The plight of refugees – especially those fleeing Aleppo in Syria – has captured news headlines in recent months, with images of women and children in the basest conditions of tent cities and videos of families literally running for their lives from the city besieged by fighting between the Assad regime and anti-government rebels.
More than five years of armed conflict in Syria has resulted in the displacement of 11 million people, according to Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Bishops’ overseas humanitarian aid organization. Five million of those who have been displaced have sought refuge in other countries.
In the Diocese of Harrisburg, Catholic Charities’ Immigration and Refugee Services has resettled ten Syrian families in recent months. And, just as with those they serve from places like Nepal, Bhutan, China and South Korea, the goal of resettlement is self-sufficiency.
The program works with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which liaises with the Department of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to classify and vet refugees.
Case managers meet the refugees upon their arrival at the airport, and services – rooted in the corporal works of mercy and the principles of Catholic social teaching – begin: welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless.
Catholic Charities’ Immigration and Refugee Services provides an apartment with basic furnishings, clothing, English as a Second Language classes, and employment skills training.
“It is all provided with the goal of making them financially self-sufficient within three months,” said John Leedock, Director of the program’s Immigration Legal Services component.
“Ninety percent of the refugees that we resettle are gainfully employed within those first 90 days,” he pointed out.
This includes the newly-resettled Syrian refugees; the adults are working, the children are in school, and the families are assimilating into life in America.
Integration is key to a successful resettlement.
“Imagine being forced to flee from your home in an instant. You don’t want to leave, but you have no other choice if you want to preserve your safety and your life,” Mr. Leedock said.
“Soon you find yourself as a refugee in the United States. You have to learn English. You have to learn the ways of the culture, find a job. You can’t do those things, however, without a welcoming community to assist you.”
A number of refugees resettled through Catholic Charities are fluent in English, and have held professional positions as physicians, teachers and business owners in their homeland. For them, attaining skilled jobs and returning to their profession is quite possible.
Yet, other refugees have known nothing but life in a tent city. They’ve never seen a grocery store, never ridden in a car, and don’t know how a toilet works. For them, education and integration are critical.
“Our job is to teach them about our culture, show them how things work, welcome them,” said Pete Biasucci, Assistant Executive Director of Catholic Charities.
One example of successful integration can be found in Harrisburg’s Nepalese community, resettled by Catholic Charities. They are gainfully employed and well educated. Some have opened restaurants and grocery stores, and are positively contributing to the larger community.
“When communities don’t offer a welcoming situation, refugees become economic liabilities. When integration is done well, refugees become economic assets,” Mr. Leedock said. “We, as receiving communities, are called to look at how we can also learn about their culture and be welcoming and supportive.”
“The efforts we are undertaking to help serve refugees is not foreign to the work of the Church,” Mr. Biasucci said. It is rooted in Scripture, and in the tenants of Catholic social teaching: dignity of the person, preferential option for the poor, welcoming the stranger, call to community. The Church has always welcomed the refugee, and has been a place of hope.”
(Catholic Charities’ Immigration and Refugee Services welcomes people who wish to support the program. Furnishings such as beds, dressers, as well as clothing are welcome. The program is also seeking volunteers who can assist with ESL classes, computer training, vocational training and legal services. For information, contact the program at 717-232-0568 or visit http://www.cchbg.org/get-help/immigration-refugee-services/.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness