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Refugee Resettlement Office helps refugees find sanctuary
Editor's note: This is the first in an ongoing series of articles showcasing how the faithful of the Diocese of Charlotte welcome and support refugees through Catholic Social Services' Refugee Resettlement Office.
CHARLOTTE — In the month of March, the staff of the Refugee Resettlement Office at Catholic Social Services welcomed ten families of refugees and five individual refugees at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
These fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, and even one infant fled their homelands because of a "well-founded" fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership in a particular social group. They are given sanctuary in dioceses including Charlotte as part of a collaboration between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. State Department.
Pictured: A family from Burma arrives at the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. (Photo provided by Catholic Social Services)
Most refugees who come to the Charlotte diocese are resettled from camps outside their home countries because of violence and political unrest. They are Bhutanese and Burmese, Russian and Cuban, and they have come to Charlotte to start new lives.
Their first stop after leaving the Charlotte airport is an apartment arranged for and furnished by Refugee Resettlement Office staff. For many, it is the first real home they have known.
With 34 refugees newly settled in Charlotte, it may seem like March has been a busy month. Before the end of April, however, another 25 refugees are expected to arrive, and the office maintains active support of close to 200 refugees on an ongoing basis.
"Most people have no idea how many refugees are being settled and served through this office," said Cira Ponce, director of the Refugee Resettlement Office.
The Refugee Resettlement Office receives between 300-350 refugees in Charlotte annually. Since its inception in 1975, the office has resettled more than 10,705 refugees representing 27 nationalities.
"The state of North Carolina is 16th in the nation in terms of refugees resettled here," Ponce added.
The Refugee Resettlement Office provides a wide array of services to refugees including assistance with housing, social services, health care, school registration, and community and cultural orientation. The office also provides employment assistance, referral for English language classes, interpretation services and transportation to initial appointments. In addition, the Refugee Resettlement Office began a youth program in 2006 for refugee children which offers tutoring, afterschool activities and field trips.
Ponce knows that community awareness regarding the refugee experience and refugee resettlement efforts of the Refugee Resettlement Office is needed.
"This is why we have initiated the 'Parishes Organized to Welcome Refugees,' or POWR program," she said. "We want to educate our community of faith and other interested groups and individuals of goodwill about the needs of refugees and ways in which we all can work to welcome refugees coming to Charlotte to start a new life."
Through the POWR program, the Refugee Resettlement Office hopes to strengthen and deepen its support of parish and community involvement in refugee resettlement work.
Sandy Buck, a volunteer coordinator with Catholic Social Services, said she believes community awareness is one important aspect of the POWR program.
"We are available to provide presentations to parishes, schools and community groups on topics as varied as Catholic social teaching, the basics of refugee resettlement, and creative ways in which groups can support resettlement efforts," she said. "We want to get the community involved in our work and informing them about our work, and this population is an important first step."
Besides promoting community awareness, the Refugee Resettlement Office is also interested in increasing volunteerism and donations in support of the ministry. They offer a number of volunteer opportunities for groups and individuals.
"We have developed a Refugee Ambassador Program which has volunteers helping us reach out to the community, and we're using volunteers to help refugees with legal issues, to mentor families so as to improve their adjustment to life in Charlotte, and to tutor refugee youth to ease their adjustment in school," Buck said.
Currently volunteers are needed to support the expansion of the Refugee Resettlement Office youth program, to assist in transporting refugees who arrive in Charlotte requiring cancer treatment, and to develop mentoring relationships with newly-arrived refugee families.
Groups such as parishes and clubs are also needed to sponsor refugee apartments using apartment sponsorship kits provided by the Refugee Resettlement Office.
Donations of gently-used furniture and other household items as well as monetary contributions are needed to support resettlement efforts.
Added Ponce, "With more hands on deck and more resources, we can do more for the refugees who come to Charlotte to find safety and freedom. This is important work that deserves our attention."
Tracy Winsor is a volunteer coordinator with Catholic Social Services. The next article in this series will profile a volunteer refugee mentor working with the Refugee Resettlement Office who lived in Ethiopia and worked for the United Nations High Command for Refugees there.
— Tracy Winsor, special to the Catholic News Herald
How you can get involved
To schedule a presentation, request information regarding refugee apartment sponsorship or to volunteer with the Refugee Resettlement Office, call 704-370-3283. To learn more about Catholic Social Services, go online to www.cssnc.org.
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