Welcoming Afghan Refugees in Virginia

Maria Hayes Around the Province, Home Page – News

In mid-August, personnel on Marine Corp Base Quantico near Triangle, Virginia, were informed that the base would welcome 5,000 refugees from Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Refuge. They were given three-days’ notice. Agencies in the area began racing against the clock to create temporary shelters and gather supplies for the arriving families. 

John O’Connor, pastor of nearby St. Francis of Assisi Parish, and Francia Salguero, outreach director at St. Francis House, began receiving calls from Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, the USCCB Refugee Relief Coordinator, and the Department of Homeland Security. Could the St. Francis community help with resettlement efforts?

St. Francis House is located a 13-minute drive from the base. A well-known outreach ministry of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, it offers a wide range of services to low-income families in Eastern Prince William County. Welcoming the stranger is a core tenet of the Franciscan tradition, and the staff quickly got to work.

On Aug. 24, St. Francis House put out a call for various material goods – cribs, diapers, baby wipes, clothes and shoes for children, luggage, water bottles and the like. Two weeks later, their warehouse was full. Parishioners continued to give generously in the weeks that followed, and a local foundation presented St. Francis House with a $10,000 grant to help with resettlement efforts.

“Our Francis House directors, Francia and Angelica Silva, have been doing a superb job, and the parish’s response has been tremendous,” said John, who is no stranger to outreach ministry – he founded St. Francis House in 1992. “If we need something – whether it’s shoes, diapers, coats, sleeping mats, toys – we put the word out to parishioners and receive multiple donations within 24 hours.”

John has visited the camp twice. Because the camp is located on a military base, security is tight – a visitor must have security clearance to enter and go through at least two security checkpoints – and the taking of photos or video is not allowed. While most of the details of his visits must remain confidential, he spoke of the huge effort underway to resettle the refugees – an effort led by all branches of the U.S. military working in tandem with federal agencies from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the US Catholic Conference of Bishops, the only faith-based organization that is part of the on-site relief efforts.

The USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services resettles approximately 18 percent of the refugees that arrive in the United States every year. To keep the bishops informed of what was happening in the Quantico camp, John arranged for Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Va., a member of the USCCB’s executive leadership committee, to visit the camp on Nov. 9. They were joined by the executive director of the USCCB resettlement services, a top official from the Department of Homeland Security, a representative of the U.S. State Department, and the Marine Corps General in charge of operations. 

During their visit, John met with USCCB-affiliated volunteers who are working in the camp. Many are Afghan-Americans or other refugees from Afghanistan who recently arrived in the United States.

“We often see bad news in the newspapers and on television,” John said. “When you’re in the camp, you see compassionate human beings reaching out to help people who have been uprooted from their homes and have come to a whole new country, a whole new experience. Seeing that compassion restores your confidence and your faith in the goodness of humanity.”

While in the camp, John and Bishop Burbidge visited a classroom of children, who presented them with hundreds of signs thanking their new American friends for their love and generosity. After the visit, the bishop told John that it was one of the most moving pastoral experiences of his life.

“The refugees told us over and over again how grateful they are to be in a country like the United States where they are safe and have the opportunity to have a fresh start on life,” said John, adding “They are so grateful for what so many Americans are doing for them.”

St. Francis House is working to resettle several families in nearby Prince William and Fairfax Counties. Many of the other families living in the camp will be resettled outside of Northern Virginia due to the lack of affordable housing. Parishioners continue to support their Afghan sisters and brothers through donations. Last week, they provided furniture for a family that will resettle in Prince William County.

“It is a tribute to our parishioners and the staff of our St. Francis House outreach program that the federal government, Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recognized the quality of our parish’s outreach programs and asked us to be a coordinating relief agency for the 5,000 refugees at the resettlement camp at Marine Corps Base Quantico,” said John. 

Keep the refugees in your prayers, he implored. “They are living in vey temporary living conditions. It’s not like living in their own home and getting to know the people in their community, which they are so looking forward to doing.”

— Maria Hayes is director of marketing for Holy Name Province.

Editor’s note: Catholic Charities USA is leading the U.S. Church in its efforts to help resettle Afghan refugees. They have made a request to religious communities for assistance in providing refugees with housing. If you believe that your friary, ministry, and/or province might have a facility that can house a refugee family temporarily (perhaps for as long as one year), please reach out to Russ Testa of the US-6 JPIC Working Group at jpic@usfranciscans.org. They are desperate for housing.