For Catholic Charities-served refugee, family trumps fear

| March 10, 2017 | 0 Comments

Refugees from Eritrea tell Pope Francis about their journey to safety during a meeting Feb. 21 at the Vatican with participants in the VI International Forum on Migration and Peace. CNS/L’Osservatore Romano

Suad Gele didn’t know about the incoming U.S. president — or his proposed policies’ potential impact on immigrants and refugees — when she came to the United States as a refugee in December 2016.

“I have no idea about anything that’s going on in the world,” she said through a translator, because she is busy helping her nine children acclimate to life in the U.S. Gele, 34, and her children are living in a two-story house in Minneapolis as they begin new lives in safety, far away from their war-torn homeland of Somalia.

Gele has found an advocate in Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis as she adjusts to a new country. The Catholic non-profit organization has provided refugee resettlement services for people fleeing persecution and war since World War II.

More than 20,700 refugees have resettled in Minnesota since 2007, according to the state’s Department of Human Services. One of five organizations that works with DHS in resettlement, Catholic Charities assists refugees for their first 90 days in the U.S. Gele said she received help with groceries, transportation and finding schools for her children, who range in age from 11 months to 17 years.

“Refugees come with very little,” said Laurie Ohmann, Catholic Charities’ senior vice president of client services and community partnerships. “They receive some financial support, and that is enough to get them on their feet. … We spend a lot of time looking for suitable housing that is as affordable as possible, [in order to] try and stretch their resources as far as possible while they’re getting established here.”

Catholic Charities also helps refugees obtain work authorization cards in order to find jobs. Finding work in a new country poses a challenge even for the most educated refugees.

“We know of people who’ve come who had been doctors in their homeland, and until they are able to meet the standards of American practice, they do other things, whether it’s a home health aide or a community health worker or something else,” Ohmann said.

The Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger — and Pope Francis’ emphasis on that teaching — plays a role in motivating Catholic Charities’ work with refugees.

“I think of the pope as our best cheerleader,” Ohmann said. “He is continually asking us to reflect on the need to embrace the stranger, to welcome our human brothers wherever they come from. I appreciate how much he invites us to open our hearts to the strangers among us and to understand their condition and their situations as part of our willingness to really receive the stranger.”

Catholic Charities works with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services in bringing refugees to Minnesota. The USCCB works with the federal government, which handles the screening of refugee applicants.

Bill Canny, executive director of the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services, said the applicants go through three to four interviews with government agencies along with biometric screening and medical exams.

“They’re matched with a sponsoring agency, [and] that’s where we would come in,” Canny said. “Then we would distribute those refugees out to various Catholic Charities [offices] in the country depending on a number of criteria. The most important being … have they requested to join family in that area.”

Different beliefs, same God

Minnesota is home to 40,000 Somali immigrants, the nation’s largest Somali population, with most living in Minneapolis. More than 7,500 have arrived as refugees since 2007, according to DHS.

Concerns about the Somali-American community’s acclimation and stability have arisen in light of the St. Cloud mall stabbing by a Somali man in September 2016 and the November 2016 conviction of nine Minnesota Somali men for terrorism-related charges. In St. Cloud, Catholic leaders have been at the helm of efforts to increase understanding between Christians and Muslims, including the Somali community. The Catholic Church affirmed in the 1965 document “Nostra Aetate” that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, but that Islam holds an imperfect understanding of God, in part because it denies Jesus’ divinity.

“I’m a little concerned that some of the tension is driven to blame these people because of their difference in religion without us understanding all that’s going on,” Ohmann said. “From a Catholic Charities point of view, we’d be looking to invite our community, and particularly our parishes, to understand the differences between and among people, whether it’s their cultural differences or their religious practices.”

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive orders tightening the country’s enforcement of immigration laws and restricting the admission of refugees, agencies that work with them have voiced concerns about polices that prevent or delay refugees’ admission to the U.S.

“Refugees and immigrants are us, our neighbors, friends, colleagues and loved ones, and are an inextricable part of the fabric of our great state,” said Emily Johnson Piper, DHS commissioner and a Catholic, in a Feb. 28 statement to The Catholic Spirit. “The state of Minnesota’s refugee program continues to work with its community partners, like Catholic Charities, to assure that refugees in Minnesota receive services that best support their resettlement.”

Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens have also spoken in support of immigrants and refugees since the election.

Some people have shown their disagreement with the administration’s direction by bolstering their support of Catholic Charities’ refugee work. Gele’s rental arrangement is through a Catholic Charities benefactor, who offered use of the home to the organization for a family refugee, after the Trump administration announced its first executive orders on immigration in January.

Gele, a Muslim, fled Somalia because of civil war in which some of her family members were killed. Gele spent time in Nairobi, Kenya, which borders Somalia to the east.

Her husband has not been able to leave Kenya, however, and she fears the executive orders could curtail his arrival. The first order, issued in January, suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days (with indefinite suspension for Syrians) and temporarily prohibited travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Somalia. Courts blocked the order. The Trump administration issued a revised ban March 6 that dropped Iraq from countries affected by the temporary travel ban, but kept the 120-day suspension on refugee admittance. It also cut the total number of refugees allowed into the U.S. annually by more than half, to 50,000.

“The biggest challenge is the uncertainty of [the executive order’s] implementation,” Ohmann said Feb. 28, prior to the new order’s release. She added that it hasn’t changed the daily processes of Catholic Charities work with refugees, but it has altered the number of people Catholic Charities expects to resettle this year.

“We expected to resettle more refugees this year, and we are getting indications that we will probably settle about two-thirds or maybe slightly less than two-thirds of what we thought,” Ohmann said.

It leaves a lot of unknowns for many such as Gele’s husband in Kenya, who might not make it to the U.S. because of his Somali ethnicity. Gele hopes her husband can make it to Minnesota but takes comfort in the fact that she and her children are safe.

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