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From Neighbor to Friend to Family: Part 3 of a 3 Part Series


What does family mean to a refugee?

Family holds deep value within most cultures, but is especially woven into the cultural identities of many refugee people groups that we are welcoming to the U.S. today. In honor-shame cultures, great emphasis is placed on pleasing and honoring the elders in one’s family. Parents are highly respected and esteemed. They are seen as the leaders and primary authority figures within the family unit. The parent-child relationship in many non-western cultures is marked by strong bonds, emotional connection, and interdependence. Parents are responsible for providing love, care, and support to their children throughout their lives, and children are expected to reciprocate by honoring and supporting their parents in old age. 

In many cultures, some or all of the extended family lives under the same roof or at least in the same community. This creates an extremely close bond as they share meals together, share responsibilities, celebrate victories together and support each other in times of trial. Refugees may also be separated from their extended, or in some cases, immediate families during their journey from their home country. While many attempt to reunite once they’ve arrived at their final destination, this can be a tricky task, often resulting in a void and pain within the families. There is little that is more important to refugees than family.

Is it possible for friendship to develop into a family-like relationship?

It is absolutely possible for a friendship with a refugee family to eventually develop into a relationship that mirrors family. Some relationships are simply not going to move past simple acquaintanceship, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, investment over time, shared interests and even shared experiences, and most importantly a demonstration of Christlike love (typically a new experience for refugees) commonly leads to a unique bond that can be compared to family-level trust and respect. Significant time and investment is necessary, but achieving this level of friendship is truly one of life’s greatest honors.

What changes in the relationship as it develops from friendship to family?

It is mostly a general consensus across the world that family is a tighter bond than friendship, although friendship does have its own merit. With this tighter bond comes greater trust, which then brings more opportunity to reflect Christ in the way that we live our lives. Being family, with the trust that comes with that, makes it easier to demonstrate Christian values within families and even entire communities. Family-level respect truly goes a long way. 

Additionally, reaching family-level trust allows us to be better supporters and advocates for our refugee friends. Older members of our team have experienced refugee friends that have become like family approaching them for advice as they navigate life in the U.S. The wisdom and knowledge of not only navigating life in the U.S., but life in general, is something that refugees separated from the older members of their family are seeking. For younger members of our team, friendships may develop more into sibling-like relationships. One is more likely to share struggle experiences with someone as close as a sibling compared to just an acquaintance. The support and love often goes both ways as well. 

From neighbor, to friend, to family, getting to know a refugee in your community may benefit you in ways unimagined. It can provide opportunities to reflect Christ’s love as we are ordered to do, and also experience the world outside of your circle but right in your own backyard. Start this journey today, and meet your neighbor through GoTEN.