Friday, February 13, 2015

A Conversation with Four Refugees

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Tucked away quietly on Monroe Street in Northeast Washington, DC, our Refugee Center provides a new beginning and the resources for refugees granted asylum here in the greater DC area. The Refugee Center provides case management and employment service support to recent refugees and those granted asylum. The Center coaches and aids clients in job searching, interviewing, benefit enrollment, workplace ESL classes and all facets of the employment process.

Volunteer guest blogger Mike Gehring sat down with four new and current clients for the Refugee Center to talk with them about where they came from and where they hope to go.
Mirelle, a refugee from Gabon

Ask any American parent of a special-needs child how challenging it can be to care for a young infant, and you’ll recognize instantly the deep and abiding love each parent has for their child. Now imagine if your entire family and support network were convinced your infant, who was experiencing frequent seizures, was possessed by a demon. For Mirelle, living in Gabon on the coast of Central Africa, this was her life. Even her son’s father urged her to abandon the child out in the wild. She worried for her son’s safety.
Mirelle brought her child to Boston, where a sister-in-law lived. Doctors in Boston diagnosed her son as having cerebral palsy. Still, even her sister-in-law encouraged her to take the child home and abandon her son. She knew God had a plan for her son and for her. She applied for and received refugee status. She moved down with a sister in DC and was connected to our Refugee Center.

She has access to support systems that will provide long-term medical coverage for her son and equally as important real hope for both of their futures.

Mirelle’s goal is to go back to school here in DC so that she can ultimately specialize in the care of special needs children. The final step will be to return to Gabon and establish a clinic that will help families with special needs children in her home country.

Teme, a political refugee from Eritrea

Teme was born and raised in Eritrea, a small country of six million people positioned right on  the Red Sea in northeast Africa. Teme’s journey to America is a complex story highlighted by political blackmail, intrigue and personal danger.

After graduating from college with a BA in Political Science, Teme went to work for Eritrea’s ministry of foreign affairs.  (It’s important to note that 55 percent of the adult population of Eritrea work for the government.)  At the same time, locked in a job that demanded absolute loyalty to an oppressive, totalitarian government, Teme’s job in foreign affairs had broadened his view of the world and allowed him to see the full possibilities of freedom in other countries. Teme realized that more than anything he wanted freedom.

As difficult and personally dangerous as his life had become, his job in foreign affairs also provided Teme’s best answer for escape. While on a diplomatic mission to Egypt, Teme sought asylum from the UN High Commissioner stationed in Egypt. Teme was granted asylum status by the Egyptian government.  After spending two years of asylum in Egypt, Teme was able to gain refugee status in the United States.

Life in the US is providing Teme with his first opportunity in life to believe in unlimited possibilities. Catholic Charities Refugee Center is the secure foundation that will enable Teme to find work, to continue his education pursuing a Masters Degree in Political Science and launch a new career focused on helping other potential refugees currently living in dangerous and oppressive circumstances. 

Daisy, a victim of domestic violence and refugee from Guatemala

Daisy was a victim of relentless domestic violence in her native Guatemala. Daisy is a bright, sensitive young woman and extraordinary mother to a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old.  She wants nothing more than to live a life and provide a life for her children without fear or intimidation. 

She has found that peace and security for her and her children as refugees here in the US and a client of the Catholic Charities Refugee Center. With the Center's help, Daisy has already started a new job. Daisy has larger dreams of becoming a master electrician and starts school soon. She sweetly described the staff at the Refugee Center as, “her special Angels”.

Andu, a political refugee from Ethiopia

Andu fulfilled his early career dream by graduating law school and becoming an attorney in Ethiopia.  However, a tightly controlling ruling party freezes out all attorneys who withhold pledges of loyalty. Andu refused to sacrifice his values and eventually had take a job as a college instructor in a neighboring province.

For safety reasons, Andu asked that
we not show him directly.
Six months into his new job, Andu found that the politics of absolute power had followed him.  He was paid a visit by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.  They wanted a pledge of loyalty and the commitment of an annual donation of money to the party.

Once again, Andu found himself in an untenable position. He knew he could not compromise all of his values and beliefs to live the rest of his life based on a lie by pledging his loyalty and money to the Ethiopian government. 

While on vacation in Pennsylvania visiting friends, Andu applied for and was granted political asylum. Andu is now a client at the Refugee Center. In making the decision, he lost everything he had worked for and has to start over. But he cherishes the freedom he has before him and is working to reunite with his family who remain hidden in Ethiopia.

Inspired? Want to get involved? Our Refugee Center always needs volunteers who can teach, who can hire or who can be a support for our clients as they rebuild from scratch. Learn more here

Monday, February 9, 2015

Return to "Ordinary Time" Not So Ordinary for Those in Need

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By Msgr. John Enzler
The Church returned to Ordinary Time after the Baptism of the Lord (January 11 this year). As you may know, the term “ordinary” is not meant to be a description of what we do liturgically, which is far from ordinary. Rather, it is based on the idea of “ordered” (or numbered) time – as in we celebrated the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time on February 1. From the beginning of Advent through the Baptism of the Lord, the Church celebrated special Liturgical seasons that help us prepare for and celebrate the wonder of Jesus’ birth and all that it means. It is a time of joy, celebration and charity.

During the months of November and December, we had an incredible outpouring of help from the community. We were able to give Christmas gifts to more than 1,200 children in the region with donated toys and clothing thanks to hundreds of generous donors who bought and delivered toys. We served both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to hundreds of our homeless neighbors. We had members of the Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards deliver gifts to our families. Jim and Cece Koons purchased shoes for more than 130 of our guests to give them warm and dry feet during what has been a cold and wet winter so far.
Even so, many of us do get back to a more ordinary schedule and routine with work and school. We pack up the Christmas decorations, resolve to lose a few pounds, set the alarm to wake up at the usual time, and return to the regular rhythm of life.

As we do, it is easy to forget about those in need, because we become consumed by our regular routines and also because many of us have just donated our time and money during the holidays. Unfortunately, this creates a lull in response.

For the folks in our programs living with a developmental disability, most of whom are coming from less affluent families, their need for support, opportunity, and companionship is just as great today as it was during the Christmas season.

For our homeless neighbors, the air has only gotten colder even as the lights and decorations have come down and all of the gifts have been unwrapped. The struggle to find a permanent home, to eat regular meals and overcome many of the pressing causes of homelessness, remain.

For the men, women, and children who have immigrated here from around the world, often fleeing violence and poverty, the challenge to understand and fit into a new culture continue. I have met many doctors and lawyers from around the world whose credentials carry no weight here, and they fled anyway, for fear of losing their lives. Their need to learn a new trade, to work, and to survive does not end with the start of the new year.

My point is not to make you feel guilty. If you are reading this, it’s likely you are someone who has donated or volunteered already with Catholic Charities. I walk the difficult line in my job of needing to ask for more out of our supporters while making sure they know just how grateful I am for all they have done. But part of ordinary time is the chance to make new routines. Why not make it a routine to mentor or volunteer weekly? Why not make it a routine to bring canned goods to church every month? Why not see if your business could partner with one of our many employment programs to give someone a second (or first) chance at work? Or could you do more pro bono hours this year in a medical or dental office or in the legal field?

I ask only because, looking back at our incredible efforts at the end of the year, you all have shown just how much good you are capable of and how many lives you can change through donating and volunteering.

Like our church calendar, there’s nothing ordinary about that.

The writer is President and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, where he has served as a priest for more than 40 years. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

20 years later, a client writes to say thank you

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We received a very touching note from a client who stayed at our McKenna House program way back in 1994. That's right, 21 years ago.

Michael had been drinking or using drugs since the age of 13. By the time he made his way to the McKenna house, he was 33 years old. McKenna House is a program dedicated to helping single, homeless men recover from addiction, find a job, and build structure and purpose back into their lives. It is still in operation today.

Michael shared with us that it took him four total tries to finally beat addiction. But he gave tremendous thanks and credit to the staff of the McKenna House for believing in him and giving him the confidence in himself, as well as pushing him hard to save his money and work hard. He left the program sober, employed, and with more than $3,000 saved in the bank. He said it was the longest he had ever gone sober since he was 13. Feeling inspired? You can make a donation directly to the McKenna House right now.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Redskins' Darrel Young, #36, Makes a Play for our Annual Coat Drive

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Swaths of burgundy and gold were bursting out of the multipurpose room of St. Francis Xavier Church, where our Joseph’s Coats of Many Colors Coat Closet is located. And for a good reason.

On January 22, The Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation, along with fullback Darrel Young, #36, donated more than 40 heavy duty coats (each costing upwards of $200), boxes of thermal shirts and sweatshirts, as well as a $10,000 check to help sustain the coat drive in the future. 

These donations to Joseph’s Coats of Many Colors Coat Drive and Coat Closet, which last provides winter gear to local men, women and children, are a huge boost in making sure everyone in need can stay warm. Last year, the coat drive collected and distributed over 9,000 coats.

"Partnerships like the one we have with the Redskins keep our programs going," Father John said. "We wouldn't be able to serve the number of many people as we do without their support."

Darrel Young, along with Mary Kellar of the Kellar Family Foundation, presented the check to Father John Enzler and Deacon Jim Nalls.

“You see so many people on the street without jackets, and so many kids who are cold who go to school without coats. It’s cold up here [in the Washington, DC region], so any opportunity I have to help them out with a coat or jacket, I will,” Young said.

Young, who was also named the Redskins’ Man of the Year for community involvement and service, wants to make an impact in the lives of the people he meets.

“You want them walk away and think, ‘they made me feel better about who I am today,’” Young said.

The Redskins coats also come with a touch of nostalgia – many of the garments donated were once used by players themselves. Future coat owners may find that they are donning a coat formerly belonging to one of their favorite sports figures.

Have a coat to donate or know someone who could benefit from a coat this winter? There’s still time!

We’re collecting coats on Friday, February 13 at St. Patrick’s Church (4101 Norbeck Road) in Rockville and at Catholic Charities (855 Main Street) in Prince Frederick. Our coat closet will be open on Saturday, February 14, in the multipurpose room at St. Francis Xavier Church.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Just in time: New shoes as the first snow of 2015 falls

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To be honest, we weren’t sure if anyone would show up.

Back on December 22, we hosted a Christmas Dinner for our St. Maria’s Meals Program (formerly referred to as our Dinner Van Program) clients, served inside at our headquarters at 924 G Street, NW. Two generous donors, Jim and Cece Koons agreed to purchase a pair of shoes for everyone who came our Christmas dinner. Dinner guests received a voucher to Payless ShoeSource to redeem those new shoes.

Now, on the date of redemption – January 6 – the first snowfall of the season was in full blast. And yet, at 8:30 am, on a day when our low-barrier shelters were going to be staying open all day due to the weather, there was a line of men and women waiting around the corner at the shoe store at 12th and G Streets, NW.

“I woke up this morning and said, ‘Lord, just hold off on that snow until I can get a new pair of shoes’,” one gentleman said with a big grin on his face. Another man said, “Just in time!” as he lifted his worn pair to show a few sizable holes in the bottom.

Staff went literally 'above and beyond' to help out their first
customers of the day.
More than 65 people were able to get a new pair of shoes and socks from the store, who partnered with us in the endeavor. We owe a big shout out of thanks to the staff of the Payless ShoeSource, who though short-staffed due to the snow, were very warm and welcoming. At least two of the staff had commutes of more than an hour and a half to make it in time to open the store. And of course, none of it would be possible without the generosity of Jim and Cece Koons who bought each pair of shoes.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas is here already?!

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Special Christmas Post by Msgr. John Enzler, President and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington

Wasn't it just yesterday that we were sitting down for Thanksgiving? Time flies when you’re having fun.

As we prepare for Christmas, to head to Mass or spend time with our family and loved ones, I am taking a moment to stop, and look back on an incredible month. It flew by in a blur of gifts, meals, and laughter.

With 65 programs, there’s no shortage of Christmas celebrations around here. Our Kennedy School and Child Development Center, which both work with young people who have a developmental delay, each enjoyed celebrations and visits with Santa. They also held a wonderful Christmas pageant, featuring kids of each grade contributing, singing, dancing and laughing. Seeing the smiles of those kids will melt your heart.

The celebration of Christmas at our Refugee Center has a different feel to it. This is a program working with people who have fled their home for political, personal or even religious persecution. For many of them, this was their first time experiencing Christmas in America. Our Refugee Center staff created a warm environment over delicious food and I know it felt like home for many of the refugees as they laughed, sang some carols and more.

Several of our families were lucky enough to receive gifts directly from players on the Washington Redskins, Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals. These teams and their players set a great example in our community, as well as create unforgettable memories by visiting some of our families in their homes or hosting them for a special day where the teams practice.

Our staff were all able to get together for some much needed rest and relaxation over delicious food at our annual Christmas party, which always feels like a BIG family reunion.

Our Angel Tree Program reached more than 700 children with donated toys and clothing thanks to hundreds of generous donors who bought and delivered toys. On Monday and Tuesday, our McCarrick Family Center distributed gifts to more than 500 families living in the nearby neighborhood. So awesome to see happy parents who have been relieved of the stress of providing Christmas gifts to their little ones.

And finally, we ended our celebration on Monday with a wonderful and delicious dinner for our homeless neighbors here at our home offices at 924 G St. With beautiful table settings and warm plates of turkey, green beans, gravy and mashed potatoes plus dessert, more than 200 people came for a holiday meal.


It feels like the perfect way to finish an incredible year, and I thank each of you for your part in making our community a better place for every family. Now, I pray each of you find peace and joy in this wonderful holiday, as we finish up the hustle and bustle and turn our eyes to the star over Bethlehem.

Merry Christmas!

~Fr. John

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Gifts Given to 500 Montgomery County Families

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It was 12:25 pm just three days before 12/25/2014 and the line at our McCarrick Family Center was long as parents anxiously waited in hopes of picking out a good present for each of their children.

With a room full of gifts donated to Catholic Charities to distribute to qualifying low-income families, volunteers guided each family through the room, selecting one toy for each of their children. Bikes, action figures, dolls, books, soccer balls and more awaited their choice and parents took their time shopping and evaluating. A volunteer, dressed as jolly old St. Nick, walked up and down the line, greeting children and wishing them a merry Christmas.

One father, still wearing his mechanic’s shirt, happily wheeled a bicycle out while his wife pushed a stroller behind with a doll. Another woman held up two different learning toys for a three-year-old. Every parent was able to leave with a stuffed animal.

A magician made balloon animals and volunteers played Wii bowling with children while their parents waiting in line. Local nonprofits set up tables as a resource fair to provide parents with assistance in many ways. Over the course of two days, more than 500 families who had applied for assistance through Montgomery County were expected to come, seeking help.