunteers.
For my other role, I reach out to local faith communities to share about our programs, refugee resettlement, and how they might be able to become involved. My hope is to have Iskashitaa be better connected to the community and promote awareness about refugee resettlement issues.
Q: How have you seen God at work in your placement site?
A: Working with people from so many different countries is a true blessing. We often imagine refugees as people constantly in need, but they have so much to give! Their stories, foods and traditions are valuable. I think it is healthy and important to learn that “our way” is not the only way, and we can learn a lot from these differences.
I feel touched by the relationships I have been able to form in the short time I have been in Tucson. When my dad visited a few months ago, one of the refugee men here told him that he could be a father to me while my dad was home in Michigan.
Iskashitaa’s work with food has also been meaningful to me. Hand-picking all types of fruits and vegetables renews a sense of awe in me as I reflect on how these food sources were created by God. It amazes me to think about the complexity of each type of tree and plant, and also about the ability of these items to provide food for us. Getting fruit and vegetables from a shelf on the grocery store seems shallow and empty in comparison.
Q: What would you say to young adults who might apply for the US-2 program?
A: I think the US-2 program provides a valuable opportunity for young adults to engage in issues of social justice. In addition, we are put in a place to experience a new community and culture. It is a program that promises challenges, joys and personal growth. I would recommend any young adult who is interested in these kinds of experiences to apply for the program.
Apply now to become a US-2! You can support Stephanie through Advance #3021848