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.