“I want people to understand that no one chooses to be a refugee. If our homes were safe, if our lives were safe, we would not choose to leave them behind.”
This is the message Valentine, a former refugee, wants people to understand about the plight of those who leave their home country because of war, genocide or persecution.
She also wants people to understand the important work of Catholic Charities on behalf of refugees who arrive in the Harrisburg area, many coming with nothing but the clothes they wear.
“Catholic Charities helps us find housing and work, so we can provide for our families and be in a place where we are safe, where we can live and sleep in peace without the fear of death,” she said.
For Valentine, sleeping in peace was not always the case. Born in Rwanda in 1993, she was four months old when her father was killed in the genocide that took the lives of 800,000 people in the African country over the course of 100 days.
Valentine’s mother escaped with Valentine and her brother that year to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they lived as refugees, scrounging out a life as best they could in a refugee camp often besieged with cholera and Ebola. They mourned the loss of their husband and father, and the life they once knew.
The family spent 20 years in Congo, where Valentine knew nothing but life as a refugee. In 2015, they were processed and accepted as refugees by the U.S. government. When they arrived here, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Harrisburg set out immediately on a path to help the family resettle.
“Soon, life started getting better,” Valentine said.
Welcoming the Refugee
The United States is a beacon of hope and a place of safety for thousands of refugees each year. Across the country, Catholic Charities USA works with state and federal governments to resettle many of these refugees, helping them adjust to new lives and newfound freedom as they work to become economically and socially self-sufficient in their new homeland.
In the Diocese of Harrisburg, Catholic Charities works to resettle an average of 100-300 refugees each year through its Immigration and Refugee Services program. Over the years, it has resettled refugees from Bhutan, Nepal, Syria, South Korea and Afghanistan, with the goal of 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.
“Catholic Charities works to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, help the poor, and assist the most vulnerable in our communities. In the Diocese of Harrisburg, we do it several ways…and one is through our work with refugees,” said Kelly Gollick, Executive Director.
A refugee is defined as a person fleeing armed conflict or persecution in their homeland. Refugees have access to assistance from the United States, the UN Refugee Agency and other organizations because their lives would be endangered if they returned home.
Refugees differ from immigrants, the latter of which are defined as persons who leave their homeland not because of a direct threat to their safety, but rather to improve their lives through work, education or family reunification.
“Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Harrisburg works only with those individuals who are sanctioned to come to the United States,” Gollick stressed. “The refugees we work with are thoroughly vetted. Most refugees take years to go through the vetting process before they are granted permission and welcomed to the United States.”
Helping refugees secure a job and housing is priority number one.
“Initially, we help with the resettlement process, and that’s only 90 days long” Gollick said. “Think about that: going to a foreign country and having only 90 days of support to help you find a place to live and a job, to get your children enrolled in school, to get all of your paperwork. That’s not a long period of time to get somebody settled into a new country, but it’s where we come in.”
“We find that the individuals we work with are committed to being here, to being productive just like any other American individual in our country,” she said.
Finding Paths to Success
Thomas Smith, Employment Services Manager for Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services, has seen first-hand the impact the program has on the refugees it serves, even in the four months he has worked there.
“From the time they arrive to Catholic Charities with their documents to the point where we get them situated, we help them find suitable housing, employment and whatever resources they can benefit from,” he said.
The program offers English as a Second Language classes at beginner and intermediate levels, a specialized work program to help refugees find jobs that use their particular skill set, and an Empowering Women for Success program, which connects women to feminine hygiene products, infant-care items and community support.
In the specialized job program, Catholic Charities works with individuals on long-term employment. “We don’t want them to come here and just get thrown into any job; we want them to find opportunities to use the skills that they have and find meaningful work. If they find an initial job, we may assist them to find that job that might match their skill sets,” Gollick said.
“People might be surprised to know that some of the refugees come with degrees and certifications in all types of skill sets,” Smith pointed out. “I think a lot of individuals fail to see that the refugees are bringing a skill set and have talents and education that can benefit our communities. A lot of times, they need to get certification to practice here in our country, especially in the education, legal or medical professions.”
Offering these services in addition to helping secure work, housing and childcare, Catholic Charities is helping refugees navigate their community so they’re not lost in a new way of life.
“The goal for all of our clients is self-sufficiency, and that includes getting them to the point where they are able to highlight resources in the area, know where to shop to get specific foods they like, or to congregate and go to religious services together. That’s important to a successful resettlement,” Smith said.
Shaping Positive Outcomes
Valentine is one of Catholic Charities’ countless success stories. Starting out as a forklift operator at Amazon when she first arrived in the United States, she has since completed ESL classes and earned her high school diploma. Valentine is now employed with Immigration and Refugee Services, where she assists refugees in finding employment.
“A caseworker here encouraged me to work for the program. She said, ‘You can be and do anything you want, if you believe it.’ It feels good to give back and to help other people,” she said.
Valentine’s family is also succeeding. One of her sisters is in nursing school, another is in high school, and her brother is an elementary student.
“Knowing that you have helped individuals, and seeing those people later on in the process, like Valentine, coming back to help others, is the best part of this work,” Smith said. “It’s rewarding to go home and know that you made a difference. I sleep that much better at night just knowing that whatever we do in our normal daily routine helps others. Seeing that final outcome from the time they first arrive to linking them to the process and watching them find successful lives is the most rewarding part for me.”
“Our clients come here and are willing to meet us halfway, and that’s one of the most efficient ways to achieve success,” Smith said.” Each client comes to us from different circumstances, of course, but also with a different list of tasks to complete. They come in eager to learn the language, to find employment, to become part of our culture. If they come with just a mustard seed’s worth of effort, that’s all it takes, because we can do the rest with linking them to support and resources. Just knowing that the clients are willing to work goes a long way toward their successful resettlement.”
Valentine, now a wife and mother, plans to continue her life in the United States and help refugees find a better path for their futures.
“I remind people that this is just the beginning for them. They have to start from scratch, take ESL classes, learn to read and write, get their driver’s license, get their certifications and continue their life,” Valentine said.
“I knew I could be successful here because I believed in myself and I believed in God’s plan for me,” she said. “Today, in my work, I can help others to believe in themselves, too.”
“We are so thankful for Catholic Charities, for the life they gave us,” she said.
A DAC Program
Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services is one of the many programs supported by the Diocesan Annual Campaign. From counseling services and foster care, to homeless shelters and resettlement efforts for refugees, your gift to the Diocesan Annual Campaign helps underwrite these important ministries.
“Your support of the DAC brings Catholic social teaching to life through the work at Catholic Charities and will help countless more people seeking the safety of America,” Gollick said.
To learn more about the campaign, including how you can support the important ministries of the Diocese, please visit www.hbgdiocese.org/giving/diocesan-annual-campaign.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness, and Catholic News Agency.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness