Just Living Blog

In this year of Mercy, the Basilica decided to accept Pope Francis’ call to welcome refugees into our community and joined forces with Lutheran Social Services (LSS) to co-sponsor a refugee family. Last December we held a second collection to raise funds for the effort and our generous community donated enough money to support not only one but three refugee families.  It was an overwhelming response and we were truly blessed and inspired by the generosity of the community.  The refugee committee, composed of approximately 40 Basilica members, quickly got to work to prepare for the arrival of the first family, who arrived safely in February 2016.  Now, almost a full year into our efforts, the committee wanted to share how the funds have been used and the impact it has had on the families we’ve supported.

When co-sponsoring a family, the Basilica provides both financial and mentoring support to the family.  From a financial perspective, the primary way the Basilica helps the family is by paying their rent for the first six months.  When a refugee family comes to the United States, their housing is not subsidized and they are responsible for paying for their own housing.  Coming from a foreign country, many refugees struggle with English at first and it can be difficult to find a job with so many things to work through, especially in their first few months here.  During that time the family is trying to set up basic needs such as registering with the appropriate government offices, obtaining identification cards, getting their children enrolled in school and attending English as a second language classes.  Through the Basilica’s donation of the rent for the first six months, the family has some time to get things in order, search for work and save some money for future needs.  In addition to helping the family with rent, the Basilica also supports the family by providing basic clothing and household supplies.  Each family’s needs are different and varies somewhat based on their culture however, some common items that are provided are winter clothing for the parents and children and some household items such as a used vacuum cleaner, computer and television set to help the family adapt to their new life.

The second way the Basilica provides support to our refugee family is through a mentor team.  The key role of the mentor team is to help the family get acclimated to their new culture and to make sure the family knows that someone cares about their wellbeing.  The mentor team is made up of four parishioners who meet with the family about once a week, helping with various items.  These activities vary from family to family but some common themes have been helping the adults prepare their resume and fill out job applications, taking the family to the grocery store so they can buy food, helping the family budget for expenses, teaching the family how to navigate the bus system, and helping them obtain library cards at their local library.  The mentors also go on fun outings with the family taking them to places such as Como zoo and other local parks to expose them to the great things in our community. 

Thank you to everyone that has supported our efforts to co-sponsor a refugee family in this year of mercy.  

The second refugee family being sponsored by the Basilica and Lutheran Social Services arrived in mid-July. The family is originally from Iraq, but they had lived in a refugee camp in Turkey for the last few years. A group of parishioners from the Basilica welcomed the family and helped them get settled into their apartment in suburban Minneapolis.

The husband and wife have three elementary-school age children. While they are grateful to be in the United States, they are getting used to living in a new country. That involves finding activities to keep children occupied, making sure there is enough food in the refrigerator, and setting up television and internet at home.

The family has found a school and daycare for the children. The father is also going to the adult education center located nearby.

The Basilica will co-sponsor the family for six months. The money raised by the parish community last December will go towards helping this family with rent, groceries, and other basic expenses. A team of four volunteers from the parish will work with the family directly to help them get acclimated to living in Minnesota. The volunteers will work in conjunction with Lutheran Social Services.

If you would like to get involved with the Refugee Family Initiative, please email Janice Andersen. 

In the early 1900’s, not that long ago really, my great grandparents immigrated to America from Europe.  They came here with few possessions but big dreams of the opportunities that their new home might give to their children.  As a parent I can imagine the fear of the unknown they felt in coming to a new place so far away from their homeland, but also their hope that everything that they had heard about the great United States was true.  That this was the land where their children would be able to grow up and work towards whatever goals they set for themselves.  Instead of being limited by poverty or an oppressive government, where the choices are few. 

I saw that same hope in the family of refugees that a group of Basilica parishioners welcomed to Minnesota in February.    They had been living in a refugee camp for over 20 years but their hope had not been extinguished.  They knew that they had been given a precious opportunity and they were ready to make the most of it.   The nervousness on their faces when they arrived at the airport was transformed to smiles when they saw the group gathered to greet them waving both American and Somali flags.  

When the Basilica mentor group that I was a part of had our first meeting with them to get introduced, we asked what their goals were in their new home country.  All of the children in the family talked about getting an education and helping to support their family.  They are close knit family.  The two older sons protective of their parents and younger sisters, and the parents nervous about getting settled and being able to make ends meet in a place where they still had so much to figure out. 

The four members of the Basilica mentor team along with the families’ case worker and other staff from Lutheran Social Services kept in touch via email, keeping each other up to date on how the family members were doing and discussing the different needs they had.  We worked together to help them explore and become familiar with their new home.  While they came from a very different world than the US I had a glimpse of just how much young people, from any means, gravitate towards a common love of music and social media.  On a trip to the library to get library cards the “kids” (ages 14-21) had the opportunity to have some computer time.  While they needed a little assistance to start using the keyboard they were all four soon logged onto either YouTube or sites with music videos and totally immersed in the experience with their respective earphones on.  On a family trip to Como Park both parents and kids delighted in the animals they were seeing for the first time.  The parents were pointing out antelope and bison that were similar to those they had known back in Somalia, their homeland, although the children have never seen it having been born in the Kenyan refugee camp. 

The family decided in June to move to southern MN to be closer to family members, but I know that having been a small part of their journey was an amazing gift for me.  I understand better now my history, the great amount of courage it took for my family members to journey to the US from so far away to make a better life, not only for their own children but for generations to come.  We are truly blessed to be able to live here and to have the opportunity to pay it forward and share the American dream with others.  

Last spring a group of parishioners from the Basilica met with Jim Marx to hear about his work on the desert migrant trails.  Jim and his wife, Maureen, are part of No More Deaths, an entirely volunteer organization founded in 2004 to respond “to a crisis of migrant deaths in the Arizona borderlands . . . as a result of government policies pushing migrants into the most dangerous and remote areas of the border.” 

On their first foray into the desert, they found a man who was so dehydrated that they could not give him water.  Jim said at the sight of the man’s condition, he began to cry.  They alerted Border Patrol about a medical emergency and could only pray they took him to a hospital.   Since 2000 there have been 3,000 recorded deaths in the Sonora desert.

It is almost impossible to cross the desert alone.  On the Mexican side the land is controlled by the drug cartels and migrants have to pay to cross their lands.  Jim said Border Patrol helicopters have been seen deliberately “dusting” groups of migrants to scatter and disorient them.  Once separated from their group and on their own, the migrants have little chance of survival. 

No More Deaths provides water, food and medical aid on private land near Arivaca, Arizona.  Unfortunately, it can be frustrating work as water bottles are regularly slashed and food left in the desert by volunteers is often destroyed.

In addition to their work in the desert, No More Deaths works with individuals on the Mexican side who have been deported.    When our Basilica group visited El Comedor (The Dining Room), a volunteer doctor was there ministering to a mother who was ill while one of our group members held the woman’s baby.  They also convert checks from the detention centers into pesos, because the checks cannot be cashed in Mexico.  Finally, they provide phones so the individuals who have been deported, can contact family.

To learn more about the organization’s work, please go to www.nomoredeaths.org and follow them on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.   

The Refugee Olympic Team

While many Americans will be cheering for the team in red, white, and blue during the Olympics in Rio, another team deserves your support. Ten athletes, who are also refugees, will be competing under the banner of the Refugee Olympic Team, the first of its kind in any Olympic competition. The team was formed to shed light on the worldwide refugee crisis.

Check out the athletes’ stories here: https://www.olympic.org/news/refugee-olympic-team-to-shine-spotlight-on-worldwide-refugee-crisis

Those 10 athletes are from Syria, South Sudan, and the Republic of Congo. The team will march in with the Olympic flag just before the host nation of Brazil during the opening ceremony. The athletes were identified and selected with the help of National Olympic Committee around the globe.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) hopes these athletes will inspire those in dire situations across the globe.

“This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit,” said IOC President Thomas Bach.

While it’s easy to be patriotic during an event like the Olympics, it’s just as important to remember those who aren’t able to represent their home countries. 

“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 RainbowWhile 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. 

 

Sources:

  • 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. 

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