For Somali refugees, Catholic agencies ‘welcome the stranger’

For Somali refugees, Catholic agencies ‘welcome the stranger’ January 10, 2017

St. Paul, Minn., Jan 10, 2017 / 06:03 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A Somali couple with three children is seeking a new life in Minnesota thanks to a Catholic Charities’ resettlement program that cites a Christian imperative for its work.

“Now the family is together and thankful for their new home. While they are learning about Minnesota and adjusting to the cold weather, they have a place to live and food in the cupboards,” Julia Jenson, Catholic Charities St. Paul-Minneapolis director of external affairs and communications, told CNA.

The family comes from the Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda, which hosts 100,000 Somalis who have fled conflict at home.

The Catholic agency’s case management staff has helped them and other refugees find affordable housing, helped their children enroll in school, and helped them find English language classes and medical care.

“We are the frontline for helping them find a place to live, establish a relationship with a landlord… getting them established with basic food and clothing, helping their kids get connected to school, helping them get connected to the available public benefits,” said Laurie Ohmann, senior vice president of client services and community partnerships at Catholic Charities of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

According to Ohmann, a refugee is a “stranger in a foreign land.” They have very basic needs like a connection to someone they trust.

“I think that’s one of the first things we offer them,” she told CNA.

For Ohmann, the agency’s motive for refugee resettlement is clear.

“It’s an issue of human dignity and supporting their participation in our economic and cultural life,” she said.

She cited the principles of Catholic social teaching and Pope Francis’ prominence in “welcoming the stranger and working with the poor and the vulnerable in our community.”

The agency helps refugees fleeing some form of persecution or violence. Most people the agency has recently resettled have been from Somalia or from the Burmese Karen ethnic group who are fleeing conflicts at home. It helped resettle 317 refugees in the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, while State of Minnesota figures indicate about 2,500 refugees arrived in the state from overseas from Jan. 1-Oct. 31, 2016.

“It’s amazing to me to see what they are escaping and also the environment in which they’re living when they’re in some of these large refugee camps,” Ohmann said.

Most resettled refugees already have some personal tie to the U.S. Sometimes they can rely on these personal ties, but other times they lack support.

The agency has been working in refugee support since the close of World War II. At present, the agency contracts with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and reaches an agreement about the number of people to resettle. Catholic Charities of Winona also helps resettle refugees in Minnesota.

Ohmann acknowledged some Americans’ safety concerns about refugees.

“I’ve always believed it’s really important to name the fear, and to see some facts that help place your fear in context,” she said.

“I know that people are very worried about the vetting requirements of refugees.”

She said part of Catholic Charities’ practice has been to help people understand the vetting process.

“If folks believe some of the hyperbole, they wouldn’t understand that there’s been a lot of background checking before someone ever comes here,” Ohmann said.

Sometimes refugees face challenges in integrating into U.S. society.

“Like other resettlement agencies around the country, Catholic Charities is doing its best to help refugees get on their feet within the first 90 days of their arrival to Minnesota,” Ohmann added. “Given the trauma they've endured and the significant language and cultural shifts, all refugees face challenges in making ends meet and in adjusting to life in the U.S. for some period of time.”

“From our experience, most refugees – with time – become integrated members of our community,” she said.

Among those aided by Catholic Charities affiliates was Abdul Razak Ali Artan, the 20-year-old who in November drove a car into a crowd at Ohio State University then started to stab passersby before he was shot and killed by a campus police officer. The attacker hurt 11 people, one critically.

Artan had come to Dallas as a refugee from Somalia in June 2014 and stayed in Dallas with his six siblings and his mother for about three weeks before moving to Columbus, Ohio. They had been aided by Catholic Charities of Dallas after vetting by the U.S. State Department.

Dave Woodyard, the Dallas agency’s president and CEO, said there was nothing that stood out about Artan during his brief stay there.

“We help hundreds of people over the years and thousands are coming to America through all types of different agencies to seek comfort and aid and unfortunately bad things can happen in any walk of life and this is an example of one horrific action,” he said, according to

Ohmann said that refugees are “the most thoroughly vetted and screened people to come to the U.S.” and face the highest level of scrutiny.

“Any additional changes that might limit admission solely based on national origin, race or religious affiliation would be against the values of the immigrant nation of the United States,” she said.

“Catholic Social Teaching invites us to join in solidarity with others who are vulnerable and to see them as members of one human family,” she added. “Refugees have suffered tremendously. Our nation was founded to receive the tired, the poor and those yearning to breathe free. Refugees are yearning to be free people. They are source of great opportunity for this nation and will continue to contribute greatly to our country as refugees have before them.”


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