A Maryknoll Affiliate and members of her parish expand their vision by helping refugees find a home in North Carolina
[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Gail Kelley[/googlefont]
Think globally and act locally is a mantra often repeated by the Maryknoll Affiliates—people who identify with Maryknoll’s vision, spirit and charism but remain active in their work at home and in their own communities. Over the 25 years I have been a Maryknoll Affiliate, I have been able to put that mantra into practice in many ways, but especially through the Refugee Resettlement Ministry (RRM) at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, my parish in Raleigh, N.C. The ministry is composed of 15 members of all ages. Initiated in 1986, RRM has assisted in resettling 33 families such as the Semahoros.
Bashir Semahoro, a Congolese native, arrived with his family in Raleigh in October 2014. “We were cattle ranchers in the Congo when we were attacked by another indigenous tribe,” he said. “My parents were killed, my wife raped, and one of my children lost. My wife, three daughters, my brother and I escaped with nothing but the clothes on our backs. It took us four months to walk to Ethiopia, where we were placed in a refugee camp operated by the United Nations.”
Our RRM was assigned this family, through the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), one of several non-profit organizations that have been approved for family placement at the local level by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Prior to their arrival, the Semahoros went through an eight-step vetting process involving several governmental agencies. They received a loan covering the expense of air travel from the U.S. State Department, which they began repaying six months after their arrival.
Each family member received a cash sum, administered by USCRI, to enable them to pay for food, rent and utilities, and transportation during three months. Bashir and his brother were then employed as housekeepers in a local hotel and were expected to assume financial support of their family. They also received food stamps and Medicaid.
Our ministry learned of the Semahoros a month before they arrived in Raleigh. We requested donations from our parishioners. Their generosity allowed us to greet the Semahoros with a three-bedroom furnished apartment. We provided transportation to school for their three girls, and applications for work. As the oldest girl was diagnosed with diabetes, we helped her enroll in a diabetic program operated by the Health Department and reviewed her testing and treatment with her mother. We assisted the mother in setting up a bank account and had a monthly meeting with her to review her bills and explain payment arrangements.
The family was Methodist, so we introduced them to a nearby Methodist Church, which arranged for transportation to their Sunday services. We put the Semahoro family on our parish list to receive Thanksgiving baskets and Christmas gifts. We even included a small decorated Christmas tree. Their first steps of inculturation had begun and we were pleased to be a part of it and to be considered members of their extended family.
In another instance, the daughter of one of our RRM members heard that a Montagnard refugee couple from Vietnam could not help their children with homework or communicate with their teachers. She began to visit their home weekly to help. The parents realized they needed to learn English. In response, our ministry started an ESL class every Sunday. For seven years the ESL program has helped recently arrived families by not only teaching them English but also assisting them to prepare and apply for their U.S. citizenship.
We have been delighted to discover people from other lands who have enriched our faith community. Benjamin Pransu, a Kerani refugee from Myanmar (formerly Burma) asked after Sunday Mass, “Can you help me get my baby baptized?” He became our first contact with five other Burmese families in our parish. We learned that Benjamin had four years of seminary training in his native country and had wanted to be a deacon. We also met Chrul Nay, a Montagnard refugee from Vietnam who had converted to Catholicism in his native country after bicycling 60 miles each month for religious education from an underground priest. Benjamin and Chrul are now catechists ministering to their ethnic groups.
Our ministry not only assists families in their initial experience in our city but we also continue our relationship with them for as long as they need us. We have provided cars, bicycles, legal advice, tax preparation, applications to Human Resources agencies and Habitat for Humanity, and help applying for home mortgages.
Recognizing that there are 14.4 million refugees throughout the world, Pope Francis has reminded us: “In welcoming the stranger, we welcome God, and in the faces of others we see the face of Christ.”
The members of our RRM have indeed seen the face of Christ in the strangers we have welcomed. They have inspired us with their unshakable faith, their unquenchable desire to be free in spite of persecution and imprisonment, their family values, their joy in simplicity, and their determination to become full and productive Americans. As a Maryknoll Affiliate, I am proud to be part of this ministry to vulnerable people from whom I learn so much.
For information on refugee resettlement, visit: www.acf.gov/programs/orr and click on State Program Directory for voluntary agencies in your area.
Featured Image: Semahoro family is now resettled in Raleigh with a new baby boy. (Courtesy of Semahoros/U.S.)