Catholic Relief Services was founded almost 75 years ago as a response to the many people in need after World War II. Since then, it’s grown into a successful international humanitarian relief organization, helping the most vulnerable across the world every day.
Sean Callahan—a 28-year veteran of the organization—recently took the reins as president and CEO of CRS and began his tenure during a tense political climate. CRS recently responded publicly to President Trump’s recent executive order halting immigration, refugees, and travel from majority Muslim countries. In his nearly three decades with the organization, Callahan has worked extensively with refugees and is passionate about raising awareness about the needs and experiences of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Why was it important for you and CRS to come out with a statement supporting immigrants and refugees following the executive order?
We need to be true to the values of the church in reaching out to the most vulnerable, and the refugees are the most vulnerable.
When we see the situations that these people have come from, when we hear the stories of violence perpetrated against them and the exploitation, any American would feel that they needed to speak out about these issues. Catholic Relief Services has the benefit of working with refugees on the ground. And, more and more, we want to share these people’s experiences with our fellow Americans.
I know if people heard what happened to these children, if they heard how this woman was forced to migrate when she was pregnant and had to walk for two months to escape from a dire situation, they would know that she needs our assistance. She doesn’t need our fear.
Why is there so much fear of refugees?
I think that the fear is mainly due to the terrorist attacks that have occurred around the world. People are fearful that could happen here in the United States.
There is sometimes information out there that refugees have acted violently in the United States, but that simply is not true. Unfortunately, most acts of terrorism in the United States have been principally by U.S. citizens. We need to clarify the narrative being told about refugees and educate people because, in general, the American population is very generous and wants to help and welcome people.
That’s why we’re reaching out and trying to show Americans that refugees are people who want to enrich the United States.
I was talking to a colleague who happens to be of the Islamic faith and is originally from Pakistan. He told me, “We hate the terrorists, too. We hate these guys who are threatening our families, who are cutting off the heads of our brothers and sisters. We hate them.”
What does a refugee coming to the United States look like?
I think that is a really key question. The refugees that we’re talking about look like you and me.
In many cases, the people we’re assisting in these situations are women‑led households and children. They’re individuals trying to do the best for their children. They just want a place away from violence and terrorism, a safe place where they can raise their families.
Their homes have been destroyed, like in Syria, or, in places like Iraq, they’ve been threatened by ISIS and other groups. These are vulnerable populations, who are trying to settle into a place where they can raise their family with some peace and security.
We are trying to get some of their stories out more because I think there’s a misunderstanding of who these people actually are.
How does a refugee come to the United States?
Most of refugees go through a very, very thorough vetting. When they leave their country of origin, they are often resettled in a neighboring country, at least temporarily. Some goes through various countries. Some of them end up in UN camps, at which point they are processed through the UN system and verified.
Each time they go through another country, whether they temporarily settle there or are just transported through, they are reevaluated by the different countries. Often times they have their fingerprints taken or they’re scanned in some way—like iris scans, for example.
Many of these refugees end up in Europe. Germany has taken in over a million. Many more have settled in our European and our Middle East colleague countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
If they are to be considered for status in the United States, they get screened by Homeland Security, get processed through the FBI, the state department, and the National Counter Terrorism Center. They then have iris scans and their fingerprints taken again. They also go through several interviews and medical screenings.
Usually this process lasts about two years. I’ve met people in camps that have been there two to four years going through these processes prior to being allowed to have the opportunity to come to the United States.
There are even additional measures being taken with Syrian refugees, who are probably the most vetted refugees in the world. It takes an enormous amount of time.
We at CRS are very concerned that an additional delay won’t make us any more secure but will actually negatively impact and jeopardize the well‑being of these refugees.
How involved is CRS in the resettlement process?
Americans may not know that we assist over 100 million people around the world. Our Catholic constituency here in the Unites States should be proud that they’re reaching out to these 100 million people.
We try to assist people so they don’t feel like they must leave their homes, or go to some other location to have the opportunity of freedom of religion, or opportunity for a job, or opportunity for security for their family.
Over each step of the process, as they move from their host country to the United States, the church is involved in trying to assist vulnerable people and find out what’s best for them.
From the beginning of where the problem is, CRS is there. We follows refugees while they move through various countries and right to their final area of relocation. Whether that is in the Middle East, Europe, or the United States. Their brothers and sisters in the church are doing that around the world.
Is there anything that CRS is doing in response to the refugee crisis that most people aren’t aware of?
We’re trying to collaborate with many of our colleague agencies. We have been working more and more with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). We’re engaging in an awareness campaign, trying to get the correct information out.
It’s understandable that people in the United States and the Trump administration want to make sure everyone in the United States stays safe. We would like that as well. As part of that goal, we provide opportunities for people in their home countries so they don’t have to come here.
For example, we have a program that we call Youth Builders in Central America, where there’s a lot of gang violence. We try to reach out, pull people out of the gangs, and provide them with either educational opportunities or job opportunities. We found that 80 percent of them stick with it, either their education or their job. We’ve succeeded in pulling people out of that very negative violent context and helped them become active citizens.
Similarly, we partner with municipalities in violent countries like Iraq. In addition to providing opportunities for shelters, we put doors and windows on abandoned buildings. The municipalities then let people stay in these buildings for two-year periods of time, providing them with shelter so they can stay in the community even if they’ve been internally displaced because of war in certain areas.
We also really try to find child-friendly spaces for refugees, so that we can protect children and make sure they’re not just seeing violence and transience. As refugee families move from country to country, children are often subjected to exploitation or violence as their parents look for places to work.
We also do some psycho‑social care with these children. We provide opportunities for them to express themselves a secure environment and give them some education. We have been doing some programs with puppets to help children express themselves better.
We want to show these migrating individuals that they are cared for and that people respect them. We have an opportunity to create a group of peace builders from these countries. That’s what we’d like to do; take these people who may be exploited and empower them to build peace.
CRS is a Catholic organization. Is there any particularly special attention paid to Christian or Catholic refugees?
CRS was founded by the USCCB following the Holy Father’s call: no family should be without a home, no refugee without a welcome, no person without dignity. We at CRS reach out to people based on need, not creed.
We always assist people because we’re Catholic, not because they’re Catholic. We reject any attempt to screen people out based on religion. Our country was founded on freedom of religion.
In many of the countries in which we serve, our local partners on the ground represent all different faiths. CRS has staff that are Muslim, Hindu, Jewish. We are constantly integrated in the work that we do.
If a Christian is in the most vulnerable group, CRS will assist them. Most of our priority partners in the countries that we serve are members of the Catholic Church who are reaching out to people that are the most vulnerable.
Does CRS work with other faith-based groups?
In the Middle East, some of our local Catholic partners have said that the violence has actually helped them work even more closely with the Islamic community. They have been recognized as being impartial and reaching out to people of all faiths.
Their stature within the community has grown. They feel, as Christians in the Middle East, even safer now because of the way that they have responded to this crisis.
We do see this as an opportunity to building hope and opportunity between communities. We think that a focus on the United States is definitely not the way to go.
I worked in South Asia for a while, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal for about eight years. When there was violence in Afghanistan, I got a call from a priest in Quetta, Pakistan.
He said, “We’re a little concerned because there were some Taliban coming across the border to Quetta.” He was wondering if they were going to attack the church.
I said, “Is there anything I can do?” He said, “I don’t know what you can do, but please pray for us.” I talked to him for a little while. After I hung up, I called another one of our partners, which was a secular partner from Quetta staffed by Muslims, and told them that the church felt like it was under threat.
Two hours later I got a call from the priest saying that the church was surrounded by Muslims, who were protecting the building. To me that story shows how important it is to be working together with people of all different faiths and religions. We should certainly exemplify that here in the United States.
Speaking as the head of an international relief organization, what would you say the solution is to the global immigration and refugee crisis?
The solution is probably easier to say than do. First of all, I think the solution to the refugee crisis can be captivated in one word: peace. The Holy Father has called for this. Many of the Catholic organizations have called for it. We really need peace in the Middle East.
People are fleeing at record numbers because of violence in the Middle East, in Somalia, in the Central African Republic, in Sudan. Peace should be the key area we focus on.
We need to work toward maintaining peace and providing opportunities for prosperity. The U.S. can help by investing in education, water and sanitation, livelihoods, and peacebuilding in these conflict areas, so people don’t feel forced to leave.
The key is to ensure that we are very engaged in these countries overseas, and that we work for a peaceful settlement and reconciliation so that all people can thrive.
What can an average American do to help with immigration and refugee crisis?
Our faith tells us that we need to give to people. Contributing financially is one way of doing that.
There are many parishes in the country that are assisting refugees or supporting refugees in various ways. If all of our parishes in the United States would welcome a family or support a family, that would certainly help the organizations that are doing this type of work.
At a personal level, when you see someone you don’t know who seems like they’re from another place, welcome them with a smile, with a touch, with a hello. Each of us can start being more open in our own communities. Going out of our way to welcome the other, makes us less afraid of them. We can become better people and a better church by accepting more and more people from “the outside.”