These Ohio Catholics are working to meet the needs of refugees

Catholics in the Diocese of Cleveland help hundreds of refugees resettle and integrate into the US every year.

A family of Tanzanian refugees is met at the Cleveland airport by volunteers from the Diocese of Cleveland (photo courtesy of David Rathz).

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.

Parish adoption

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.

Aid to the Church in Need helps refugees, those who have been displaced, and those persecuted for their faith, in many countries throughout the world, as does Caritas International, based in Rome.

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.

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About Jeanette Flood 17 Articles
Jeanette Flood is a freelance writer living in Ohio with her husband and their six children. After graduating from Franciscan University of Steubenville, she received her M.A. from the Catholic University of America. Her first book, How Do I Love Thee?, will be published by Ignatius Press in 2019.


  1. Simply follow the money, always follow the money. The Federal money which is the oxygen of CRS. Money wiithout which this appendage of the DNC would fold. Yes, yes, mean spirited, of course. Its always easier to be generous with other people’s money spent on window dressing. Nice photograph, though.

  2. “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.”

    What evidence is there that these immigrants are even integrating in this limited manner, assimilating historical American culture?

    Refugess may be given help but there is no need to bring them here in order to help them, and helping them rather than fellow American citizens is outrageous.

    • Agree!! Those “helpers”, just might find themselves, unable to help them, and end up totally aggravated…or maybe even….in the headlines, one day. What they don’t know, about what the koran teaches, is going to be their….downfall. There’s a saying that goes with this article, “if your going to be dumb, you better be strong”.

  3. It would be enlightening to know if any of these refugees are Christians. The article did not appear to say anything about that. Eastern Christians are in special need of help yet no mention was made of them. Muslims seem to be favored for relief services before our Christian brothers and sisters from Uniate or Orrhodox churches. Scripture enjoins us to “do good to all , especially those of the household of faith”.

    • The bishop of Rome does not favor Christian refugees over muslim refugees, so why should CRS?
      That’s how your CRS donations are spent, dear pewsitters.

    • Like the Catholic from Pakistan whose conviction for insulting Mohammed has been overturned but her life and those of her family are in danger. Bring *her* here.

  4. It has never been a good idea for the Church to receive Federal or State money for any program.
    Just like politics, you become a slave to the cash, and enable policies contrary to Church teaching. An example was when CRS was in bed with pro- contraception agencies.
    Maybe still are in bed.
    I have a relative who works with Catholic Charities in Cleveland maintaining their facilities.
    He says most of the refugees are Muslim.
    That’s fine – but be sure to teach them the Gospel.

  5. There are millions of people coming to America as supposed refugees, who are taught how to claim refugee status. They do not assimilate and leave behind hundreds of thousands in the same circumstances that justify their refugee status.

    They never go home when the threat is over.

    Something very unjust to their fellow countrymen and America is going on.

    There has to be a way to help other than this.

  6. All of the above comments are negative. I think the sensus fidelium on the issue is much different from what the USCCB establishment is desperately trying to push.

    • Father K,
      The responses will continue to be negative because we understand the USCCB agenda. We are not stupid, although the USCCB (and possibly the author) think we are very stupid.
      This is a ‘feel good’ do something for the poor with other peoples money type of project. No one will take any responsibility for the outcome if things head south…and the bishops and CRS will be nowhere to be found. Bet on it.

      • Agree..glad someone else, gets it. Too many people, who want to help other “people”, should look at what their “religion” is, and their background of what they’ve already been taught! Some people, just refuse, to believe that evil reigns in this world! It’s a shame, these “helpers”, might have to learn the hard way…when all they had to do, was read a certain “book”.

  7. I would and have given money to Aid To the Church in Need. They are a truly charitable organisation and help many in many ways. Catholic Charities & Catholic Refugee Resettlement Services are doing a great disservice. They are making money as a government agency to place refugees. Million$$. There is nothing Catholic about it. They are an arm of the govt. They are not helping Catholics. They are not evangelising. They are not saving souls. And, they use their bully pulpit to rally the Catholics who listen to support immigration policies that keep the doors open. This is a conflict of interest. When the Christians in the ME were being persecuted, displaced, raped & murdered there was very little help for them. And they didn’t want to leave their homeland. Aid to the Church in Need was there. We are now a social justice church. The greatest sacrament is helping the poor. The second greatest is lobbying for liberal immigration policies, climate change, & other political causes that are not necessarily Catholic issues. Let’s get some more Pelosis, Bidens, Tim Kaines, John Kerrys, Ted Kennedys, Dick Durbins, Cuomos. They have all gone against so many Catholic principles in the public square! Contraception, divorce, abortion, same sex marriage, euthanasia, Carl Anderson of the KofC was one of the few crying out about the ME Christians. He got Congress to declare it a genocide. He raised money- from contributions, not government money. He offered the idea of safe zones in the ME for refugees. They would be protected and taken care of by international support. They would return to their home countries when it was safe. They could remain culturally intact, with others of the same language, same religion etc. There is no need for displacement, uprooting, travel, separation and turning lives upside down, both for the refugees and the communities where they are placed. Integrating would not be necessary. There are many opportunists, adventurers, and criminals joining the flood of refugees, Also many simply looking for a better life. Who wouldn’t want free healthcare, schooling, housing, language lessons, clothing etc? This is a big mistake for all involved, but many are too busy virtue-signalling to see. Remember Fr Jacques Hamel murdered saying the Mass. His parish bent over backwards to accommodate and welcome the immigrants. Two of the young male immigrants were his murderers.

  8. This astoundingly stupid article reveals all the reasons why Catholics should not be donating money to any of the “catholic” charities mentioned herein. Cleveland is the next Detroit, a disaster in the making with crime and unemployment steadily rising, and the middle class fleeing. The author does not put forth a single good reason why more than 700 refugees per year should be brought thousands of miles, planted into a completely foreign culture, put on the welfare roles at public expense, and all of this without a single word about evangelizing them in the Gospel, the primary task of the Church on this earth. If we can afford to alleviate poverty and suffering overseas, then we should certainly do so, within our means. But “rescuing” Iraqis, Afghanis, Somalis, and Tanzanians by bringing them to Ohio makes about as much sense as saving endangered penguins by plopping them down in Nevada. It makes less sense, actually, since penguins in the desert would cost the taxpayers nothing, and would not weaken civil structures. As an Ohio resident, I can only say that I am glad I live nowhere near this idiotic liberal social engineering project, masquerading as Christian charity. God help the people of Cleveland who have to deal with the consequences of this lunacy.

    • While the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t enjoy their brief stays in Nevada thanks to the Las Vegas Golden Nights. Penguins are happily living in Nevada at the Flamingo Hotel at least on loan from the Dallas Zoo. You are right it makes sense because when we encounter the diversity of God’s creation in unexpected places we have to confront and overcome our negative preconceptions about people that look and even believe different than we do. When this happens we encounter what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven.

      • “…we have to confront and overcome our negative preconceptions about people that look and even believe different than we do.” And there you have it: the gospel of the the church of “nice,” the socialist, anti-cultural, nihilistic platform of the USCCB, masquerading as Christianity. It is no longer about Christ overcoming the world. It’s about us overcoming our “bias” for Christ.

    • Lol, Timothy, have you been to Cleveland recently? You make it sound like we’re living in the slums. Actually it’s quite a vibrant city with a lot of culture: there’s plenty of fine dining, breweries, high-quality coffee shops, theatre, and in case you hadn’t heard, a couple of internationally known sports teams. Yes, people from Israel to Australia travel here to watch the Cavs. I am proud that our city and our Church communities are welcoming those who are in desperate need of a safe haven, and I am glad I live nowhere near you. Please don’t visit.

      • According to Forbes Magazine, Cleveland has the 9th highest rate of violent crime, and the 5th highest murder rate in the country. Congratulations. I am sure an influx of new ideas from the Muslim world can only help.

  9. “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8).

    As mentioned in the article, faithful Catholics can disagree about policies, but we are called to imitate Christ and obey Him and His Church.

    The Church teaches that nations have the right to protect their borders and make immigration policies for the common good. This article wasn’t about the complicated issue of vetting, but I agree that it is vitally important. When we don’t like public policies, we are blessed in our country to have opportunities to change them, especially at the voting booth.

    The Church also teaches that “the more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent that they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2241).

    Whether we like it or not, refugees are coming here. That individual citizens are coming to their aid is not a bad thing. After all, following Christ means striving to practice the Beatitudes, which include feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus showed how seriously He takes our doing so … and our not doing so. “Whatever you did not do to my brother, you did not do for me.” Or as Mother Teresa was fond of putting it, “Each one is Jesus, only Jesus in a distressing disguise.”

    Yet helping as an individual or a family can be daunting. I am grateful that entities like Joseph House exist and make it easier for us to help them.

    The refugees in the photo, who happen to be Christians, fled for their lives, leaving their home country because thousands of civilians were being killed there in ethnic violence; then they lived in a refugee camp for 17 years. I can’t imagine that Jesus would have any objection to Ohio Catholics helping them now that they’re here. Which of us, in their shoes, would not want the same? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They, like the vast majority of refugees who come here, are grateful and eager to give back and become self-sufficient.

    Nor is this an either-or issue, but a both-and issue. Helping the needy has long been a major means of evangelization. What helped evangelize the Roman Empire in the first place was the astonishing example of disinterested, compassionate Christians helping the needy and the downtrodden. “They will know you are Christians by your love.”

    Who knows? Perhaps the hearts of some who slipped in with the intention of causing harm have been touched and changed by the loving welcome of those who helped them.

    Yes, as citizens we should do our best to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and the common good, but that is not our highest goal. Our call is to imitate Christ in everything, to love God above all else and love others as He has loved us.

  10. I am rather shocked by how little compassion the majority of the above commentators have for their fellow humans. And for those who are complaining that the article did not mention evangelizing the refugees, what better way is there too evangelize, than to love our neighbor as ourselves? I agree that Christian refugees need help, but that does not mean Catholic charities should *only* help Christian refugees. Just because a person has different beliefs, we should not help them? No, it is our mission to spread the good news, and the only way we can do that is by lovingly reaching out to those who have not yet heard the good news.

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