“Jesus was a refugee once.” These words from Charity Stowell, spoken during a recent interview with The Catholic Witness, are a fitting reminder of the Church’s call to welcome the stranger. With the continued unrest being seen in Afghanistan after the United States pull out on August 31, Stowell’s office is a busy place. As the recently named manager for Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program, she is busily preparing to welcome Afghan refugees to the greater Harrisburg area.
“We’re helping families by providing refugee resettlement services, ESL (English as a Second Language) programs and employment services,” Stowell said. “Through this program, we help our families before they even step on American soil through three to six months after they arrive.”
Annually, thousands of refugees flee their countries of origin due to persecution, often times leaving behind their possessions, livelihoods and other family members in the hopes of a fresh start. In the United States, nearly 30% of the refugees resettled each year are through Catholic organizations, whether through diocese or affiliate programs, like Catholic Charities, according to information from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The resettlement process is no small task, and it can start months if not years before a refugee boards a plane for the United States.
“All refugees have to go through an extensive vetting process with the United Nations and the (United States) Department of State,” Stowell said. “A lot of the Afghani refugees have gone through additional vetting. Many of these families were interpreters for the U.S. military. No one is coming into our program without going through intensive vetting.”
This vetting process starts with a referral to the United Nations, a United States Embassy or another non-government specially trained organization. That referral is then sent to the Department of State. From there, a resettlement support center pre-screens the applicants and provides education on the process. Photographs, fingerprints and biometric security checks are followed by medical screenings, a cultural orientation, travel arrangements and then additional background checks at a United States Customs port of entry. All of this is completed before a refugee steps foot on American soil.
Once the vetting process is complete, Stowell explained that her office arranges housing, airport pick up and provides the essentials families may need.
“We provide funds to cover the cost of clothing and food and any other costs they may have in their first three months,” she said. “We also provide a cultural orientation.”
Through this orientation, refugee families are connected with volunteers and others in their cultural community. These volunteers assist the refugees in making medical appointments, enrolling their children in school and learning the ropes of life in the United States.
“We also help our refugee families get social security cards and ID’s, and help them in looking for work. We’re pretty much the family’s first network when they arrive, their first point of support,” explained Stowell.
While Stowell anticipates receiving at least three families from Afghanistan by the end of the month, she added that her office is also assisting refugees from other countries.
“We are also serving families from Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo right now,” said Stowell. Since 1979, Catholic Charities in Harrisburg has resettled thousands of refugees and anticipates assisting 190 people for the 2021-22 year.
Helping refugees provides not only an excellent opportunity for the community to offer a caring and supportive environment for those in need, but it also answers a social teaching of the Catholic Church.
Stories of refugees being forced to flee because of oppression can be found throughout both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. From the Chosen People fleeing slavery in Egypt, to the account in Matthew’s Gospel of Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod, examples of providing care for the foreigner abound.
Resettling refugee families, however, is not something Catholic Charities can do on its own. As Stowell explained, there are many opportunities for the community to get involved.
“Right now, the biggest thing that the community can do to help is to send in a check for direct assistance, especially to help fund rent and utilities. Because refugees come with no social security and no credit history, it’s hard to find landlords that will work for us. Any funding to help supplement rent and utilities, so we can supplement it for 6 months, that is huge,” said Stowell.
In addition to financial support, the resettlement program is also in need to twin bed frames, new or like new twin mattresses, twin bed sheets, large pots and pans, cleaning supplies, and toiletry items.
“People can also volunteer,” Stowell said. “We have volunteer opportunities for folks to help families go to doctors’ appointments and to understand the schooling system. We also have our programs that support refugees after the first 3 months. Some of these are related to empowering women and ELS. The more volunteers we have the more refugees we can help.”
“Jesus exhorts us to welcome the stranger and this is a very direct way to assist families who have been forced to flee their country and need support,” she added.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities, please reach out to Stowell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be made by mailing a check (payable to Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services) to Catholic Charities, 4800 Union Deposit Road, Harrisburg, PA 17111 or can be made online at https://bit.ly/3his2W0. Learn more about Catholic Charities Refugees Resettlement Program by visiting www.cchbg.org/get-help/immigration-refugee-services/refugee-resettlement.
By Rachel Bryson, The Catholic Witness