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

This story appears in the Seeking Refuge feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: More than 68 million people had been displaced from their homes because of factors such as war, threats from gangs, natural disasters, and lack of economic opportunities at the end of 2017, the highest number of displaced since the aftermath of World War II. Of those, the United Nations considered 25.4 million to be refugees: people forced to leave their countries because of persecution, war or violence.

Global Sisters Report is bringing a sharper focus to the plight of refugees through a special series, Seeking Refuge, which will follow the journeys refugees make: living in camps, seeking asylum, experiencing resettlement and integration, and, for some, being deported to a country they may only vaguely remember or that may still be dangerous.

Though not every refugee follows this exact pattern, these stages in the journey are emblematic for many — and at every stage, Catholic women religious are doing what they can to help.


Toting 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 her handiwork. Meanwhile, 7-month-old Carlos demonstrated the crawling skills he had acquired that morning.

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

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

"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 currently 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 of them in Chicago or Texas.

The house opened in October 2017 after Sr. Patricia Crowley of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago called a meeting of her contacts from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) Region 8 in Illinois to discuss how sisters could address immigration issues. It has already housed 17 women (including the current eight) 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 and a board made up of eight sisters, Bethany House was able to rent a building with large common spaces and 10 bedrooms, and hire several staff people to manage the house and connect the young women to resources.

This model is one of the many ways that Catholic sisters around the country are supporting asylum-seekers — through services including 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 and 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 to protect her identity, was shocked and 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, that 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 (where she used to work) and among other immigrants and advocates, like Crowley and other religious, who help connect her to resources.

Since asylum-seekers can receive work permits if their case isn'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. long-term.

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 the right 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 sometimes fit in one of those categories, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently intervened in immigration court to say those reasons normally should not qualify.

Franciscan Sr. Suzanne Susany of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an attorney who provides free or low-cost legal services to immigrants, including asylum-seekers, 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 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, located in Northeastern Ohio near Youngstown, Sr. Rene Weeks, a Dominican Sister of Peace and the director of Hispanic ministry at St. Paul Church, runs the church's immigrant drop-in center, called Centro San Pablo, which 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."

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, while 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 and 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.

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 US 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, and encountering unfamiliar sights such as pets wearing scarves, Uber drivers and Amish people, said Gramigna.

For Nuru, an Ethiopian Bethany House resident 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 the confidence to move out on their own.

Weeks' drop-in center in Salem, 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.

She has recently been helping support families and connect people with legal aid after more than 140 people were arrested June 19 in an immigration raid on a local meatpacking plant. Although asylum-seekers were among the 66 people released by June 25, 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 at some points in 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 some exceptions for those with relatives there and people who arrive on foot.

While migrants are at the shelter, Niederpruem helps them deal with the trauma nearly all experience, and they are also connected with services they need 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 for their futures.

Although adjusting to life in the U.S. is "too hard" at first, "Later, when you find more people to help you and some people to care about you, you feel free," said Eden, who 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."

[Maria Benevento is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is]

Next in this series: The challenges of starting life anew in a strange place with a foreign language, unfamiliar ways and an uncertain future.