By Leif Maynard
While it no longer occupies the front pages of the news, the refugee crisis in Syria—and refugee issues globally—still continue with force. The counts of both internally displaced Syrians and refugees abroad increased in early 2017 to a combined 11.4 million displaced people, according to recent UNHCR estimates. The ongoing nature of the crisis, so heavily reported on in 2015, cannot be understated. The war in Syria still grinds on, displacement camps in European and Middle Eastern host nations are only becoming more crowded, and violent hostility still haunts refugees at every step of their journey.
Of course, the Middle East is not the only region stricken by war, forcing families to flee violence. North Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now the Rohingya peoples of Myanmar are all part of the global refugee problem—the worst humanitarian crisis the world faces today. Given the current geography of the crisis, statelessness and displacement disproportionately affect Muslims, and hostile responses to accepting refugees in the U.S. and Europe has brought the prevalence of islamophobia and dire need for cross-cultural dialogue to the forefront.
In Western Massachusetts, the plight of refugees may feel impossibly remote and hopelessly enormous, that is until you meet a newly resettled refugee at your local grocery store. Through the work of a handful of refugee resettlement organizations in the area, our community has welcomed dozens of refugees since 2015—not a significant number in an international context, but life altering for every one of the families who can now reclaim their humanity in a safe and supportive community.
To more deeply understand the continuing Western Mass refugee aid effort, we reached out to Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities, the leading resettlement agency in the area. She explained the recent work of her organization, setbacks and successes in the Trump era, and how her faith guides her to help all human beings achieve the elemental human rights of basic dignity and freedom from violence.
Critical Connections: Please give an overview of your organization's work with refugees. Where are they predominantly from? What is Catholic Charities doing right now to aid refugees?
Catholic Charities is a Refugee Reception & Placement Agency subcontracted through the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the nine national voluntary agencies that are contracted by the State Department to resettle refugees.
Our mission is to provide assurance so that refugees can travel to this country to build a new home of hope. We meet and welcome them, assist them with finding a place to live, helping them acquire documentation and social benefits. We provide ESL, employment services, cultural orientation. Our Circles of Care, made up of residents of Northampton, help our caseworkers provide ongoing assistance, friendship and integration.
Due to the unexpected halt in refugee entry to the US, we were able to settle 18 refugees in FY 2017. We are serving Bhutanese, Iraqi, and Democratic Republic of the Congo families.
What has been one major recent triumph in your work with refugees?
We just were successful in getting the head of household (single mom) of one of our families a job in less than 90 days, and managing to find ways for her to take care of her two children. The Circle of Care, the school system, and the caseworkers worked diligently to put this all together in a way that would allow her to start to make her own way and build financial capacity and independence.
What has been one major setback in your work and how are you overcoming the challenge?
The halt of refugees being allowed to enter the country, particularly from Arabic speaking countries, has been our biggest challenge. We were able to “stay alive” even though it is our first year in resettlement, by some fortuitous forethought. All our caseworkers are cross-trained to serve in our other social service programs. This means that we didn’t have to curtail staff. Our concern, however, is for the 20 refugees that are still in our “assurance pipeline”. There is not much that we can do from this end. So we watch and wait and keep preparing. We already have Circles of Care ready and anxiously awaiting the refugees’ arrival.
Please share a story from your work with refugees that touched you personally.
We are working with an Iraqi refugee family, a mom and two children, that has US ties (relative in the country). When we called the US tie to see whether they would accept the responsibility of assisting the family upon their arrival, we could hear screams in the background as the man who answered said the mom’s name. Softly in the background we could hear “my babies… my babies”. We came to discover that the one we were speaking to was the woman’s husband. He and his parents (who the ones doing the screaming for joy) have been here since 2012. With some luck the family could be reunited by the end of the year.
How does your faith guide Catholic Charities’ mission of aiding refugees of all ethnic and religious backgrounds?
Simply put we believe in the life, dignity, value, and worth of all God’s children. We believe that all have the right to access those things needed for a decent life. Among those rights are the freedom from fear, and the right to live. We believe that we do not have the right to pass judgement on others based on race, color, creed, ethnicity, gender, etc… Together these beliefs allow us to freely and gratefully serve those in need.
In conclusion—How can members of the community best support and aid refugees?
Community members can:
- Help us educate and enlighten other communities and their members.
- Speak out against policies that foment prejudice and close our borders to some of the most vulnerable people in our world.
- Locally, encourage donations to Catholic Charities of gift cards to stores like: Target, J.C. Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, or Big Y and Stop & Shop.
- Locally, encourage donations to offset the first year’s cost of living for the refugee families, especially their rent by making a donation to Welcoming Refugees Resettlement Project.
- Participate in a Circle of Care or volunteer to provide transportation for the families.