HARTFORD – Since the Syrian refugee crisis escalated last year, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Hartford (CCAOH) has stood poised to help resettle families sent to Connecticut. Connecticut is one of the states that has volunteered to accept Syrian refugees.
While the influx of Syrian refugees to the United States appeared great last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Migration and Refugee Services has referred only two Syrian families to CCAOH. Paula Mann-Agnew, Catholic Charities’ director of programs, said both families – one with eight members, the other with five – have been settled in Hartford since September and are doing well.
“We’re prepared to work with Syrian refugees when they come,” she said, and can help up to 80 families. Resettlement is one of the agency’s specialties, working with approximately 300 refugee families a year.
The agency has a 60-year history of welcoming the stranger and those in need through its Migration Refugee and Immigration Program Services, with offices in Hartford.
In addition to Syria, CCAOH helps refugees from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan, Burma and other countries. Refugees are screened by the U.S. Department of State to enter the country, said Mrs. Mann-Agnew.
Each of the two Syrian families are living in apartments that Catholic Charities found and furnished. When they arrive in Connecticut, Mrs. Mann-Agnew said, the agency gives the refugee families 100 percent of its time and attention.
“They’re desperate and have lost everything. They live in fear and are very grateful for what we do. Most are very spiritual and grateful to God,” she said. Some have been victims of torture and suffer from health problems.
Families are assigned to a caseworker to guide them through the transition process. Families are met at the airport by a Catholic Charities representative who speaks their language and understands their culture and then taken to their new home. Since Catholic Charities has relationships with about a dozen landlords, some of whom were refugees and want to give back, the process of finding refugees an apartment is easier, according to Mrs. Mann-Agnew.
Once families are in their new apartment, Catholic Charities will provide a culturally appropriate meal and give the family a quick orientation to their new home. Many have been in refugee camps for five to 10 years and aren’t used to conveniences, like running water and a flushing toilet. They’re shown how to lock doors and work appliances.
CCAOH will provide a weeklong orientation, arrange for health physicals, register children for school and discuss employment.
“We work really hard to help them find jobs,” said Mrs. Mann-Agnew, “so when they’re no longer eligible to get federal assistance, they can work.” Many get positions in restaurants, factories and stores. Some, she said, have advanced training and skills and were physicians and engineers back home. “They can increase their employability skills so they can get better jobs as time goes by.”
“We had one who was a physician and when he came here, we got him a job working in the medical field. He’s going back to school and working his way back up,” she added.
Catholic Charities’ efforts are only possible through partnerships, and Mrs. Mann-Agnew said that support has been robust from individuals, churches and the interfaith community.
A local mosque recently held a reception dinner for the families and gave them toiletries, gifts and school backpacks for the children, she said.
St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Rocky Hill has provided furniture and other household supplies. Deacon Michael Ward said the parish is also considering sponsoring a family.
“We would welcome them, help out and provide in-kind assistance,” said Deacon Ward, “help them with transportation, finding their way through the health care system, filling out forms and possibly helping them find a place to live. I talked to the parish council about it last month and will have a broader discussion next month.”
The parish, according to Deacon Ward, considers this an act of mercy. “Usually the refugees are running from desperate circumstances – running from mayhem and tragedy. Sometimes they’ve been sitting in camps for two or three years.
“There’s a pretty clear admonition in Scripture to help the stranger and those in need among us. I think that the plight of these folks should weigh on people’s consciences a little bit and I would hope they would find a way to act on it.”
Mrs. Mann-Agnew said that people and parishes can get involved by making donations of furniture, household supplies and other necessities. Folks are also needed to be mentors and ESL tutors.
“Spend time with a refugee family and help them get acclimated,” she said. “Show them the bus line, the schools, what it’s like to live in Connecticut.”
She may be reached at Pmannfirstname.lastname@example.org for more information about helping out.
At least half of the country’s governors are refusing to take in Syrian refugees in their states amid heightened security concerns following terrorist attacks in Paris last November.
Shortly after the Paris attacks, a statement from Hartford Catholic Charities CEO Marek Kukulka was posted on the agency’s website and Facebook page. It reitereated his agency’s commitment to resettling refugees.
“In the wake of the Paris attacks, the resettlement of Syrians in the United States, including in our home state of Connecticut, has garnered a vast amount of attention from those concerned for the well-being of the refugees seeking assistance, and others who are worried about statewide and national security,” he wrote. “This controversial public debate will have to play out without input from Catholic Charities, which is an unbiased, nonprofit organization motivated by the social teachings of the Catholic Church. It is not a political organization and, therefore, has no political affiliation. Its only reason for existence is to serve the underprivileged with the goal of making them self-sufficient.”