Friday, December 30, 2011

With a new language, new hopes for the New Year

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Though they’re new to the country and new to the language, clients at our Refugee Center have big plans for their first year in the States.

Several clients shared these plans with us last Thursday during the Refugee Center’s English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Our ESL Coordinator, Birhanu Alemu, leads the class each Thursday, teaching English that emphasizes workplace English.  It is a very community-oriented class, as the students encourage each other in their progress, help translate for each other, and share words from their native language to explain meaning. As newcomers to this country, the students seek a common goal: to build new, fulfilling lives for themselves in the United States.

Language, however, is a major barrier to that goal. To overcome that and other obstacles, many immigrants in the Washington, DC area turn to our Refugee Center for help with housing, employment, English classes, and more.

“Language is my biggest challenge to finding a job,” said Bizaiyhu, one of the students in the class. Bizaiyhu, her husband, and her baby son came to the United States from Israel under political asylum. She had worked as a nurse there, and now hopes to improve her English so that she can continue her career here.

Many immigrants leave much behind them when they come to the United States: their family, their home, their livelihood, and rebuilding their lives can be a slow process. But once they can speak English competently, they can secure better jobs, communicate with more people, and feel more like a part of the American culture, while of course retaining their unique heritages.

This will be the first American New Year for Bizaiyhu and her family, as they arrived in the country just four months ago. She said that in Israel, they observed the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, each September.

“We have special treats to celebrate: apples with honey, because you hope the new year will be sweet like honey, and the head of a fish, because you want to be like the head – on top!” Bizaiyhu said.

As a former refugee, originally from Ethiopia, Birhanu understands the special challenges each of his students are facing. He shared his own memories of Ethiopia’s celebrations, along with Almaz, a new refugee from Ethiopia.  Together, they described Ethiopian New Year’s customs. The holiday is very special there, because it’s one the whole country celebrates, unlike others that are religiously based. People serve special food and drinks for the holiday, and often visit family and give presents to loved ones.

Similar to the United States’ practice of making resolutions, Ethiopians set objectives to reach in the New Year. “The government there encourages people to think greater and do greater in the new year,” Birhanu explained.

How does the ESL class plan to “think greater and do greater” in 2012? Most hope to find jobs and to continue to improve their English. One member of the class, Bijan, has a very particular goal that the ESL class is helping him achieve. An Iranian journalist who was granted political asylum, Bijan turned to the Refugee Center for help in obtaining his social security card, food stamps, and a work permit. 

Now, he is a regular attendee at the ESL class so he can continue his journalism career for English-language media. He writes in Farsi for several online and print news sources, and his journalism has been translated for the New York Times and Washington Post. But he’d like to be able to write in and/or translate to English for himself.

It’s a big dream, but one he feels confident about meeting with the help of Birhanu and the support of the class. Though they hail from different countries and approach the class at different competency levels, they are all working to set achievable goals and better their lives in America.

As far as New Year’s resolutions go, I think that’s a pretty good one. Don’t you?

Want to help newcomers to the United States achieve their goals in 2012? 

Volunteer: Volunteers are welcome to assist with job club, resume building, and community connections. Get more information here.
Donate: Only with the support of the community can we be there for refugees coming to our region. Make a donation directly to the Refugee Center here. 

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Message from Msgr. Enzler

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Greetings on this blessed Christmas Eve,

From all of us at Catholic Charities, Merry Christmas!  We wish you a very happy holiday and offer our most heartfelt appreciation for your support of Catholic Charities throughout this past year.  Even tonight, as I celebrate Mass and remember you in my prayers, and as you and your family prepare your holiday traditions, our Catholic Charities staff will be working in our shelters. There, thanks to you, they will be making sure that everyone has a warm night and can experience some of the joys of Christmas.

Growing up, one of my favorite holiday memories was on Christmas Eve, when my father gathered our family of 13 brothers and sisters, and paused the evening’s celebration to reflect and simply say, “Isn’t this fun?”  And on Christmas day we’d have a cake and we’d sing happy birthday to baby Jesus.  My parents showed us how the Christmas spirit is what life is all about – fun, joy, family.

As I continue through my first Advent season and Christmas here at Catholic Charities, I cannot tell you just how amazed I am at the work our staff is doing. I’ve been lucky enough to have attended several Christmas celebrationsand gift giveaways across our programs, mingling with staff and meeting clients. I cherish being part of this Catholic Charities family, and I have had many moments to step back and say to myself, “Isn’t this fun?”
I am so grateful that you are walking this journey with me to serve and care for our neighbors and families in need. May God bless you and your family this Christmas,

Monsignor John J. Enzler
President and CEO
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Home for the Holidays

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It’s been a long wait, but finally Eric Hardy can celebrate Christmas. After living on the streets and staying on friends’ couches and floors for three years, the 26-year-old is about to spend Christmas in his own apartment – complete with his very own Christmas tree.

Just over two months ago, Eric received an apartment through Catholic Charities’ Fortitude Housing program, which provides homeless individuals with their very own fully-furnished apartment. A case manager with Fortitude works one-on-one with each client to overcome the barriers that prevented them from living independently.

Eric describes his case manager Melvin Howard as being “like a father to me.” Melvin, for his part, is quick to point out Eric’s tremendous potential and multiple talents, traits he has always been known for.

Melvin Howard presents Eric with a Christmas present.
Eric said, "This is the first gift I've gotten." 
Growing up, Eric was the oldest child and the only male in his immediate family. He felt huge pressures from his family to be the role model and to be the most successful. On top of the pressures of succeeding, Eric’s family struggled to accept him as an openly gay teenager, which only added to his stress. After graduating high school, the pressure grew too much and he turned to drugs.

The spiral down was quick and led to a falling-out with his family. Despite an addiction to drugs, Eric had his own place and held a steady job. But after seeing the way drugs emaciated his body and how a day could pass without his noticing, Eric made a decision: he was done with drugs.

He quit cold turkey, holing up in his mother’s house for three months to overcome the addiction. Remarkably, his addiction occurred before he was homeless. It was his family’s discomfort with his sexuality that led to him being kicked out of the house. Amazingly, once he was on the streets, Eric was never tempted to relapse.

“How could I buy drugs?” he said. “I had no money. I had to eat. There was no way I could afford to spend money on drugs. And when I saw the some of the same people, and they would call to me to go get high, I knew I wanted more out of my life.”

To look at him, you wouldn’t be able to tell Eric was homeless. Having just turned 26 a few weeks ago, he represents the often invisible plight of young people fighting homelessness. He took meticulous care of himself, making efforts to keep his clothes and appearance clean. Like many young people, he tried hard to hide his homelessness. Eventually, Eric sought help from several programs working with the homeless, including S.O.M.E. And while working with a social worker, Eric was accepted into the Fortitude Housing Program.

In a region where affordable housing is in high demand and short supply, a program like Fortitude can help the chronically homeless to truly recover and get to a place of self-sufficiency. The program is possible in partnership with the District of Columbia government, which launched the initiative in 2008.

For Eric, it’s the nicest apartment he’s ever lived in. He keeps it very neat and organized and has decorated and painted it tastefully. His relationship with his mother and family remains somewhat strained, but he is excited to host them over at his place on Christmas Day. And if you asked him what he was looking forward to most about Christmas, his answer may sound familiar.

“I can’t wait to watch ‘A Christmas Story,’” he said, laughing. “Every year growing up, my family would watch it on Christmas day. It is one of my favorite memories.” Like many of the usual holiday celebrations, it was a tradition he missed out on the last three years.

From here, Eric has big dreams. He’s hoping to open his own day spa and has been volunteering with local business owners to see operations up close. But for now, he’s ready to put his feet up on his own furniture and finally, finally relax at home.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Do-Gooders’ Guide: CHRISTMAS EDITION!

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Santa stopped by last year's Christmas party at Kennedy!
If you ask me (and I know you are), one of the best scenes in Christmas movie history comes at the very end of Scrooged, when Frank Cross (played by Bill Murray) gets positively giddy with goodwill. Through the bizarre circumstances of the film’s plot, Frank’s on live national television, begging all those who are watching from their homes to help make Christmas miracles happen. He says:

“You have to do something, you have to take a chance, you have to get involved. There are people that are having trouble making their miracle happen. There are people who don’t have enough to eat, there are people that are cold. You can go out and say ‘hello’ to these people. You can take an old blanket out of the closet and say, ‘Here.’ You can make them a sandwich and say, ‘Oh, by the way, here!’ I get it now! If you give, then it can happen – then the miracle can happen to you…It can happen every day. You’ve just got to want that feeling.”
Our Angel Tree at the Hickey Center!

Do-Gooders, we know you’re like Frank Cross – we know you want that feeling! Read on for a list of ways you can help all of us at Catholic Charities make miracles happen for our neighbors in need this Christmas holiday.

We have an ongoing need for donations for our Catholic Charities Angel Tree! So many local families have called, asking for help with gifts for their little ones this year – and we want to make sure that every child has a special Christmas surprise. It’s easy to help – pick up a few extra toys, winter clothing items or gift cards while you’re shopping for your loved ones and bring them (unwrapped, please) to the Hickey Center in D.C. Or, if you’d like to adopt a family – or maybe your office, exercise class, child’s classroom would like to adopt a few families – call us at (202) 772-4346.

Our 801 East Men’s Shelter will hold its annual Christmas clothing distribution on December 15 at 4:30 p.m. Volunteers will help pack clothing, distribute it to the men at the shelter and replenish supplies. “It can be fun!” said Paul, Director of our Men’s Shelter Operations. Plus, you’ll be helping people who are homeless stay warm as the temperatures start to dip. If you can help, please contact Selby Spriggs at (202) 561-4014, ext. 102 or Gary Steele at (202) 561-4014, ext. 106. (PS – our New York Avenue’s Men Shelter held a similar clothing drive last month!)
More Christmas fun at our Kennedy Institute

The DC Employment and Adult Education Services, part of our Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute, will hold its annual holiday party on December 16 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. In keeping with tradition, all past and present program participants and their families are welcome, so they’ll be expecting a crowd of 50 to 60 people.
Donations: Whether you’re Rachel Ray or a master of pre-prepared food pickup, you can help by donating punch or finger foods such as wings, meatballs, potato salad, and rolls. 
Volunteers: One or two volunteers are needed to help serve food and get clients involved in the festivities.
Contact Chandra Connolly if you can help with donations or are interested in volunteering: or (202) 281-2703.

Also at Kennedy Institute, staff at our Kennedy School want to distribute very special gifts to the kids this year: “glamour bags” filled with toiletries and gifts. The kids at Kennedy struggle with intellectual disabilities, and many have other learning differences or physical disabilities as well; staff hopes that the “glamour bags” will make each one of them feel like a star.
Donations needed by December 19: Perfume and cologne, sunglasses, Axe Body Spray, nail polish and makeup, ties, watches, hat/scarf/gloves sets, Bath and Body Works products, and $5 gift cards to McDonalds.
Contact Donilee Goldsmith for more information on how to donate: .

Sanctuaries for Life (you may remember reading about their life-affirming work here) is holding a Christmas party on December 19 for new and expectant mothers enrolled in the program. Senior Manager Michelle Williams stressed that the lunch will be healthy in nature, since many of the moms are breastfeeding, or still pregnant.
Donations: Staff said they are accepting monetary donations to help defray the cost of lunch – think about having a quick fundraiser at your office or gym to help them out! They also need donations of grocery store gift certificates, diapers and formula to distribute to mothers who are struggling financially to support their families.
Contact Michelle at if you can help out!

For some of the clients at our Refugee Center, this Christmas is their first in the United States! The Center registers about six new refugees each week – last week, they registered seven refugees in one day! Once registered, refugees have access to a broad range of support, including employment orientation, ESL classes and other Catholic Charities resources. Refugee Center staff will hold a luncheon for refugees on December 21, and they hope to be able to provide all clients with gift bags of food and other personal items.
Donations: Food donations from local restaurants are welcome for the luncheon. Donations of gift cards are also appreciated – these give clients at the Refugee Center the opportunity to purchase food and clothing and household items, as many refugees come to the United States with nothing. Finally, metro cards are always welcome to give to clients, in order that they can have transportation to job interviews and other appointments.
Contact Jeanne Atkinson at or (202) 772-4348 if you’d like to contribute.

The halls will be decked at the DC Food Program at our Spanish Catholic Center. Clients who normally receive food from the program will receive a special surprise on December 21 – a full holiday ham, plus a wrapped Christmas present and handmade card! This is all made possible through the support of generous volunteers who donated and wrapped the gifts and made each card. The Spanish Catholic Center has also arranged for flu shots to be available for all clients who qualify. Food Program coordinator Nick Despotidis said there will be plenty of holiday spirit to go around with Christmas music, hats, and more!
Donations: In order to provide a ham to each family who relies on the program for food, the Spanish Catholic Center is seeking donations of ham, or money to purchase them! So please consider helping one of your neighbors in need enjoy a special holiday treat this year.
Volunteers: The food program will need plenty of help to distribute the bags of food, interact with clients, and help spread Christmas cheer.
Contact Nick at or (202) 939-2400, ext. 937 if you can pitch in. 

And, of course, your donation to Catholic Charities always helps us to provide basic essentials and services to all those who are most vulnerable in our community.

As you can see from the list, December is a busy month for us here – and we know it’s a busy month for you, too. And while it’s easy to get wrapping-papered up in events and parties, baking and shopping, decorating and caroling, we hope you won’t forget all those people who, like Frank Cross said, need help to make their miracle happen.

Can you be the one to make it happen? 

Thank you, and have a blessed Advent and Christmas!

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Friday, December 9, 2011

At this graduation, the parents are the ones getting diplomas!

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Nhora presents a certificate to Silvia and little K├Âlten
Guest Post by Nhora Rosero,

Community Outreach Specialist at the Montgomery County Family Center

At the Montgomery County Family Center, we welcome many walk-in clients who have come from all different countries. They arrive in the United States, and oftentimes they do not speak much English. They don’t have a supportive network, and much of their family remains in their home country. They have no idea what resources are available to help them.

Among these walk-in clients, I saw a growing number of people who were expressing concerns and questions about parenting. They were struggling to raise their children in a positive and nurturing way, especially since the cultures that the parents themselves were raised in may have had different methods of childrearing.

Group shot - members of the Parenting Education Program!
To answer this need, I started the Parenting Education Program – basically a parent support group. The goal was to educate parents on topics like nurturing as a lifestyle, rewards and punishment, family rules, and discipline. I developed a curriculum, but I decided to allow the class to steer the direction of our studies based on what they were experiencing at home.

Six months ago, our class gathered for the first time. Initially, the members of the group were strangers to each other. They felt shy at first, but they had one common, powerful goal: to become better mothers and fathers for their children. Now, it is like a different group altogether. It’s a beautiful thing! The members of the group have found a supportive network in each other. They share details of their lives with each other, and comfort each other through difficult moments. They even take their children to the playgrounds together outside of the group! And of course, in fitting with the mission of the program, the group has grown in their knowledge of themselves and in their ability to love and nurture their kids, whether infants, teenagers, or somewhere in-between.

Love the matching argyles on Carlos and his son!
The format of the program is very flexible and allows the group to focus on the issues that matter to them. We meet each Thursday at noon, and at each session, the group chooses a topic to discuss. They all offer their perspectives on the subject based on their own unique upbringings, or on what they have experienced themselves as parents. Then, we relate the issue to broader parenting concepts, whether it’s emotional development, family rules, discipline, etc. Because they contribute the topics we discuss, the members of the group really help develop the curriculum along with me, and the outcome has been simply amazing!

Keysha shows off her certificate to her proud family.
To celebrate the accomplishments of the class, we held a graduation ceremony last week. Each member of the class was recognized for her or his participation and received a certificate of achievement. The ceremony was very touching for me. We did so much with very little resources – just a room to sit in and a snack to share. And the members manage to be here, no matter what the weather is or whatever issues arise in their own lives. At the graduation, I could see in their faces the pride and satisfaction of accomplishment in completing the program. And I think this is the most important part – the program was able to make them feel like they have made a difference in their lives by learning something new and positive.

My personal goal is to continue offering to these parents a place and a space where they can keep growing as human beings and keep asking questions. We need a world with happy children, and in order to do that we must have happy parents. There is also a practical aspect. The members of the group have received a certificate for their participation in the program. This is something parents can mention on their resume if they wish to apply for a job, in addition to the skills they learn and incorporate into their lives.

The group will continue to meet every Thursday. I have asked each current member to invite someone new to join us; this way, we can bring in different perspectives to the program, and the community we are building here will grow. 

The Parenting Education Program will meet two more times before the holiday, then resume in January. Please contact Nhora for more information by phone at (301) 942-1790 or email 

Nhora mentioned that many of the parents must bring their infants and toddlers to class if they do not have a relative or neighbor who can babysit. She is hoping to find a volunteer to play with the children while the program is in session. Also, donations of art supplies for the children - crayons, paper, coloring books, etc. - and snacks for the children and parents would be much appreciated. Please contact Nhora if you are able to help!

Read on! Related posts on family and parenting: 
Rolling out the red carpet for our graduation 
Putting family first for 15 years 

Related posts on working with immigrants and refugees: 
We kick off World Refugee Day in a delicious way