Emmanuel Williams lives in Alameda.
“Welcome the Stranger” is a project in which local volunteers work together to welcome a refugee family into their community. The volunteers provide the family with the support they need over a period of six months or so. This enables the family to become independent and self-sufficient. It is one of the projects included in the “Acts of Mercy” that Pope Francis and the Catholic Conference on Justice have proposed.
A Just Faith group at St Joseph’s Basilica here in Alameda launched the idea of developing the Welcome the Stranger project; Anna Rossi agreed to chair it. When it became clear that there was a strong response, Catholic Charities USA and its local office, Catholic Charities of the East Bay, were informed. They assigned a Muslim Afghan family to the Alameda Deanery Welcome the Stranger Refugee Support Team.
Initially, various teams were set up: welcoming, fundraising, housing, household needs and after arrival. The group was given two weeks’ notice before the family arrived. The major difficulty was finding accommodation. The family was lodged in a hotel for a month, then an apartment was found and the process of helping the family adjust to their new life began.
Caren Vance, a local pediatrician, coordinated the tasks involved in meeting the refugee family’s needs. These included transport, a cash grant, social services, medical insurance and food stamps. Vance also had to find ways to get English lessons, child care for the couple’s 18-month-old baby son and to bring the family into the community.
Now, six months later, group members are taking stock. The refugees — a 25-year-old father, 21-year-old mother and a baby boy — feel like family to the local volunteers, and the feeling is mutual.
“You are our family now,” said the husband. He has a part-time job. His wife is learning English. They’ve mastered the public transportation system. They now feel at home here. The baby boy is joyful and friendly and is picking up his first English words very quickly.
Previously the couple had done their best to live in Afghanistan with the constant presence of violence in their lives. When the wife became pregnant the family knew they had to seek a safer place for the baby to grow up. After a period of waiting and intense vetting, they arrived here in Alameda. (By the way, of the 65 million refugees and displaced people in the world, over half are children.)
The benefits of this project go beyond the refugee family. The Welcome the Stranger volunteers have learned to see the world through others’ eyes. Members of the Island’s four Catholic churches have successfully worked together on this project and have become close. They’ve been inspired by, and put into practice, the essence of the American nation: “Give me your tired, your poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
It’s not been easy. Catholic Charities, the international organization that assigned the family, has limited resources and was not able to provide the volunteers with as much information as they needed about cultural issues. These included Afghan tribalism, the role of women, and so on. Local social services issued ID cards with misspelled names and incorrect addresses, which created all sorts of problems.
Some local property owners and Realtors were hesitant to rent to refugees (illegally by the way). The committee heard “We don’t rent to foreigners.” The most difficult issue is the lack of low-cost housing on the Island.
More than 80 Alamedans have been working together on this project. The difference they’ve made in the lives of this family (who’ve gone through drastic adjustments) since coming here are incalculable. It’s been a rich learning experience for many people.
Can they apply what they’ve learned? Can they say, “OK, that worked. Let’s do it again with another family?” There’s certainly the willingness, the lessons learned, the energy, the commitment, the belief that helping those (especially children) whose lives are in danger is the right thing to do.
Big issues remain, however. Questions arise. Where can the family live while they go through the painful process of cultural adjustment? While they learn to trust the loving members of their new family? While they learn English, seek work, put together the pieces of a new life? Where can they be safe and secure while they go through this process of transition? Answers to these questions remain unclear.
The volunteers I’ve spoken with, however, believe there is an answer. I hope they’re right.
Emmanuel Williams lives in Alameda.
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