The following article is provided by Stefan and Patti Wawzyniecki, Urban Missionaries of Our Lady of Hope, living in Connecticut. They perform “little acts of charity” within their parish community. Here is their story of helping, “the Least, the Last, and the Left Out”
“We commit ourselves to stand at the side of those who suffer poverty and abandonment, speaking out for those who have no voice, and to working effectively to change these situations.”
The above statement is one of ten commitments taken from the Assisi Decalogue for Peace*. Taken by itself, it explains why the two of us embarked on a commitment to help bring a Syrian family into the United States of America this past year.
In this world we live in, there are currently 20 million refugees who suffer “poverty & abandonment”, and, prior to the last Fall’s presidential election, the US was on board to accept 85,000 refugees, of which 900 were to arrive in Connecticut.
It was through a program run by IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigration Services), with an office in New Haven, CT, that the family was chosen and offered to the group we worked with, collectively known as MCRRG (Manchester Community Refugee Resettlement Group). Additional support came from the Manchester Area Conference of Churches (MACC-CT.org).
How does one start the process? MCRRG needed to come up with a minimum of $6,000 before they could apply to have a family come to America. Money, as always , starts the ball rolling. IRIS reimbursed or paid a portion of rent and utilities, and, provided funds for getting a household put together. Our group spent many hours finding, then cleaning an apartment, followed by getting furniture donated, putting together beds, stocking the kitchen with plates & utensils- everything need to be in place before the arrival of the family. (coincidently, the family arrived in the United States on Election night, 2016). They came into their new home after flying all day & night from Jordan, into New York, followed by a long car ride from New Haven. It was late in the evening, but our group had prepared a meal and were there to welcome them into their new home.
Like so many similar projects, a team of volunteers was needed. That became one of our first challenges- while there was much interest in this new venture, when it came time to assigning tasks, much fell on a core group. One benefit from this experience is that this core group developed a strong bond, and we continue to correspond as friends. In addition, a team of interpreters was needed- the family had a very limited grasp of the English language. Enter another one of our challenges- the first interpreter, himself a re-settled Iraqi citizen, young, married to an American, was a great example of someone “making it” in America. Unfortunately, a sense of distrust between the patriarch of our family and this interpreter developed, and a need for back up was evident. An older gentlemen who provided such services to another group was called in, and we could resume communications. The father, and two oldest children, had basic English skills, but with our eyes on securing employment for the father, we knew that it was imperative to get the two adults into English classes (which they were required to attend under the rules of IRIS), and to get the children enrolled in school. The children’s ages ran from 3- 16.
Transportation- this was a family of 7; any transportation required multiple vehicles. Volunteers had to bring the family to doctors, dental clinics( this family did not practice “dental hygiene- all members had cavities, or needed crowns and/or root canal procedure), school, food shopping- all the things that we take for granted, suddenly became not just a task, but a commitment. We all know that kids consume a lot of calories, and who hasn’t run out of milk & bread? Speaking of which, food shopping itself was a challenge simply because of the family’s culture. Yes they practiced the Muslim dietary requirements for their meat preparations. Our group found middle eastern grocery shops which sold “halal” meats- Patti even bought a halal turkey to give them for their first Thanksgiving! ( Although when asked if she wanted to leave the head on, she declined.) MACC runs a food pantry, and so we took the family there for cereals and canned goods. The family was entitled to food assistance programs, and they showed their appreciation one Sunday afternoon by providing a banquet for us, of many of their traditional dishes- all prepared and presented in a beautiful fashion. The father & mother prided themselves on their culinary abilities, and the father early on expressed a desire to open a restaurant. His employment record was spotty at best while they resided in Jordan, after having escaped from Syria.
(It should be noted here that the family left behind many family members on both sides- her family was harbored in a camp in Turkey, and she had not seen them in 5 years. Our group worked with Senator Chris Murphy’s office to see what the feasibility was to initiate bringing them here. At this time, it appears unlikely.
Regarding employment- this was more challenging than we were prepared for. Much effort was made in trying to seek employment for the father. Getting the Social Security number was time consuming but it happened. Getting a job was not easy. We enrolled him in a apprenticeship for food preparation through MACC. He had an offer to work at a fast food place. We brought him to a career fair. Things looked promising, but then…..
Something sinister happened. The father received a phone call which was a “hate” call. Unfortunately he shared it with the family. They no longer felt safe in their home. We alerted the authorities- IRIS, the FBI. Investigators tried to assure the family that the call originated outside of Connecticut, probably from a hate group cell that the FBI was familiar with. No amount of reassurance could calm them. They wanted to leave the apartment- the one place they called home on their arrival a short 6 months prior. Our group was thrown into crisis management mode. What could we do? Finding an apartment to house a family of 7 is not easy. Finding an AFFORDABLE house for 7 is even harder. Finding such a home that THEY found acceptable started to strain our relationship with the family. And to test our group’s resolve.
The father was unemployed. The funds from the group were running low. We were faced with breaking a lease. It became too much. We secured funding to place the family in a hotel for one month. The kids still were able to attend school, albeit it required more transportation coordination. IRIS was brought in to help negotiate the next steps. They were willing to bring the family to New Haven and start anew. The family balked at first, but when they saw that Manchester was becoming less and less of an option, they relented.
What came next- rallying the troops. All the work to put together this home was needed to undo the process. Pack up all the furniture and newly acquired possessions. Find and rent storage places until housing could be found when the hotel would no longer be affordable. Get a moving van to move it all to New Haven.
Through it all, I believe our group hit a low point. Feelings were hurt. A sense of failure came over us. How could we start with such high expectations only to succumb to the pressures of “Real Life”.
God enters the picture. ( In the form of a wealthy benefactor).
This person heard of the family’s plight and offered to help them find a new home on the other side of Hartford. The family is acclimating well in their new home, and while we, as a group, feel some disappointment that the family did not remain in our community, we, as our own little community of Christian volunteers, take solace in knowing that we provided this family with a starting point. Their first home. A sense of what good can come from strangers in a strange land.
*The Decalogue of Assisi for Peace came about in January 2002, when 200 leaders of the world’s major religions convened in Assisi, Italy. In addition to Pope John Paul II, Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, monks, gurus, and leaders from Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Quakers, Mennonites, and Ministers from Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals, talked, prayed, and unanimously developed 10 mutual commitments to work for peace and justice in the world, one of which is at the top of this article.