As anti-refugee talk rises, so do donations for immigrant aid group

Oehrig opposes letting everyone in without any vetting, but contends helping refugees is inherently Christian.

Oehrig opposes letting everyone in without any vetting, but contends helping refugees is inherently Christian.

The commotion over Syrian refugees in America has become so volatile that it’s holding up a federal spending bill, spurring the latest round of “government shutdown” talk. Gov. Mark Dayton is at odds with Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt. And 21,000 people have signed a petition to keep refugees out of our state. 

With all the boisterous post-Paris misinformation floating around, Bob Oehrig is spending a lot more time explaining the refugee process. But all the fuss has been a good thing for the executive director of Arrive Ministries — a refugee resettlement organization based in Richfield.

“On the flip side, we’ve had a lot of people who see the crisis and say, ‘How do we help?’” Oehrig explains. “I’ve had people calling saying we have room in our house if there’s a Syrian refugee who needs a place to stay. Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.”

As cries to shun refugees grow louder, Oehrig reminds us that there are welcoming voices too. With more concentrated Syrian communities scattered across the country, he doesn’t anticipate Minnesota being a popular destination during President Obama’s push to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to America next year. But Minnesota is still welcoming, Oehrig says.

Church groups, including his Christian nonprofit, show up at the airport weekly to greet refugees setting foot in Minnesota for the first time. Arrive Ministries also runs English language learning classes and helps them find work and enroll in school.

Oehrig contends that aiding refugees is inherently Christian. Still, he acknowledges it should be done with adequate vetting.

“I’ll be the first one to say that we need to secure our borders,” Oehrig says. “We don’t just allow anybody into our country without proper screening. But I want to be known, our organization wants to be known, as an organization that would rather build bridges than walls. That doesn’t mean that the bridge is wide open without any checks on who’s coming and who they are.”

Earlier this fall, Oehrig took a refugee family to Waconia to pick apples. It was their first time seeing apple trees, let alone the countryside. Moving freely without police checks and constant questioning was a new concept.

On their way back, they stopped for ice cream before returning to his house for dinner. As the sun set on a perfect fall afternoon, they sat on Oehrig’s deck and talked.

“The father of the family, he says, ‘Bob, this is the best day of my life,’” Oehrig begins. “Something so simple that we take for granted — the freedom that we have to pick apples, go to Dairy Queen, sit out on our deck in a peaceful environment — for this to be the best day of his life shows what they’ve gone through and how grateful they are to be here.

“When they come here and they see the difference that life can be here, they’re going to be great citizens. Because they know what they’ve left and they know the privilege they’ve had to be part of the American dream. The best day of my life.”