GSR in the Classroom

Seeking asylum in the US

Before you read

Reflect on your own or with a partner on the following questions. These will help you connect with the story you're about to read.

  1. What do you think would be the biggest challenge for a refugee from another country arriving in your community?
  2. Who helps refugees when they arrive in the United States?

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A tutor and a student work together at a migrant center.
A tutor works with an English as a second language student at Centro San Pablo, a drop-in center for migrants in Salem, Ohio, run by St. Paul Church. They are writing words in shaving cream. (Sr. Rene Weeks)

Keep in mind while you read

Try to put yourself in the shoes of the asylum seekers described in this article.

  1. Which part of their journeys sound the most difficult?
  2. Which parts of adjusting to life in the U.S. seem the most confusing?
  3. What do they fear most deeply?

Seeking Refuge: Sisters shelter, support asylum-seekers as they adapt to US

by Maria Benevento

July 5, 2018

Carrying a sheet of smiley-face stickers and a wagon filled with toys, 3-year-old Jocelyn was fearless. As she played in the living room, covering everyone she encountered with stickers, her mother, 18-year-old Andrea, occasionally paused from cooking to admire Jocelyn's handiwork. Meanwhile, 7-month-old Carlos demonstrated his newfound crawling skills.

This happy scene might not have been possible without Bethany House of Hospitality, a shelter near Chicago, where Andrea, Jocelyn and Carlos (identified by pseudonyms for their protection) live. Andrea, who arrived in the United States from Guatemala when she was 17, is seeking asylum for herself and her children.

pseudonym: A false name to protect a vulnerable person

asylum: legal permission to stay in the U.S. for protection because a person fears violence or persecution in their country

aging into adult detention: Young migrants coming to the U.S. are held in detention centers for children. At age 18, they are immediately transferred to an adult detention facility and are separated from their families.

legal aid: reduced-fee or free legal services; having professional representation leads to higher success rates for asylum seekers and other cases

persecution: hostility, mistreatment or life-threatening actions toward someone, especially because of race, religion or political beliefs

assimilate: to become absorbed or blend into a society

pastoral care: care for a person's spiritual or religious needs

advocacy: legal support or other services

credible: believable or likely

trafficking: the illegal, international transportation of human beings for the purpose of forced labor or sexual exploitation

pro bono: free of cost

shackled: handcuffed

sentiment: feelings or attitudes

wary: afraid or nervous

contingent on: depends on

The house, sponsored by 28 congregations of women religious, serves female asylum-seekers who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors but risk aging into adult detention. It doesn't usually shelter minors but made an exception when its staff and board realized that on Andrea's 18th birthday, the family could be separated or, at best, subjected to poor conditions in family detention.

"Her need was so great and to think of separating her from those two little children, we all had to say, 'We can't say no to this,' " said Sr. Peggy Geraghty, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a Bethany House board member. "We couldn't bear to split one family, let alone all the families that are being split now."

Andrea is one of eight women staying at Bethany House. Fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries, they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border and were initially put in children's immigration detention — most in Chicago or Texas.

The house opened in October 2017 after Sr. Patricia Crowley of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago met with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) to discuss how sisters could address immigration issues. It already has housed 17 women and three children for periods ranging from a week to several months until they are able to support themselves or move in with relatives.

As religious congregations shrink and their members age, collaborative projects might be the future of religious life, Crowley and other board members suggested. With multiple congregations funding the operation, Bethany House was able to rent a building with 10 bedrooms and hire several people to manage the house and connect the young women to resources.

This model is one of many ways that Catholic sisters around the country support asylum-seekers. Their efforts include legal aid, shelter and assistance adjusting to life in the United States.

Asylum-seekers benefit from such intensive support because they face multiple challenges in their efforts to thrive in the United States. Like other refugees, they arrive fleeing persecution and often suffering from trauma, then have to assimilate and support themselves in a new country.

Unlike refugees, who are vetted in their home countries by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, asylum-seekers aren't preapproved to migrate. They must navigate the court system to prove their right to remain while attempting to integrate and survive with little or no government assistance. (Learn more about the difference between a refugee and an asylum-seeker.)

Salih, who asked to be identified by only her last name, was horrified when, upon arriving at the United States' southern border as an unaccompanied minor, she was handcuffed and detained. She cried daily and felt guilty, although she hadn't thought it was wrong to seek protection in the U.S. after fleeing Sudan.

Now, Salih's life seems to be looking up. She was freed from detention and later supported by the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants, a nonprofit founded by Catholic sisters but involving various faiths. It provides pastoral care, advocacy and other support to those affected by immigration detention. Salih has an apartment in Chicago with the Helpers of the Holy Souls. She has found a supportive community at Bethany House among other immigrants and advocates, like Crowley and other sisters, who help connect her to resources.

Since asylum-seekers can receive work permits if their cases aren't resolved after 180 days, Salih is working legally and hopes to soon start college to become a dental hygienist and a social worker. But she doesn't have the peace of mind that would come with winning asylum and knowing she can stay in the U.S. permanently.

That assurance won't come anytime soon; Salih's next court date is set for 2021.

Fleeing persecution

Salih and other asylum-seekers must prove not only that they would be in danger if forced to return home, but also that they are in danger for valid reasons.

Asylum-seekers first enter the country (either without permission or on a temporary visa) or arrive at a U.S. border or port of entry and request to stay. If they express a "credible fear" of returning home, U.S. law requires they be admitted to the country temporarily while they apply for asylum.

Only persecution because of race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a particular social group qualifies migrants for protection. While in the past, domestic violence and gang violence were considered factors, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions intervened in immigration court to say those reasons normally should not qualify.

Franciscan Sr. Suzanne Susany of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is an attorney who provides free or low-cost legal services to immigrants, including asylum-seekers. She often encounters migrants from Central America escaping gang violence, as well as others from countries such as Venezuela and Turkey fleeing for political reasons.

Susany, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, spoke of a recent client with a child from Central America whose asylum application was denied. "She returned to her country and she was planning to move to Mexico immediately because she was petrified of being in her own country. … There is truly fear and fear of death."

In the small town of Salem, Ohio, Sr. Rene Weeks, a Dominican Sister of Peace and the director of Hispanic ministry at St. Paul Church, runs Centro San Pablo, an immigrant drop-in center that serves many asylum-seekers.

One man Weeks knows left Guatemala to escape a gang, tried to return home, and then fled to the U.S. again after his life and family were threatened.

"He has an asylum claim that has basically dragged on and on and on," Weeks said. "He's afraid to go back. He said, 'You know, they have very long memories down there.' And people are still around that he fled from."

Residents of Bethany House don't typically talk in depth about their reasons for fleeing. Asked why they came to the United States, they respond simply: "to be safe," "to have a better life," and "I escaped."

"In reality, I came because I was threatened," said Andrea. "I couldn't stay in my country."

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Salih, an asylum-seeker from Sudan, right, speaks with Sr. Patricia Crowley, the board president of Bethany House of Hospitality, who works with the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants.
Salih, an asylum-seeker from Sudan, right, speaks with Sr. Patricia Crowley, the board president of Bethany House of Hospitality, who works with the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants, June 19, 2018, in Salih's apartment in Chicago. (NCR photo / Maria Benevento)

A young woman from Eritrea, who asked to be identified as Eden, explained that in her home country, "You don't have rights, you don't have freedom; they don't allow you to speak what you feel."

Darlene Gramigna, Bethany House executive director, said the women have all experienced trauma — in their home countries, on the journey to the U.S. and in children's detention. Some receive benefits through a government program for trafficking victims, and Gramigna said that whether the women tell them or not, staff members know they may have been raped during the journey to the U.S.

Some Bethany House residents benefit from the Marjorie Kovler Center, which offers counseling to victims of state-sponsored torture. Others have experienced extreme violence that isn't state-sponsored, Gramigna said. "Almost everybody should be in counseling if they're not already."

The few former or current Bethany House residents who have received their verdicts all won asylum. This success is partially because most — although not all — already had legal representation when they began living there.

Legal representation makes asylum-seekers five times more likely to win their cases, but the government doesn't provide immigrants with attorneys. Asylum-seekers struggle to afford them.

Low cost and pro bono legal services "are extremely important, because the people who are seeking asylum really have left everything, so they really have no resources," said Susany.

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A girl hits a piñata at Centro San Pablo, a drop-in center for immigrants in Salem, Ohio run by St. Paul church.
A girl hits a piñata at Centro San Pablo, a drop-in center for immigrants in Salem, Ohio run by St. Paul church. (Sr. Rene Weeks)

Bethany House residents' connection with legal services and advocacy is part of the reason they were referred to the house and given into its custody the night before they turned 18, rather than being "shackled and brought to adult detention" at midnight, Gramigna said.

Increasingly, asylum-seekers, especially those arriving on the southern border, are detained in centers where it is nearly impossible to access legal services. "I have [represented detained asylum-seekers], but I've tried to get them out," Susany said. "The first thing you do is you apply for bond."

Adjusting to U.S. life

For asylum-seekers who are not detained, sisters also help them transition into life in the U.S. and access necessary services.

Difficulties adjusting to the U.S. include facing anti-immigrant sentiment, proving employment qualification without formal education or diplomas, and encountering unfamiliar sights such Uber drivers, Amish people and pets wearing scarves, Gramigna said.

For Nuru, an Ethiopian resident of Bethany House who asked not to be identified by her real name, a major adjustment was learning independence after coming from a country where she couldn't venture out alone.

Back home, "You can't trust people, you have to take your brother, or your father maybe," she said. "But here, you can go anywhere you want."

Bethany House has also helped her befriend people from various cultures.

"It's a little bit difficult to live with people you don't know, people who don't understand the language you speak," said Nuru. "A little bit hard. It's challenging, but I'm used to it now."

Watching the young women find community after arriving from detention suspicious of other young people and wary of group activities is particularly rewarding, said Gramigna, as is seeing people find the resources and confidence to move out on their own.

Weeks' drop-in center in Ohio also helps with adjustment to the U.S. It offers English instruction and assistance with challenges such as enrolling children in school, accessing health care and legal services or getting connected to a local church. Even when the center isn't open, Weeks gets phone calls asking for help.

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A map of the world in Bethany House of Hospitality in Bartlett, Illinois, features stickers that show the places of origin of those who live and work there.
A map of the world in Bethany House of Hospitality in Bartlett, Illinois, features stickers that show the places of origin of those who live and work there. (NCR photo / Maria Benevento)

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Bethany House of Hospitality staff meet June 19, 2018, at Bethany House in Bartlett, Illinois; from left: Jessica Alaniz, staff case manager, Darlene Gramigna, executive director, and Benedictine Sr. Patricia Crowley, founder.
Bethany House of Hospitality staff meet June 19, 2018, at Bethany House in Bartlett, Illinois; from left: Jessica Alaniz, staff case manager, Darlene Gramigna, executive director, and Benedictine Sr. Patricia Crowley, founder (GSR photo / Maria Benevento)

She has recently been supporting families and connecting people with legal aid after more than 140 people were arrested in an immigration raid on a local meatpacking plant. Although asylum-seekers were among the 66 people released six days later, Weeks pointed out that some people who don't qualify for asylum in the U.S. might still be fleeing danger.

In fact, some asylum-seekers are opting to move to Canada rather than remain in the U.S. In Buffalo, New York, Franciscan Sr. Beth Niederpruem works at Vive, a shelter for immigrants waiting to seek asylum in Canada.

The 120-bedroom shelter, which held about 70 people when Niederpruem spoke with GSR, received as many as 320 migrants during 2017. Many hope to connect with family in Canada or go through a quicker asylum process while others, such as a surge of Haitian temporary protected status holders, are worried they will lose protections in the U.S. Typically, immigrants arriving from the U.S. cannot seek asylum in Canada, but there are exceptions for those with relatives there and for people who arrive on foot.

Niederpruem, who is part of the same community as Susany, helps migrants at the shelter deal with the trauma nearly all experience. They also are connected with services such as health care, clothing and education.

"The people that come are very traumatized because they are running for their life and it's taken them quite a bit of energy to get out of their country," she said. "They need time to relocate and find something that will work, but it's not an easy journey."

Despite the challenges in their past, asylum-seekers still have ambitions.

Although adjusting to life in the U.S. is "too hard" at first, Eden said, "Later, when you find more people to help you and some people to care about you, you feel free." She wants to be a nurse and is grateful for being pushed to study.

Even those Bethany House residents who haven't picked a career path know they want an education. Their prospective fields of study include law, medicine, nursing and social work.

However, some also note that these dreams are contingent on receiving asylum.

Andrea is small enough to be mistaken for a child herself, but her thoughts were on her responsibility to choose a profession and provide for Jocelyn and Carlos. She will start school as soon as she finds a source of childcare. She wants to learn English and thinks she might like to study law or be a flight attendant.

She marveled at people's generosity, remarking that she receives something for herself or her children every couple of days: diapers, clothes, even a crib.

But she hasn't forgotten that she is still waiting to find out if she'll be allowed to stay. "I hope that they give me asylum here so I can give my two children a future."

After you read

Reflect on your own or with a partner on the following questions.

  1. Why did the people in this article — Andrea, Salih, Eden and Nuru — come to the U.S.? Think of as many reasons as you can recall.
  2. What do they most need when they get here in order to be able to stay legally and successfully? What are the sisters in this article able to provide for them?

Scripture spotlight

The earliest Christians came together to meet the needs of everyone in the community. Inspired by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the young church was active and attractive. The Acts of the Apostles (2:44-47) describes it like this:

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

  1. What can we learn from the people of the early church?
  2. What stands in our way from living this way today?

The church's call

Pope Francis recently shared a special message with the young people of the world. In Christus Vivit, he gave special attention to young migrants, including refugees and those seeking asylum. Here's part of what he said in Paragraph 91:

How can we fail to think of all those young people affected by movements of migration? "Migration, considered globally, is a structural phenomenon, and not a passing emergency. It may occur within one country or between different countries. The Church's concern is focused especially on those fleeing from war, violence, political or religious persecution, from natural disasters including those caused by climate change, and from extreme poverty. Many of them are young. In general, they are seeking opportunities for themselves and their families. They dream of a better future and they want to create the conditions for achieving it."

Migrants "remind us of a basic aspect of our faith, that we are 'strangers and exiles on the earth.'" (Hebrews 11:13)

  1. The church makes special efforts for people who are poor and vulnerable, and that includes people who are fleeing unsafe conditions or trying to make better lives for themselves and their families. Why do you think the church puts such emphasis on helping people like these?
  2. Do you dream of a better future for yourself? What conditions stand in your way as you work to achieve it?
  3. Pope Francis reminds us that we are "strangers and exiles on the earth." Why should that apply to all of us, and not just migrant people?

Synergy with sisters

Explore more about the congregations of religious sisters mentioned in this story by clicking on one or more of the links found after the sisters' names.

  1. What are a few of the main ministries or goals of one of these congregations?
  2. How could you support their work?


  1. Explore more about what your parish or local diocese is doing to serve migrants in your city or area. See what help they need for their efforts.
  2. Ask whether migrant support programs can connect you with newcomers to your area. Could your school or church arrange a speaking opportunity or social time during which they can discuss their journey, needs and hopes?
  3. Consider working with a partner or with your class to address needs such as food, clothing, shelter, child care, transportation and other essential things that migrants need to live in dignity. 


Loving God, we thank you for the courageous and caring ministry of sisters who sacrifice to serve newcomers in need of your love.

Help us, Lord, to see your face in the faces of the newcomers.

Touch our hearts as we serve them and journey with them on the path that leads to you.


This article comes from the series "Seeking Refuge," published by the Global Sisters Report. You can download the entire e-book here.

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