Today the worldwide number of refugees fleeing their homelands is at a record-high—22.5 million (with another 40 million having been forcibly displaced within their own countries). Millions of refugees are living in camps, usually with poor housing, few employment opportunities, and little or no education for their children. Hosting refugees is also challenging for neighboring countries: Lebanon, for instance, whose own population is only about six million, is currently hosting more than one million Syrian refugees.
In fiscal year 2017, 53,716 refugees were resettled in the United States (down from 84,995 in fiscal year 2016). An additional 19,321 Afghanistan and Iraq nationals endangered by working with the US in their homelands were granted special immigrant visas with the option to receive refugee services. These US entrance numbers are significantly lower per capita than those of other countries.
Faithful Catholics can disagree about how best to help refugees and about political policies, such as how many refugees to take in and how to vet them. These are prudential judgments that are not specifically addressed by Church doctrines. But there is something we should all agree on: that refugees need help.
US dioceses, parishes, and individual Catholics are finding ways to make a difference. Catholic World Report spoke with people involved with different stages of the refugee resettlement process within the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio. Ohio is one of the top five states in terms of number of refugees resettled; the others are California, Texas, New York, and Washington. Unlike the other top states, Ohio is neither among the largest states nor one of the usual portals into the US. Yet Ohio welcomes nearly 3,000 refugees annually, more than 700 of whom come to the Cleveland metropolitan area.
Preparing a home
The hub of Catholic outreach to refugees in the Cleveland diocese is the office of Migrant and Refugee Services (MRS), a department of Catholic Charities. “In 2016, MRS served around 600 refugees in our various programs: 230 new arrivals and 480 refugees who have been resettled in previous years,” MRS Director Tom Mrosko told CWR.
The first and greatest need a newly arrived refugee has is a place to stay—not merely a safe place to collapse after many long hours of travel, but a stable place in which to build a new life. And even before they arrive, the donations and housing coordinator for MRS—currently, Grace Hermanns—has already taken care of it.
When a refugee family is assigned to Catholic Charities, Hermanns finds housing for them within easy distance of the Catholic Charities office. Hermanns furnishes the apartment with donated beds, dressers, and dishes. Whenever possible, she’ll add warm touches like wall hangings or nice quilts.
MRS meets incoming refugees at the airport, transports them to their new home, and instructs them on things like how to use the stove and public transportation. Refugees usually arrive with very little luggage, so within a few days, Hermanns will take them to Joseph House, a local clothing bank where they can obtain whatever clothing they need—for free. In an interview with CWR, Hermanns described the refugees as “super grateful.”
Hermanns, a year-long, full-time AmeriCorps volunteer, reflected on her experience helping refugees: “It’s been neat to have this big mixture of cultures in one area—our office in the morning is like a mini-United Nations, there are so many different people—and to see people from different cultures becoming really good friends. It’s been lovely.”
Integrating into America
In addition to meeting housing and clothing needs, MRS helps refugees find employment and enrolls the children in school, many at Thomas Jefferson School, a K-12 school for English-language learners.
The adults also have classes. Alyssa Mills teaches English and job-readiness classes, with the goal of helping refugees learn self-sufficiency. They begin with what Mills described to CWR as “survival English”—that is, “what they’d use at the doctor’s office, appointments, transportation, and all the basics.” The classes also simultaneously teach American culture, practical skills, and what they’ll need for citizenship tests in the future.
Mills also sets up classes for volunteer teachers. She herself began volunteering part-time at Catholic Charities in 2014. Six months later, she was working with refugees full-time: for three years at a community college, and then starting in 2018 back at Catholic Charities, this time as a full-time employee. “And I’ve loved every minute of it,” Mills told CWR.
Marissa Panzarella, an AmeriCorps volunteer like Grace Hermanns, tutors refugee children after school and teaches a citizenship class to Nepali refugees over the age of 65, which gives them the opportunity for regular social interaction. “Never did I think I’d end up with refugees, but it’s really right up my alley,” she told CWR. “I work with so many strong women who just have amazing stories and do so much for their families and to make their lives better. I really enjoy what I do; I think it’s so meaningful.”
Another important way MRS helps refugees integrate into their new culture is by setting them up with volunteer mentors, who meet with them socially, guiding them in negotiating a new culture. They might take them to the bank, library, or local sights, and help them practice English, often becoming friends with them along the way.
Michelle O’Donnell, who began working with refugees eight years ago as a volunteer mentor, told CWR: “It’s really rewarding. It’s really changed my life–and that’s not an understatement or an exaggeration; it made me realize that this is something that I want to be involved in.”
Helping refugees as a parish
It’s not just individuals who are volunteering; several parishes in the area are also helping refugees.
The above-mentioned Joseph House was created and is sustained by a partnership of parishes. St. Philip Neri Parish near downtown Cleveland and Divine Word Catholic Church in Kirtland began the ministry in 1997 to meet refugee housing needs in the city. Parishioners of both churches supplied or raised the funding and put in long hours of volunteer renovation work to create three apartments in an unused convent at St. Philip Neri.
After St. Philip Neri closed a decade later, Divine Word partnered with three other parishes in the area (St. Vitus, St. Paul Croatian, and Immaculate Conception) to continue this “Church in the City” initiative. Joseph House was moved to a former storefront location near St. Vitus, which had been renovated into four apartments.
Catholic Charities covers the first few months of rent while the newly settled refugees are getting on their feet, finding employment, and learning English. After that, the refugee family pays their utilities and rent—but at a below-market rate.
“The rent is very affordable compared to what you might find in this neighborhood, but they do pay rent and they are responsible for their utilities every month,” Michelle O’Donnell, now the Joseph House Director of Operations, explained to CWR. “That really helps build self-sufficiency so that when they get to the point where they feel like they want to go somewhere else, they’re familiar with the system and what is expected of them.”
Eventually a clothing bank was also added to Joseph House, which gives free clothing by appointment to refugees (in partnership with MRS) and to the needy in the community. “Since April of 2014, over 900 refugees have visited the Clothing Bank,” according to the Joseph House website. And 113 refugees have lived at Joseph House since 1997, O’Donnell told CWR.
St. John Vianney Church in Mentor, Ohio has adopted a refugee family as a parish and, working with MRS, has helped in a variety of ways.
Inspired by Pope Francis’ calls in 2015 for parishes to help refugees and for the US in particular to show compassion to refugees, it was David Rathz, a mentoring volunteer, who approached his pastor with the idea. A steering committee was formed, and the group contacted the Cleveland MRS, which set them up with a family of seven. Having fled their native Burundi in their late teens, the parents spent the next 17 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Their five children were all born there; camp life was all they knew.
In the past year and a half, in cooperation with MRS, the parish has helped this family by setting up the new home chosen by MRS, supplementing furnishings, providing $200 a month (with a commitment of $4,000 in total), donating bicycles for the children, and befriending them. Four mentoring families meet with the family regularly.
“It turned out to be easier than we thought because Catholic Charities has got such a well-oiled machine in terms of what they do, and all we were doing was augmenting what they do,” Rathz told CWR. “We could kind do whatever we wanted to do—like taking them to the park for the first time, taking them to the shore of Lake Erie for the first time, and to the playground that was just two blocks away, so they’d know it was there.”
Response of refugees
Gratitude was the unanimous motif in every refugee story. Michelle O’Donnell of Joseph House, for example, told CWR about a woman from Nepal who, after choosing clothes for her family, took off her own hand-made, brightly colored bead necklace and put it around O’Donnell’s neck. “It just blew me away. That’s probably one of the only possessions she had from her home,” she remarked. “They have so little and are so giving—it’s just amazing.”
Similarly, Rathz told CWR that the family his parish adopted is “extremely thankful for all the help we give them and all the guidance we give them, which for us has been extremely rewarding. It’s hands-on, and it goes beyond just some time commitment; it involves hugs and true appreciation for us, so it’s very rewarding for us as well.”
In addition, all those who spoke with CWR for this article mentioned that self-sufficiency is the goal, and one which the refugees eagerly pursue. Ninety percent reach it in less than two years. For instance, Grace Hermanns spoke of the father of a refugee family who resettled here a few years ago and has a good job in manufacturing. When his family outgrew the apartment that Catholic Charities arranged for them, he independently searched for, found, and signed a contract on a new apartment, which was closer to his children’s school.
Ways to help refugees
During his 2015 visit to the US, Pope Francis exhorted Americans: “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War…. We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons…. Let us treat others with the same…compassion with which we want to be treated.”
Catholic Charities has agencies in every state; donations can also be made to the national Catholic Charities USA Immigration and Refugee Services.
Noting in 2015 that many Christian refugees were being overlooked in government relief efforts, the Knights of Columbus, created a Christian Relief Fund especially for them. The Knights of Columbus are also doing a great deal to help persecuted Christians with their Christians at Risk fund.
Though some today opine that it’s useless, prayer remains absolutely essential. “Apart from Me you can do nothing,” Jesus pointed out. He also said, “With God, all things are possible.” Aid to the Church in Need gives particular prayer suggestions, and the USCCB has a Prayer for Migrants and Refugees.