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According to U.N. figures, there are a staggering 13 million people living in refugee camps around the world. And there would be more, if it werent for Cleveland, Ohio. 


And Ill get to Cleveland in a minute.


The refugees have been driven out their homes, sometimes their countries, by: civil war, by political oppression, by natural disaster.


The refugees live in tents, no running water, no sanitation and no windows for that matter. Adults and children swelter in camps in the Sudan summer (genocide all around). They shiver in camps in the Afghan winter (suicide bombers all around).


Yet through a compassionate emerging network, some refugees are getting out, thanks to cities like Cleveland, and people like Bill Merrimen.


A former mailman, and current deacon at St. Patricks Church on the near west side here, Merrimen told me Clevelands Migrant Refugee Office, in tandem with non-profit agencies like Catholic Charities, help arrange safe passage and more help for the refugees when they get to their respective neighborhoods.


The most recent set of new arrivals to Cleveland have been families from violence-racked Liberia.


Merrimen said its been quite a transition.


One day people are at a refugee camp in 100 degree weather; then the next day they are on a plane (often for the first time) flying over an ocean, and then landing in the middle of a Cleveland winter  almost enough to make anyone want to go back.


Yet they stay. 


And it gets even more boggling.


Refugees coming from Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda are brought into a home where you flip a switch and, magically (to them), a light comes on.


Electricity. What is electricity? They'll ask amazed.


And they will soon be as amazed with the generosity that surrounds them. 


The Migrant Refugee Office and the non-profits will help the new arrivals connect with such social services as Medicaid, food stamps, English language classes And while this formal networking is going on, Merrimen and others help arrange getting furniture donations, blankets for the kids, additional food.


Merrimen talked of one church that brought regular meals to a refugee family until they were able to get on their feet. Then there was a nun who volunteered time to teach sewing to some of the refugee women so they could, not only repair the family clothes; but start small cottage industries.


Eventually, as Merrimen said he has seen time and again, the adult arrivals find work, get off Welfare roles, and start giving back to the city. (In fact, some circles of the city have so embraced these new arrivals that, in gratitude, many of the Liberians have become Cleveland Indians fans in return. No small thing, given the teams record the last few seasons.)


Whats more, as the refugees get established, they also start up informal networks of support for other new arrivals.


Everybody wins.


Everybody, except of course, the circles of people in Cleveland (and elsewhere in America) who arent helping these refugees on some level, whether here or over there.


Example: Refugee camps, almost all refugee camps, are short on food. And news reports in the past couple years have chronicled cases of parents in Afghan refugee camps (and other camps), selling their children for as little as $30 in American money  so the other children in the family could eat, for a month.


Anybody remember the last time you and the family spent 30 bucks on dinner at Applebees Restaurant, without a thought?


Bill Merrimen told me he doesnt eat out hardly at all.


The money could be much better spent.


He said helping these refugees is, ultimately, what the gospel message, in its essence, calls for: to welcome strangers.


But how welcoming is God going to think we were, if we continue to sit in the Applebees, air-conditioned dining room eating steak in Cleveland; while a little child goes hungry in a sweltering tent in the Sudan?


Especially when the $30 youre about to spend on your family for that one meal at Applebees -- could even determine whether that little Sudanese child will ever see his or her family again.


To help, see: Refugees International, or Bill Merrimen. 

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