Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
September 14th, 2011

My Experience Befriending the Alien


A Vietnamese nun greets children at a refugee camp in Sudan. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Imagine doing everything required to go back to school — buying books and school supplies, and signing up for classes — but instead of everything being a familiar routine, it’s all new because you’re in a new country where you don’t speak the language. Maybe you’ve never been to school. Sounds a little overwhelming, right? Well, that’s the experience of the 53,000 refugees that resettled in the United States in 2010.

For the past year I worked with refugees from Asia and Africa at Catholic Charities’ Immigration and Refugee Assistance Program in Buffalo, New York. Part of my job was to help refugees register their children for school because very few of them could speak, read, or write English.

Everyone who comes to the United States as a refugee comes through an agency like the one I worked with that helps them do the things that are new to them: rent an apartment, visit the doctor, learn to use public transportation, find a job, and more. However, even with assistance, refugees face many challenges in their new country.

Challenges of resettlement

Before arriving in the United States, refugees live in U.N. refugee camps for anywhere from one to 20 years. Refugees who were only two or three years younger than me were often born in refugee camps. They lived in the camps to escape violence, war, rape, genocide, or other oppression. Many refugees face malnutrition and the threat of attack in the camps. They live in tents without running water and electricity. Comparatively, life in the United States should be a relief, but the transition is not easy.

Language barriers are certainly a challenge in everyday interactions, but they can also prevent refugees from finding jobs and receiving medical care. By law, doctors’ offices are required to provide interpreters, but refugees are often denied care because they don’t speak English. Many employers refuse to hire refugees who are legal immigrants and eligible for employment because they fear repercussions.

Refugees can also be easy targets for criminals. One young woman came to my office because she was mugged as she left the bank. The men who robbed her stole $700, her Social Security card, and her immigration documents. She asked me how she could pay for new documents (costing several hundred dollars) when she’d just had $700 stolen from her. I didn’t have an answer.

Being alone

The biggest challenge refugees face is separation from family members. Refugees can file petitions for relatives to join them in the United States. These applications can be difficult, especially if refugees don’t have documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses, which either don’t exist or were left behind when refugees fled from their homes. I had many clients who applied for family members, received “Request for Evidence” of relationship letters and then wait years to be reunited with their families.

Early on in my work with refugees, a woman from Burma came to get assistance applying for her two daughters and husband to join her in the United States. She told me she was very sad without her family. It made her sick to her stomach, and she thought she made a mistake leaving without them. The woman was about the age of my mother, and her older daughter was only a year younger than me. She could apply for her husband and younger daughter, but not the older daughter since, without permanent residency, you cannot apply for a child who is 21 or older.

I thought of my own mother and how it is to be away from her. I live a 13-hour car drive away from home and I know what it’s like to be alone in a new city, but not in the way a refugee is alone in a new city. Though I could relate to this woman, my desire to be closer to my family must be small compared to hers. And unlike her, it was my choice to move away from my family.

I thought of my own mother and how it is to be away from her. I live a 13-hour car drive away from home and I know what it’s like to be alone in a new city, but not in the way a refugee is alone in a new city.

She cried in my office and begged me to apply for her older daughter, too. I struggled to explain that it wasn’t that I wouldn’t help her bring her older daughter, but that I couldn’t because of immigration laws.

There were many times I could not help refugees who came to our offices with their new lives. Even more frustrating, I felt helpless to stop the situations that forced people to become refugees and separated them from their families in the first place. Not to mention aggravation with my fellow Americans who do not welcome refugees.

Prejudice and racism play a large role in the lives of refugees in the United States, the land of immigrants. When I tell people that I worked with refugees, people assume I worked with undocumented immigrants who are here to “live off the system.” There are a lot of Bible verses thrown around in public discussions on a wide range of social issues, and I often wonder why, outside Catholic settings, people so infrequently quote Deuteronomy 10:19 (or similar verses) when discussing immigration: “You too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”

This verse not only instructs us to care for immigrants, but also reminds us that we, too, are immigrants. Almost all Americans are descendants of immigrants whether those immigrants were our parents or family that has been here since the 1600s. I’m proud that the Catholic Church in the United States resettles refugees, and that it supports the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. Still, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding that needs to be overcome before many people can see the face of God in refugees.

The Author : Mary Donovan
Mary Donovan is a graduate of Salem College where she studied creative writing and communication. She recently finished a year of full-time volunteer service with Catholic Charities Service Corps in Buffalo, New York. She currently works for Catholic Charities of Western New York as a social worker in a homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing program.
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  • Lorraine Gilly

    Thank You for sharing this very moving article.

  • Jane Serues

    Your article enlightened me to the work that Catholic Charities is doing for refugees. Thank you for your volunteer service and for articulating the plight of these imigrants.

  • Marion Hayes

    I had the pleasure of being a support person the year that Mary was a Catholic Volunteer. I am sure that her words have already touched many people. Her work here has made a tremendous difference, I’m sure more than she probably knows.

    When I was a freshman in high school in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, I was lucky to have a “senior sister”. The older girls were matched up to us as role models that we could look up to. My senior sister was from Lebanon. Her family had to flee the country. I was happy to get to know her. She told me about one of the English teachers who started raising her voice at her when she was talking to her. The teacher thought that Leila would understand her better in English if she yelled. I remember her being so kind and thoughtful. She gave me a pocketbook as a gift, but the most important thing she gave me is her friendship. She was the new one to New York City and ultimately she made me feel welcome in our new school. I will never forget her.

    My great grandparents came from Italy. As Mary said, we are all immigrants of one kind or other. It is important to remember that. We should look upon the people who come here from other countries in the same way that we wanted our grandparents to be treated. And remember that these new immigrants are a blessing to us.

  • Carolyn Brennan-Alley

    Mary’s article was compelling, enlightening and a reminder that it is our responsibility to be a part of the solution not a part of the racists attitudes that build fear and keep us separated from one another. My mother, who was an outreach worker in the inner city where we volunteered, taught us that when you look at others you see the face of God. Mary thank you for that reminder in a world oppressed. We need the kind of education and understanding your article calls us to. A superb piece. I look forward to more of your writing.

    Carolyn Brennan-Alley

  • C. Poulin

    Appreciate being reminded of the plight of refugees and the many ways agencies and individuals like yourself are providing genuine hospitality. It was a great article

    C. Poulin

  • J. S. Grant

    I had never thought bout the difficulty of bringing family members, when the documents you need have been left behind when you fled for your lives. Please write/print more stories that illustrate how difficult it is for these people to re-start their lives. This was an excellent article.

  • Michele Minetola

    Thank you for treating these refugees with respect and dignity. They have already been through terrible hardships. Your goodness and kindness to them is a reminder that we are all children of God, created in His image. God bless you.

  • Joanne Hughes

    God bless you and your work. Write more articles that show the plight of these poor people.

  • Linda Bollinger

    Thank you for writing such an enlightening and informative article. I had no idea of the difficult circumstances that refugees must go through. You are doing the right thing for them by writing this article and increasing awareness of their hardships.

  • Line Rioux

    Thanks Mary for a very good article describing the hard reality that refugees and immigrants live in our country. Being separated from family is heart wrenching, and your article points to the need for changing some of our laws that separate families as well as treat them as inferior. They are our brothers and sisters. Thanks for all you and Catholic Charities do, and may you continue to call awareness to these realities.

  • Jo Ann Sheesley

    Thank you Mary so such an eloquent & insightful article! What heart wrenching circumstances these refugees endure. Your description of their plight brought tears to my eyes. Please know that your efforts are not in vain & these new citizens will forever remember your kindness & compassion.

  • Angelé Propst

    How wonderful that someone is is so compassionate has found a way to do work she obviously loves while helping so many. I would enjoyu the opportunity to hear more in the future.

  • Angela Fortier

    Congratulations! Your article is so good and reflective. I will bring to prayer and search my soul to find some ways that I can help our people here in Maine.
    By the way, I am in the community as your Aunt Judy.
    You are in my prayers and continue to develop your writing gift.
    Peace, prayers,
    Sr. Angela

  • Rita Bujold

    Thanks for your interesting article. You really touch the reality of so many people who are struggling. I’ve just returned from Burkina Faso after having spent 7 years in that country.
    Wishing you much success in your work.

  • Lynn Tax

    Lucky are the refugees who got to know and trust Mary Donovan as someone willing to help with information and services once they arrive in the United States. While Catholic Charities cannot provide services over the long term for our refugees, Miss Donovan’s article will no doubt enlighten readers that prejudice toward them does nothing to improve the social issues such as isolation, language barriers and the economics of finding a job that already underscore their challenges.

  • Eilis

    Mary — Excellent. I spent the last year in a volunteer program and worked for a refugee resettlement agency. I, too, welcomed the “stranger.” Your story in this article echos stories that I heard last year.

  • Mike Hayes

    Thanks for this. I know of the struggles you faced as a volunteer last year and always appreciated hearing the trials that refugees face. You did good work here and should be proud of that. Moreover, it should change you for life and I hope your words here changes the rest of us to do something about the injustice that refugees face. Good to have your voice here as well. Thanks.

  • Leigh Hill

    Thanks for sharing your voice. Sometimes it is so easy to forget and take for granted something so simple as education and family when the have almost always been easily accessible in some fashion. The challenges faced by refugees on a daily basis are real and right under our noses. I think that many people, myself included, sometimes forget to come at issues from a perspective of love.

  • Cathy Cartwright

    What a relief to know there are people out there in our society such as this author who stand as a voice for all God’s children. Thank you for making a difference…..

  • James Leo Oliver

    God bless you. I support Catholic Charities on a monthly basis and it’s good to learn about the work being done.

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