RALEIGH, N.C. – Earlier this year, for the second time in 19 months, the parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish sponsored a Congolese refugee family for resettlement here. For more than 15 years, home for the five children and their parents had been a refugee camp in Rwanda. But their angst and uncertainty, and living as refugees, came to an end when parishioners opened the door to their new home in a Raleigh apartment complex on a Thursday in January.
USCRI’s global advocacy shines a light on social injustices and sets a universal standard of dignity for the most vulnerable of the world. The agency’s mission, and the involvement of St. Francis parishioners with refugee resettlement are consistent with the Franciscan values of caring for the poor and marginalized.
With the Oval Office’s current anti-immigration policies, Holy Name Province’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation and other Franciscan ministries around the country have been partnering on immigration advocacy with other organizations such as USCRI, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants, and Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.
“The number of people with ‘refugee’ status has increased dramatically, while at the same time, the U.S. government is decreasing the number of refugees it welcomes into our country – and this is an immoral position,” said HNP-JPIC Animator Russ Testa.
“With so many lies about the threats that refugees pose to the U.S., it is imperative that we spread the truth, especially the efforts and experiences at places like St. Francis in Raleigh,” Testa added.
The phone call from USCRI’s Ryan Smith – requesting that St. Francis Parish sponsor a refugee family of seven that would be resettling in Raleigh – set in motion an intense and collaborative team effort by parishioner volunteers to insure a warm and compassionate welcome – and a fully stocked apartment – for the family whose five children, the eldest 13 and the youngest 2, since birth had only known home as a refugee camp.
From setting up the apartment with everything from furniture to food, greeting the family when they arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport after a grueling three-day journey, and providing care and support during their transitional months, St. Francis parishioners have personified the iconic words of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet about the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…”
Raleigh Parishioners ‘Valuable Partners’
Smith, a case manager for the agency’s reception and placement program, said St. Francis parishioners are “tremendously valuable partners” in USCRI’s welcome home project.
“This involves a major undertaking, furnishing and decorating apartments for our families before they even arrive. The volunteers at St. Francis always go above and beyond to create a warm and welcoming home for our families,” Smith said.
“What we love about St. Francis is the diligence and sensitivity of the volunteers. They invite us to the church to speak to their refugee resettlement ministry about the family – details such as the family’s composition, country of origin, where they were living as refugees, language, relevant medical conditions, potential child care challenges, and other background,” Smith explained.
“It gives us the opportunity to develop a plan on how the church and our agency will work together toward helping these families get settled and become successful Americans,” Smith said. “I’m always impressed by the thoroughness, organization and compassion that we see from the volunteers at St. Francis. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with them, and we look forward to our continued partnership.”
Aggie Dalton, director of the parish’s refugee resettlement initiative, also heaped praise on the parishioner volunteers, which numbers 150 in this ministry.
“Refugee families literally need everything – furniture, bedding, bath towels, lamps, toiletries, books, toys, bicycles, kitchenware, televisions, a fully stocked pantry and refrigerator – and everything in between,” Dalton said. “USCRI knows it can count on St. Francis because our parishioners genuinely want to help and are generous with their time and donations. We have volunteers at every stage of the process – a team that cleans the apartment, and teams that collect and organize donations, decorate the apartment, and coordinate the move-in.”
Dalton added, “It truly takes a congregation to prepare a home for a resettled refugee family.”
Trevor Thompson, who heads several ministries at St. Francis, including justice and peace, said that Catholic social teaching has been firm in its commitment to the view that all people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families, as well as the biblical principles of hospitality, solidarity, and the dignity of all.
“Our refugee resettlement ministry is one way at St. Francis of Assisi that we live this vision of God’s kingdom here on earth,” Thompson said. “I love that it provides regular intimate opportunities for our parishioners to break down the fear and mistrust that often arises when encountering immigrants and refugees – and, instead, it creates meaningful relationships where people can share their joys and hopes, and support each other in sorrows and trials.”
Becky Cawley, a justice and peace specialist with the parish, was among the group of parishioners that trekked to the airport in January with balloons, flowers and smiles to greet the beleaguered family at one in the morning when their flight touched down. It was the first time she welcomed a refugee family.
“The family arrived exhausted and disoriented. Traveling for three days is daunting enough when you speak the language. What struck me was that their entire life’s possessions fit into two small suitcases. But none of that seemed to matter to them. You could see the connection, the love that bound them,” said Cawley, who is responsible for the parish’s justice and peace outreach, service and advocacy education.
“For me, it was a very humbling moment. I experienced God’s presence in a way I had never felt before,” Cawley continued. “The mother’s face was so demonstrative, telling of a difficult journey and more difficulties in store for them. But her pride was also very telling when she walked into the family’s new home [the aroma of a traditional Swahili meal – prepared by a former Congolese refugee – wafting through the apartment]. Their 15 years as refugees was behind them. I felt the sense that this family would be okay.”
Dalton said that although parishioners work well under pressure, their determination was tested when USCRI’s Smith notified St. Francis about sponsoring the second family.
“We found out two weeks before Christmas that the five children and their parents would be arriving on Jan. 17, and we couldn’t get into the apartment until four days before their arrival. We rented a pod to store all the furniture and other donations that came pouring in from parishioners,” she explained.
“The apartment had to be ready because we wanted the family to immediately feel comfortable in their new home. It’s amazing how quickly we turned it over. There was definitely a higher spirit at work,” said Dalton, noting that the family lives in a large complex whose residents consist mostly of other immigrants and refugee families from Africa, Syria and Afghanistan, and is in walking distance to grocery stores and public transportation.
Dalton reports that the family has adapted quickly since arriving three months ago – with the children making friends and the parents assimilating into their work and social environments (mom works at a private uniform and linen company, while dad works in a poultry factory).
USCRI identifies employment opportunities for the parents and provides interim support in the form of food vouchers, rent payments and other financial assistance for six months until families are able to become self-sufficient.
Close Connections, Lasting Friendships
While apartments are set up to be turn-key-ready when the families arrive, the work of St. Francis parishioners is far from complete. They spend the first two-to-three months taking the families grocery shopping and to local parks, and helping them become familiar with and adapt to their new surroundings. Soon after the arrival of the second family in January, parishioners drove them to several rounds of appointments with doctors and education officials to get the children – ages 13, 11, 8, 5 and 2 – immunized and enrolled in school.
Once the families are settled in, the focus shifts to helping them assimilate and thrive independently in the community. The parish formed a refugee support circle, which is a smaller core group of volunteers that meets monthly to make sure the families have everything they need.
“Making them feel welcome and secure in their new homes is just the beginning. There are several opportunities to assist the family once they settle in, such as helping them explore and understand their new surroundings, accompanying them on simple excursions to the supermarket, local parks and doctor visits, helping them learn English, and tutoring the children,” Dalton said. “We develop lasting friendships so they feel connected to the community.”
Although the first resettlement refugee family, also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has become self-sufficient since arriving in Raleigh in June 2017, parishioners still pitch in, according to Dalton – who said both parents are employed and all four children, ages 14, 11, 9 and 7, are well established in schools and sing in their church chorus. Parishioners provide assistance to the family, donating gift cards and providing winter coats, clothing, toys and other gifts at Christmastime as part of the parish Advent giving tree.
Dalton recalled the humbling experience of the arrival of the first parish-sponsored family, which had been living in a refugee camp in Tanzania for nearly 20 years. Her first impression was similar to Cawley’s.
“A family of six stepped off the plane with one small piece of luggage – their life for the past two decades in that little bag, but that’s all they seemed to need because they were starting a new life in their new home. It really put things into perspective,” Dalton said.
– Stephen Mangione, a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
Editor’s note: Resources about immigration and related issues can be found on the Justice and Peace page of the Province’s website.
- “Advocating for Immigrant Rights” – Jan. 24, 2018, HNP Today
- “Newspaper Covers Raleigh Church’s Outreach” – March 4, 2009, HNP Today
- “Raleigh’s St. Francis Parish Celebrates 25th Anniversary” – Oct. 10, 2007, HNP Today
- “Finding a Spiritual Home” by Trevor Thompson – Sept. 26, 2015, HNP Today