Catholic Charities sparks new life in ‘resilient’ refugees

Through New Roots for Refugees (above) and many other programs, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas has worked to resettle refugees in the United States since its inception in 1975. New Roots helps refugees with agricultural expertise start their own small farm businesses. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE MCSORLEY

by Marc and Julie Anderson
mjanderson@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sister Esther Fangman, OSB, has not experienced violence or torture firsthand. Yet, in listening to her clients share their stories, she has found herself drawn into a cause that is “dear to the church.”

As a licensed counselor, her private practice includes providing counseling services at the Keeler Women’s Center in Kansas City, Kansas, a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison.

She has also served as a pro bono counselor at the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma in St. Louis. Currently, she provides counseling to victims of torture and violence through Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.

It’s a ministry, said Sister Esther, that while challenging and heartbreaking at times, is also rewarding and humbling. Moreover, it has deeper roots here in Kansas than most people realize.

In the 1970s, when people started fleeing Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the aftermath of the American withdrawal from Vietnam, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops started a refugee resettlement program. In 1975, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas joined the effort.

The organization started by assisting people from South Vietnam, and the operation has only grown since its inception. Today, it is the largest resettlement site in Kansas. This past federal fiscal year, Catholic Charities served more than 350 refugees in a variety of ways, including resettlement, job placement, English as a Second Language programs and assistance with the naturalization process.

Catholic Charities has what is termed a “tie site.” This means refugees are united with family members of friends who are already settled in the area and can provide assistance. The majority of the refugees come from Burma. Other refugees travel to the site from Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia and the Congo.

Rachel Pollock, director of refugee and immigration programs, said in understanding the plight of refugees, it’s first important to understand what a refugee is.

“People move around and immigrate for various reasons — reuniting with family, improved work or educational opportunity, and to try and better their future,” she said. “Refugees are people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality and/or membership in a particular social or political group. They are not being pulled to a new country; they are being pushed out of their homeland.”

Some refugees have experienced horrific violence and torture. In those cases, Sister Esther lends a listening ear and tries to help people process what has happened to them.

“They have to somehow survive this,” said Sister Esther, who has counseled some 40 to 50 refugees who have endured tremendous and unspeakable suffering. They have lost spouses, children and their home. Some have also endured torture and bodily injury.

For example, one of Sister Esther’s clients lost four of her eight children, along with her husband, to murder. She and her remaining four children fled to a refugee camp.

Over time, this woman completed the lengthy vetting process for acceptance into the refugee resettlement program in the United States. This process typically takes 18 to 24 months, although it can take longer, depending on the circumstances.

In sharing the client’s story in broad strokes, Sister Esther said this woman had managed to survive unimaginable horror but also experience God’s grace. As she could only take with her what she could carry, sentimental objects were few.

Yet, she had somehow managed to bring with her a picture of her husband.

“That was a comfort to her,” Sister Esther said. The woman has no other pictures of him.”

“[God’s] mercy was there in the midst of a devastating experience,” she added.

The counselor often finds herself inspired by the refugees’ resilience and courage in the face of their harrowing experiences and occasional setbacks.

Last year, one of her clients ended up in the hospital. The Royals had just won the World Series, and the fireworks and gunshots of exuberant fans triggered flashbacks to traumatic experiences and violence in the client.

“It was symptomatic of what they had lived with every day,” she said. Nonetheless, the client persevered.

In caring for her clients, Sister Esther said sometimes the stories can be difficult to hear. But her reliance on prayer and God’s love gets her through those times.

“God is in charge,” she said, adding that she often has to remind herself to “let go and let God.”

In recognition of this extraordinary effort to provide new life opportunities like these, the USCCB Committee on Migration awarded the staff a Certificate of Outstanding Achievement which read:

“In all of your outstanding work, you answer the scriptural call to welcome the stranger and offer hope to those who now make their home among us.”

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann presented the honor on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Sister Esther and Pollock were touched by the recognition and both take great joy in watching refugees grow as people.

“Refugees are incredibly resilient people, and they generally thrive here,” Pollock said.

“It’s such a joy to see families progress through initial culture shock and big challenges to real success,” she continued. “This takes time, and usually there are multiple detours or speed bumps, but I’ve seen refugee children as valedictorians, I’ve seen refugee small business owners and college graduates. I’ve seen hundreds of refugee families buying homes and cultivating farms, contributing to the physical landscape of Kansas City in positive ways.”

Recently, Pollock ran into one of the first people she worked with, a young man from the Congo.

“When his family was first resettled, they had experienced a lot of trauma and felt overwhelmed with starting over in the United States. He was a teenager.

“Now, he’s a registered nurse,” she said, “well-spoken and thriving, with a smile that lights up a room.”

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