When a woman had to quickly flee the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the United States after her husband was murdered because of political strife, parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Louisville, Kentucky were there for her. In the process of leaving her home country, she had lost track of her three sons. But with the help of the parish and social media, her sons were tracked down in Rwanda, where they had sought refuge, and were joined together with their mother. Parishioners at St. Francis helped facilitate the reunion.
For decades, refugee resettlement has been an essential component of the social justice ministry at St. Francis, where the local Catholic Charities is the resettlement agency for the state. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Louisville has been resettling refugees since 1992. The state gave the agency sole responsibility to run the refugee resettlement there eight years later.
The parish began welcoming Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1970s. Now the parish helps resettle refugees from the DRC, Nepal, and Iraq. Among those whom the parish has helped resettle is the family of an Iraqi translator whose cooperation with the United States made him a target for assassination.
For Father Lou Meiman, pastor of St. Francis, refugee resettlement is a concrete reminder of the church’s social justice vision and a way to move that doctrine beyond flowery goodwill statements. “It’s enriched the life of the parish to have a connection with the people who are the least of these,” he says.
Catholic parishes around the country, like St. Francis, play a vital role in the global refugee crisis by welcoming newcomers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in 2015, of the 65.3 million displaced persons worldwide, 21.3 million were refugees.
“It’s not about doing things for people but being with people,” Father Meiman says. “They are part of our lives and part of our community. They are human beings with faces, lives, and stories. It’s a wonderful witness for our children. It makes the gospel a real thing.”
Father Meiman says the St. Francis experience with refugees is filled with heartwarming stories. The gratitude expressed can be overwhelming. One Muslim Iraqi mother said that the last place she would have expected to find refuge would be among Christians.
The parish, founded in 1886 by German immigrant farmers, is now a part of one of Louisville’s most diverse neighborhoods. Its access to hip restaurants and other amenities, as well as its convenient location along a bus route and a welcoming community, make it a good home for refugee families. Some come to Sunday Mass in native garb for special occasions.
St. Francis helps refugees set up apartments, offers assistance to job seekers, and provides a social network for those navigating American life for the first time. The parish school offers a place for refugee children to learn, including paying tuition for a handful of students each year, no matter their religious affiliation.
One Muslim refugee student from Iraq participated in a class confirmation project in which students sent handwritten greetings to Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz. In his letter, the Muslim student said he did not plan to become a Christian but that the welcome he received at St. Francis of Assisi School made him appreciate how good Christians could be.
While refugee resettlement has traditionally been seen as American as the welcoming words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, Father Meiman knows that current politics and fears make refugees more problematic, at least in some quarters of American life. With their experience, which dates back to the 1970s, parishioners at St. Francis are well-equipped to push back against anti-refugee sentiment.
Refugee resettlement has been quietly transforming the American landscape for decades, and not only in cities like Louisville. Resettlement in the United States has created small communities of Somalis in Minnesota, Hmong Laotians in North Carolina, and Iraqis and Syrians in Albuquerque.
Cincinnati has become a haven for Bhutanese who have fled Nepal because of ongoing ethnic strife. Catholic Charities has resettled about 800 Bhutanese families; they have now grown to a community of about 8,000 in the Cincinnati area.
The funding for refugee resettlement is the same across the country, no matter a region’s cost of living. The result is that refugees are often steered to lower-cost regions in the nation’s midsection away from high-cost, urban coastal regions with large immigrant populations.
According to the State Department, the U.S. government provides $407 million per year for refugee resettlement. Of that number, $45 million goes to Catholic agencies. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ office of Migration and Refugee Services is the largest single recipient of resettlement funding. That money is then parceled out to Catholic Charities agencies around the country that do the groundwork of resettlement. That work is often supplemented by local volunteers and parishes such as Louisville’s St. Francis of Assisi.
These agencies also enlist a wide range of ecumenical support. In the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the local refugee resettlement effort run by Catholic Charities works with the Church of Latter-day Saints, which recently called upon Mormons to welcome refugees. In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Catholic Charities works with Mennonite and Lutheran churches, as well as Catholic parishes.
“We reach out to people of good will,” says James Gannon, Catholic Charities CEO and executive director for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Traditionally, refugee resettlement earned bipartisan support and showed the world that American democratic capitalism could offer safe haven to hordes of freedom-loving peoples fleeing atheistic communism from Eastern Europe to Vietnam.
But refugee resettlement advocates argue that the United States, once seen as a haven for refugees, is now a laggard. The United States resettled 70,000 refugees in 2015 and has promised to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, while Germany has offered to resettle 300,000 next year from the Middle East alone. Canada, with about 10 percent of the U.S. population, is scheduled to resettle 25,000 Syrians, along with thousands of other refugees.
Last year, when Governor John Kasich of Ohio questioned the program over security concerns, Ted Bergh, CEO of Southwestern Ohio Catholic Charities, stood firm.
“We had an overwhelming reaction of support. People were asking, ‘How can we help you?’ ” Bergh says.
American bishops are united in support for refugee resettlement. Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer during the midst of controversy over Syrian refugees last year, said, “We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of the people are fleeing for their lives. They are not simply immigrants, they are refugees.”
Kasich was not the only governor to question refugee programs. At least 16 governors last year, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, came out against resettling Syrian refugees in their states, citing security concerns.
But refugee advocates argue they overstepped their authority. Bergh says Catholic Charities has no alternative but to continue resettling refugees. “We are called to work with the stranger. They are without home, without their country, and they come with just a suitcase,” he says, noting that Catholics look to Jesus as the ultimate refugee, who himself fled to Egypt with his family.
Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, recently named a cardinal by Pope Francis, said Catholic Charities there would continue to work with refugees, despite opposition from Governor Mike Pence. After a meeting with the governor, Tobin stood firm, saying that the church was fulfilling its moral and legal obligations to refugees.
Kasich and Christie have since dropped the subject as refugee resettlement continues in their states. Tennessee governor Bill Haslam changed his mind, offering public support for refugee resettlement after conferring with Catholic Charities and the U.S. State Department.
Still, some political leaders have kept up the drumbeat of opposition. Governor Paul LePage of Maine reacted with a call to disband the refugee resettlement from the Middle East after an Iranian refugee who resettled in Maine joined ISIS and was killed in Lebanon. The FBI later attributed the refugee’s ISIS affiliation as inspired by internet propaganda seen after his arrival in the United States. But LePage has pointedly blamed the U.S. government for what he described as an inadequate vetting process.
The change in public mood toward refugees is evident to Debbie Kokoruda, a member of Good Shepherd Parish in Cincinnati. Kokoruda spent much of her career overseas working for consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. Much of that time was spent in Singapore, where she worked with company affiliates throughout Asia, including South Korea, India, Japan, and China. Upon retirement, she came home to Cincinnati last year.
“I was shocked by the conversation going on about refugees and immigrants,” she says. Startled and discouraged, she responded by becoming an agent of change through the charitable and justice work of her Catholic faith.
Kokoruda volunteered for refugee resettlement work at Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio, organizing warehouse distribution of goods and teaching refugees how to navigate job searches and gain other skills. She encouraged her neighbors and friends to join her, and now a number of Cincinnati families spend their spare time sorting goods for newly arriving refugees.
It’s all about “changing the rhetoric,” she says. She reminds her Christian neighbors about the words of Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me”.
What is a refugee?
Legally, refugees differ from other immigrants. To gain refugee status, applicants must prove to the U.S. government that they are fleeing persecution. The vetting process can take years, as refugees often wait in camps for their exit permits. While many programs are administered by Catholic agencies, many secular agencies are also working to resettle people. Refugees can come from all over the world. Some are persecuted for their faith (Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc.). Some live in conflict zones. Others’ lives are at risk for political reasons or their ethnicity. In 2015 the UNHCR estimated that approximately 34,000 people a day fled their homes because of conflict or persecution.
The only way refugees can be resettled in the United States is through the vetting process conducted by the federal government, which usually takes place in overseas refugee camps. With the exception of a relative few who cross the southern border, refugees who want to come to the United States cannot simply walk here.
Once refugees arrive, the role of Catholic Charities and other agencies is to provide basic support for these newcomers in communities scattered across the country. Catholic Charities is the largest provider of refugee services in the United States.
Volunteers like Debbie Kokoruda supplement these services. Her corporate experience has translated into a volunteer post where she teaches refugees in southwest Ohio how to navigate the American system of seeking and holding jobs. There are obstacles, not of determination among refugees who seek work, but mostly of different cultural understandings about employment.
Even the simple task of composing a resume can be onerous for those with limited education and English skills. They also learn about staples of the American workplace, such as the role of minimum wage and the difference between first and second shifts. Often from cultures that promote passive acceptance in the workplace, refugees need to learn that American employers encourage a more “go get ’em” attitude. “You have to sell yourself,” is one major lesson, Kokoruda says.
There is little risk that refugees will become wards of the government, says Kokoruda. Cincinnati employers line up to hire them in fields such as warehouse factory work and restaurant kitchens, low-skill labor with little need for language facility. Refugees have a reputation for diligence and determination.
“I think they are the hardest working people you will ever meet,” Kokoruda says.
Teaching job training skills to refugees is a role frequently taken up by volunteers at Catholic Charities agencies.
Tom Kearns, a member of Holy Family Parish in Fort Worth, Texas, is a retired engineer bringing his skills to the classroom. He teaches newcomers the nuances of seeking work in Texas.
“They are very anxious to go out and get a job,” he says. Some of his students have professional backgrounds, but they typically seek out entry-level positions.
Kearns impresses upon them American notions of punctuality and keeping resumes bare bones and targeted to particular skills. “They are not really that different than Americans. They want to get a job, put food on the table, and provide for their families. They are like most people I know in Fort Worth,” Kearns says.
Bob Rearden, a member of St. Andrew’s Parish in Fort Worth has worked the past four years as a teaching volunteer, having retired from the U.S. Army and having spent decades in aerospace industries as an electrical engineer. “I wanted to do something totally different,” he says about his volunteer work. “I wanted something in which I could see the impact I was having.”
Working with refugees has provided that. He teaches American cultural norms, such as how a worker seeking a job is expected to look a potential employer directly in the eyes, which is considered overly forward in some cultures.
In the process, he’s learned about the lives of refugees, such as the Bhutanese man and his family who spent 20 years in a refugee camp. One of his students started out a few years ago as a hotel cleaner and is now a supervisor. Such small triumphs are big achievements in the lives of people just getting a foothold in American life. “They have an excellent work ethic. They just want an opportunity to get started,” Rearden says.
Parish participation and support runs high, even during times of adverse publicity about immigrants in general and refugees in particular. Education for Americans is a vital component. In Louisville, Catholic Charities runs a simulated refugee camp where junior-high students can learn what it’s like to be a refugee, to be deprived of everything but the clothes on one’s back, and to fear the revenge of political or ethnic foes.
The idea, says Louisville Catholic Charities Executive Director Steven Bogus, is for “people to become more comfortable and understanding of [refugees’] plight and what they’ve been through. So many times it’s the fear of the unknown that makes people leery.”
Jean Beil, senior vice president for programs and services at Catholic Charities USA, says that it’s important to dispel fears of terrorism by telling the stories of refugees with the message that “it’s a benefit to our country to have these hard-working people.”
The vetting process to get out of refugee camps and come to the United States is more difficult here than it is in any other nation that accepts refugees, she says.
“The refugees we deal with are themselves victims of terrorism,” says Steve Letourneau, CEO of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. The agency runs a program to Maine parishes called “In Their Shoes.” It educates Maine Catholics about refugee issues.
Letourneau’s agency has been resettling some 400 refugees every year over the past four decades. “For a small, rural state, that’s a lot of people,” he says. In the past year 90 percent came from Iraq and Somalia; many of the rest came from the DRC. Catholic Charities is the only agency in the state involved in refugee resettlement.
Maine Catholics have been generally supportive, Letourneau says. “Catholics see it as an integral part of their baptismal call.”
Standing firm with open arms
Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, professor of ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and writer and teacher on Catholic social justice teaching, says the church cannot pull away from its commitment to refugees if it is to remain true to the gospel.
In the United States the church has developed an invaluable expertise in resettling refugees, from Cubans in the 1960s to Vietnamese in the 1970s to today’s refugees. It must continue to act, Christiansen says, despite political pressure to pull back.
Christiansen’s view is echoed by Pope Francis, perhaps the world’s foremost advocate for refugees. In a papacy known for holding back on harsh judgments, the pope has clearly stated that Catholic involvement in refugee resettlement is not just a pleasant diversion but remains a moral and religious imperative. Those who fail to act are failing their faith, the pope has warned.
Francis has responded to the worldwide refugee crisis by calling on both governments and churches to take in those fleeing war and persecution, asking those in stable countries to overcome fear and provide acceptance. In one public act of solidarity during a visit to Greece, he brought back to the Vatican eight refugee families from Syria to resettle in Italy.
“Needed is a spirit of readiness to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger, and solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety,” the pope told Polish leaders in July 2016.
With marching orders from Rome, a pope intent on asking countries and churches to do more, and a long tradition of doing refugee work, it is clear that the church in the United States will not be backing down. If the U.S. government is willing to do its role, the work of helping refugees is sure to continue even when the tug of turbulent world crises offers the temptation to pull inward.
“This is probably the noblest thing my organization does,” says James Gannon of Santa Fe’s Catholic Charities. “It is helping folks who are in the most despair, the most lost.”
This article also appears in the December 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 12, pages 12–18).
Image: David Snyder for the St. Jude League