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“Hello. How are you?” Such a simple and common phrase in the English language. However, for non-native English speakers, learning such a simple phrase can take hours of practice. This was the case for the mother in our first refugee family who spoke no English when she arrived in Minnesota. During the past few months, she has worked hard to adjust to life in the United States and learn English among many other things. It has been an exciting and busy time for her family and we are grateful that the Basilica was able to walk alongside them on this part of their journey.
Our first refugee family arrived in Minnesota in February 2016. Of Somalian descent, the family had previously lived in Kenya in both the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps over the course of the past twenty three years. The family consists of mother, father and four children--two sons in their twenties and two daughters in their teens. The parents also have four older children who came to the United States as refugees in previous years and now reside in the Faribault and St. Paul areas of Minnesota. Since arriving in the United States, the family has been busy adjusting to life in America including, learning to ride the bus, learning how to buy groceries in our large supermarkets, learning to read, write and speak English, adjusting to the Minnesota winter and learning what sidewalks are and how to navigate safely with so many cars around. The teenage girls have been busy going to school, learning to use a computer, and spending time at the local library. The sons were also busy looking for work and both found jobs at the Minneapolis St. Paul airport working in the food services area. They were also able to attend English as a second language classes and met some young people at a local park with whom they could play soccer.
Helping the family along their journey here in Minnesota has been Lutheran Social Services (LSS) and the Basilica’s mentor team. The mentor team for our first family was made up of four parishioners, Donna Krisch, Dawn Pajunen-Ibes, Alison Rudy and Dorene Wernke. Working closely with Lutheran Social Services, the mentor team helped our family by taking them grocery shopping, driving the family to doctor appointments, helping them prepare for job searches, and helping them practice their English skills. They also took the family on fun outings such as a trip to the Como zoo and to parks to watch soccer games. The mentor team built an amazing relationship with the family over the past few months and the family has reached out regularly for assistance with various items. If you ask any of our mentors however, they will be the first to tell you that they feel they are really the ones benefiting from this relationship. The mentors continually say how much they have grown and learned from our family and how deeply meaningful and spiritually nourishing the relationship has been for them.
With many thanks to our mentor team and Lutheran Social Services, our family is well on their way to settling into life in America. In June 2016, the family received wonderful news that they were able to obtain housing in Faribault, Minnesota and were able to move closer to their three older sons who live in the area. The family continues to stay in touch with the mentor team and the mentor team is planning a trip to visit the family in their new home soon.
We would like to thank our family mentors, the refugee committee, Lutheran Social Services and the entire Basilica community for their help in co-sponsoring our first refugee family. This was an amazing experience and we look forward to welcoming our second family in the weeks ahead.
About a month ago, a group of Basilica Young Adults got together and packaged toiletry kits for incoming refugee families. Coming with only a suitcase, these toiletry kits provide toothbrushes, soap, and shampoo – things most of us take for granted every day. Every refugee that comes to Minnesota through Lutheran Social Services receives one of these kits. By the end, we’d packaged 40 kits for incoming refugee families to use in the months to come.
A week after this event, I came across one of my favorite childhood books, Rachel’s Rainbow. While some of the appeal of this book was more than likely that the protagonist shared a name with me, the story is a wonderful one, too. It tells of a young girl who has never seen a real rainbow. After packing a peanut butter sandwich (my favorite too!), she heads out on an adventure to find a rainbow. As she walks, she passes by a tree filled with bright red apples, climbs the tree, and adds a ruby red apple to her basket. As she continues on her journey, she finds an orange maple leaf gently gliding down from a tree, which she adds to her basket as well. As the day continues, she collects more and more objects, all the while continuing to hunt for a rainbow. She eventually heads home, disappointed. However, she later realizes that she already has a rainbow in her basket, a rainbow of colorful objects that God has made.
As I was reflecting on this packaging event, I was trying to figure out what about it was so powerful. I was searching for that “rainbow” event. However, I realized that there often is no “rainbow” moment where God’s presence pierces through the sky into our hearts. More often, God is revealed piece by piece.
As Dawn, a member of the family mentor team, talked about her experiences with the family the Basilica has sponsored, I could see God’s love and care in her tearful eyes. As Cate, our wonderful representative from LSS, talked about Minnesotan refugees, I could feel God’s passion in her words and deep knowledge. As I listened to other young adults ask probing questions and give up a Saturday morning (harder to do than you’d think for us young adults), I felt surrounded by God.
I feel so much gratitude for the experiences this co-sponsorship has allowed me to have. I am becoming more and more convinced that it is not Minnesota’s refugees that are most impacted by the work of this wonderful community, but me. I am the one experiencing God’s love – piece by piece – through this wonderful ministry.
A brief history and current issues
In this Year of Mercy, the Basilica of St. Mary has partnered with Lutheran Social Services (LSS) to co-sponsor three refugee families. Our first family arrived in Minnesota in February 2016. Of Somalian descent, the family had previously lived in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, both of which are located in Kenya. These camps were originally formed in 1991 to help Somalians fleeing the brutal civil war which had erupted in their country.
Today, Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world with over 330,000 inhabitants, most of whom are of Somalian descent (Rivett-Carnac, 2016). Many of the people who came to Dadaab never left, living there as many as 25 years. As life continues to go on, people have been born, married, had children and died within the camp. Some families are now welcoming the third generation of their family to live in Dadaab (Hujale, 2016).
In fact, for the first family the Basilica is co-sponsoring, at least three of the four children were born inside the Dadaab camp and, until arriving in the United States, they had never known life outside of refugee camps. On a recent outing with parishioners to the Como zoo, the parents of our refugee family were pointing out various animals to their children, showing them the types of wildlife that the parents remembered seeing in Somalia. These animals were not present in the refugee camps and so the children were seeing these animals for the first time here in Minnesota.
However, life within the camps may quickly change as the Kenyan government has recently announced they will be closing the Dadaab refugee camp. Kenya’s primary reason for closing the camp stems from security concerns related to multiple attacks that have been conducted by the Al-Shabab militant group within Kenya, including the 2013 Westgate mall siege in Nairobi and the 2015 attack at Garissa University that killed 147 students.
According to the Kenyan government, Al-Shabab is actively recruiting and harboring terrorists within the camps (Mutiga, 2016). The Guardian’s Murithi Mutiga reports that “refugees in the camp were especially shocked because the announcement followed recent improvements in security in Dadaab.”
In speaking with people living in the camps, Mutiga interviewed “Fadumo Ali Noor, who fled from Baidow in south-western Somalia in the early 1990s [and] said: “I never slept last night after listening to the news on the radio. We appreciate all the work Kenya has done hosting us, but we urge them to reconsider because this is the only home we know.” Another gentleman that Mutiga interviewed said “This has been the home of three generations of my family for 25 years. All my children were born here and my daughters got married and bore my grandchildren here. I can’t see how I can build a new life in Somalia where the fighting is still going on.”
As a first step in the closure process, the Kenyan government has disbanded the Department of Refugee Affairs, which has traditionally handled the paper work for refugee registration (Kennedy, 2016). According to NPR, the Kenyan government “provided no details about a timeline or where the hundreds of thousands of refugees would go should the camps be closed.”
The Kenyan government has set aside $10MM dollars and established a committee to develop a plan and timeline for the camp’s closure. The first committee report was due to be issued at the end of May 2016 (Mutiga, 2016) however, as of the writing of this post, no additional information has been publicly released.
- Hujale, Moulid. “Life in Dadaab: three gernations of refugees isolated from Kenyan society.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2016. Web. 27 January 2016. <http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/jan/27/life-dadaab-three-generations-of-refugees-isolated-from-kenyan-society>
- Kennedy, Merrit. “Kenya Says It Will Shut Down The World’s Largest Refugee Camp.” NPR. NPR, 2016. Web. 7 May 2016. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/05/07/477141180/kenya-says-it-will-shut-down-the-worlds-largest-refugee-camp>
- Mutiga, Murithi. “Refugees urge Kenyan leaders to rethink closure of Dadaab camp.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2016. Web. 13 May 2016. <http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/may/13/refugees-urge-kenyan-leaders-to-rethink-closure-of-dadaab-camp>
- Rivett-Carnac, Mark. “Kenya Is Planning to Close the ‘World’s Largest Refugee Camp.’” Time. Time Inc., 2016. Web. 12 May 2016. <http://time.com/4327239/kenya-close-refugee-camp-dadaab>
If there is one term that has defined Pope Francis’s leadership, it’s probably the word compassion. Amidst a contentious U.S. election cycle with explosive words towards immigrants, it’s refreshing to see a global leader speak with grace and compassion.
I was particularly impressed with his recent trip to Mexico where the Pope said Mass at a Mexican border city. And I was also impressed when he took 12 refugees back to the Vatican after a trip to Greece. He literally “welcomed the stranger.”
In a recent address to priests, he affirmed the need for mercy:
“Nothing unites us to God more than an act of mercy, for it is by mercy that the Lord forgives our sins and gives us the grace to practice acts of mercy in his name. Nothing strengthens our faith more than being cleansed of our sins.”
Mercy is not a real strong issue to run a political campaign on. Even though Francis is not up for reelection, it is refreshing to see a leader speak openly and freely about that issue.
There is tendency for the public to want a narrative condensed into easy-to-understand issues. With all the different issues facing the millions of displaced persons, a streamlined narrative is nearly impossible.
That’s why, in this Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church, it’s important to remember compassion in all of our dealings, especially with strangers
Sarah Brenes of the Advocates for Human Rights spoke to a group of parishioners about the complex and arduous process that asylum seekers and refugees go through in order to find a legal home in the United States. The talk was titled, “Welcoming the Stranger: Refugees in our Midst.” The number of people across the globe who moved from their home country, either willingly or forcibly, was staggering. According to the United Nations Refugee agency, there were 54.9 million forcibly displaced persons across the globe last year. There were also 14.4 million refugees and 1.8 million asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers must provide proof that they have a “well founded fear” of being persecuted due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. They must provide that proof in immigration court, and it is must hold up to substantial srutiny by the U.S. government. Many times the seekers are suffering from significant trauma related to the violence they faced in their home counttry, as well as the pain or resettling in the United States. For more information on their organization, please visit Advocates for Human Rights.
Brenes, the lead attorney at AFHR, also spoke about the work her organization does here in Minnesota. One of the many aspects of their organization is helping provide legal services for those men and women seeking asylum. The AFHR is the largest provider in the Upper Midwest of free legal services to low-income people seeking asylum. Luke Olson, a parishioner and attorney, introduced Brenes as he talked about his work helping a woman from Guatemala who was being threatened by gangs due to her status as an indigenous person. Olson helped her win her asylum case last year.
Brenes closed out the talk with highlighting the important support work that other organizations, like churches, can do to help those in need— “welcoming the stranger.” The Basilica will have numerous events in the future to get involved with these issues.
Are you interested in working on the refugee family committee, but a don't quite know what to expect? Cate Anderson, the Volunteer Coordinator for Refugee Service within Lutheran Social Services, has provided some answers to some of the common questions that volunteers may have.
- What is something that people might assume about working with refugees that is usually proven wrong?
One common assumption about working with refugees comes from the image that many of us have of people in refugee camps. It is easy to feel like refugees are weakened by their experiences or think of them as being exclusively sad or damaged. It doesn’t take much to fall into thinking about refugees in a two-dimensional way because of how they are portrayed in the media. While this assumption comes from a place of compassion and care, the reality that we see every day in this work is refugees’ amazing resilience.
Many refugees we meet have been strengthened in many ways by their experiences in the camp. Families may have drawn closer in their relationships with one another. A person’s faith within their own religious tradition may have been deepened. I certainly don’t want to underplay the gravity of the difficulties and dangers of living in a camp. However, we also constantly witness the beautiful paradox of refugees who, after going through such loss and suffering, find joy, laughter, and love in their lives. This complexity is hard to imagine until you meet someone who happens to be a refugee. We’re so grateful that your community at the Basilica has courageously said, “Let’s get to know our newest neighbors and challenge our assumptions head on!”
- How do you work through language barriers?
Language barriers often play a big role in the relationships built between co-sponsors and the families they are matched with. Running into this particular issue is a good exercise for those of us who speak English fluently because it shows us how incredibly frustrating it can be. While it is difficult, we do our best to equip the mentoring team with training and tools to work with language barriers. Oftentimes, volunteers remark that after the first couple visits where there isn’t a common language, things get easier. You get used to it and find ways to make it work together. Adults will also be attending English Language Learning (ELL or ESL) classes and the kids will attend public school. The practice with the mentoring group can make a big difference in the progress made by the family in hurdling over a major barrier in their lives.
- What's the most rewarding part about doing this work?
One of the most rewarding parts of working with refugees is that we get to actively participate in building our community together. The connection we make with a family going through the whirlwind transition of rebuilding life here in the United States is a precious one. It’s a privilege to walk alongside families as they figure it all out. It satisfies a moral calling to help those in need – in a different turn of events, we could be in their position and they could be in ours.
But beyond that, working with new Minnesotans gives us the opportunity to learn about different cultures, religions and values and to find our common ground as neighbors. Together, we can make our Minnesota community that much stronger and connected, simply by getting to know each other on a one-on-one basis. The most rewarding part of this work is the opportunity to not only learn about and love your neighbor, but also to grow together and love your community as a whole!
- What should people know before they get started?
One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes this work gets a bit messy! Coming from a Norwegian-American heritage which likes to keep things organized, timely, and rule-abiding, I’ve learned first-hand how important flexibility and humor are in this line of work. Some of the resettlement program is very black-and-white. For example, there are certain time deadlines for tasks such as applying for a social security number for the refugee within seven working days.
Most other parts are less clear. We usually only get notice of a family’s arrival about two weeks or so in advance. Language barriers can call for moments of creative problem solving. Poverty presents exhausting Catch-22s. So, as we run into the little things that frustrate us, we can learn a lot from refugee families about what is really important. These experiences (and the messiness, I admit it!) encourage us to let go and “go with the flow” in a way that can be both liberating and rewarding.
- What's the most common concern potential volunteers have? And how do you work around that?
One common concern that potential volunteers have is that they don’t feel quite qualified enough. They wonder if they know enough about the public transportation system, the cultural norms of the family, or the county system. The first step, I remind volunteers, is twofold. We don’t expect you to know everything, and we certainly don’t expect you to fix everything. As long as you’re someone who has lived in the U.S. for a good amount of time and knows how to navigate the basics, you are well-qualified!
While mentor groups provide lots of good guidance to their mentees, it’s also good to remember that your role is not meant to be a fixer of all problems. Instead, we hope it will be an exchange where both parties learn a great deal. We also work with this worry with the help of our case managers who take care of the human services side of helping out the family. They know how to navigate the system and will perform the core services which range from securing affordable, clean and secure housing to enrolling kids in school.
Parishioner Nick Hansen is a member of The Basilica Refugee Committee. He shares his reflections of a lively interfaith event: Building Bridges--Confronting Islamophobia, held on Sunday, April 3, 2016.
"This afternoon my mom asked me if I had any friends who were Muslim. I sheepishly admitted that I did not. I had met Muslims before, and I’ve tried to become intellectually enlightened on the faith, but that can only go so far. (Even though I have volunteered with the Basilica’s Refugee Family Committee, I’m not personally working with the family.)
I’ll admit that while I was interested in the program, “Building Bridges: Confronting Islamophobia” at the Basilica on Sunday afternoon, I wasn’t feeling motivated to go. I was tired. I had just eaten a big breakfast. I thought he’d just be preaching to the choir. It was everyone else who should be going to this program.
While I’ve challenged myself intellectually to become more acquainted with the Islamic faith, I haven’t quite challenged myself personally. I motivated myself and made my way towards the lower level of the Basilica at 1 p.m. on a bright, warm, Sunday afternoon.
Dr. Todd Green, a prominent scholar on Islamophobia gave an enlightening talk on the phenomenon. One thing that stood out to me was that he mentioned that most of the people in the room had probably benefited from a Christian or Jewish Institution or program (hospitals, universities, etc.), but they probably hadn’t with regards towards an Islamic institution.
At my table there were three members of the Catholic faith, a member of the Jewish faith, and Mohamed Ali Hassan, a Muslim who is president of the Somali American Peace Council. While we only talked for a little bit, I appreciated the symbolism of members of different faiths being able to sit down with one another and talk about this issue.
Being intellectually aware of the Muslim faith is good, but it’s not enough. Dr. Green implored those in the audience to build more personal relationships with Muslims.
While I felt a little more enlightened after leaving the talk, I know that does not absolve me of my ignorance. While I still don’t have many connections to the Islamic faith, I know that I need to be more open to when those opportunities present themselves. Whether that’s saying hello to a woman wearing a hijab, patronizing restaurants or shops owned by Muslims, or just attending more of these type of events that promote interfaith dialogue, I know I need to do more.
It’s that challenge that tears down stereotypes and ignorance and allows God’s love to come in."