Expressing concern for displaced families worldwide seven years ago, Pope Francis challenged to every Catholic parish to sponsor a refugee family.
After research and conversation, Basilica leaders said “Yes” and launched the Immigrant Support Ministry as part of our St. Vincent de Paul Outreach, working with asylum seekers (a six to nine month plus process), and with refugee families. Our partner, Lutheran Social Services (LSS), coordinates with arriving refugee families.
The Basilica provides $8,000 - $10,000 per family for basic expenses, and intergenerational Circle of Welcome teams of three to five volunteers. They accompany a refugee family for six or more months to help overcome barriers like language, weather, getting proper identification, and finances.
In 2015, Donna Krisch volunteered with the first refugee family from Somalia and is still involved. After her husband Rich traveled to the Mexican border and saw firsthand people fleeing violence and seeking safety in the US, he joined Donna on the Welcome team. Team members bring different gifts to the work. As retirees, Donna and Rich are available daytimes to help, while the children often gravitate to the team’s young adults.
Rich shared, “Even the Holy Family fled Egypt as refugees for their own safety. Jesus was radically welcoming and as Christians, we are asked to welcome the stranger. The Immigration Support Ministry is a tangible way to offer this welcome right here in our own community.”
Fun is part of the program. After learning their Afghan family loves kit flying, they visited the winter kite festival on Lake Harriet. Temps were below zero, and their father commented “the children now know what cold is.” Snow pants and kites were soon purchased for the children. Masters at stringing and flying kites, one small child loved it so much he flew his kite out his bedroom window.
The ministry is a two-way street. Treated as family, volunteers were welcomed with green tea, dates and nuts. Another time, the family cooked a traditional Afghan dinner for the volunteers at Theodore Wirth Park. They noticed the father had quietly gone off to say his midday prayers.
Donna and Rich’s grandparents were immigrants, and this work is personal. Donna shared, “I gain much more than I give. Sometimes it’s complicated and can be uncomfortable, but we have always worked through things. We are so much more alike than different. Their values are our values. They care about family and faith just like we do. These experiences have broadened our horizons. This has been a fun, fulfilling year. We are blessed.”
Team member Rachel Ziegler has worked with families from Iraq and Afghanistan for five years. A teacher, Rachel had seen students in her classroom new to the US and wanted to learn more about their challenges. Impressed by their strong family values and ability to adapt, Rachel finds joy in connecting on a personal level and as Acts of Mercy. She stressed people can help as advocates in the public arena, and more Circle of Welcome mentors are needed to accompany Afghan families with crucial wrap-around services.
Since 2015, Basilica volunteers have accompanied 15 refugee families from eight countries and asylees from eight countries, but there much more to do. To learn more, contact Janice Andersen.