Refugees start new life in Houston thanks to programs in growing archdiocese

by Nuri Vallbona

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When Sham tells visitors about the family she left back home in Damascus, Syria, her voice rises and tears stream down her face. In the midst of her Arabic, she repeats one word over and over again, one of the few she knows in English: "death."

"You tell the people and the government of America what the Syrian [is] suffering is death every day," Sham said through an interpreter, "death, death, death, death every day."

Sham and her husband, Tariq, described the shots and rockets they heard daily as President Bashar Assad's regime cracked down on protesters in their area. (The couple asked that their real names not be used to protect family members back home.)

"Even if there was only one person demonstrating against the government, they started shooting everywhere," Tariq said. Indiscriminate shootings and innocent victims: a man hanging clothes outside, kids playing in the streets.

And that's when the couple and their five school-age children headed for Jordan.

First stop was a refugee camp, then an apartment that a friend helped secure. They lived in the shadows for two and a half years, dodging Jordanian police, until a resettlement offer came through the United Nations.

In September, the family landed in Houston, a city so diverse that neighborhoods sport signs in Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese and other languages. Its rapidly growing archdiocese of 1.6 million people, now the fifth-largest in the country, offers a wide variety of programs to help immigrants shift their focus from physical survival to their economic and emotional well-being. Among its goals: to strengthen families against the financial stress of relocation, culture shock and loneliness, and to make them self-sufficient.

"Houston is one of the major refugee resettlement areas in the country," said Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University. As a founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Klineberg has studied the changing population, economy, beliefs and attitudes of the Houston area for 34 years.

"Houston's ethnic diversity today is where all of America will be in about 25 years," Klineberg said. "The Catholic church is right there at the forefront of the new diversity and, not surprising, at the forefront of the outreach to the refugee communities."

World events have triggered the largest migration crisis since World War II and a call from Pope Francis to do more. Among the many topics being discussed at the synod on the family currently underway in Rome are refugee families and the challenges they face. 

Tariq, Sham and their children are one of two Syrian families being resettled by Catholic Charities in Houston, which has assisted 543 refugees since October 2014. That's a 62 percent increase since 2006, and doesn't include Cuban border-crossers who have a separate legal status and frequently walk into its Houston office. Their numbers have increased steadily, from 130 in 2006 to 730 in 2014 to 1,035 by September 2015 — a 42 percent increase this year alone, according to Ardiane Ademi, the Refugee Resettlement program director.

Nearly all of the Catholic Charities refugee resettlement funding (97 percent) comes from government grants — along with strict guidelines, such as no proselytizing. And while the agency is at the forefront of the resettlement effort, local parishes and Catholic affiliated nonprofits have also filled in the gaps to meet the needs of this growing population.

"When I came here, I feel safe now because [of] Catholic Charities. I feel somebody is a sponsor for us, guide us . . . to the right way," Sham said. "Now I feel there is life here."

She described how a smiling Hasan Shuhaib, their case manager, greeted them at George Bush Intercontinental Airport before settling the seven of them in an apartment on the west side of the city.

Each family in the resettlement program is assigned a case manager who makes home visits and phone calls, connects refugees to community resources, helps find employment and checks in "just to make sure that things are okay in the family unit," Ademi said.

Services include legal aid, counseling, rental assistance, transportation, health care access and help with school registration and Social Security applications.

Ademi oversees 40 employees, representing 13 countries in the Houston program alone. Together, they speak about 30 languages and dialects. Since many were refugees themselves, they "do have a different angle of understanding with what's going on with the refugees," Ademi said.

Rounding out the effort are more than 200 volunteers coordinated by Sr. Pauline Troncale, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word and the program assistant in Volunteer Services. Currently, she is looking for more Spanish speakers, "a crucial need" at the resettlement office.

"Do you know that people from all languages apply?" Troncale said. "I've had three people call me recently that want to help me with the Syrian refugees when they come."

At times, Troncale sets up apartments for arriving families, a process she says makes her feel connected.

Once she brought three teddy bears, placing one in the wheelchair for a child who couldn't walk. When the children arrived, two of them began pushing the bear around in the wheelchair. "I think teddy bears are kind of universal as far as feeling comfort," she said.

'Into a very fast culture'

Cikoma Nsabimana knows what it's like to live without comfort. For 17 years, he lived in a Rwandan refugee camp with his wife and seven children after fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A tent gave his family a roof over their heads, but little else.

"In Rwanda, sometimes I didn't have food. I didn't have water. Sometimes I couldn't even sleep," Nsabimana said through an interpreter.

An attack two months after they arrived in Rwanda nearly burned his daughter to death, he explained, turning toward his 24-year-old daughter, Nyiramahirwe Mukamujeni, who was curled up in her wheelchair.

At 17, she developed a mysterious illness that left her partly paralyzed and prone to seizures. Little medical care was available in Rwanda, but that changed when the family came to the U.S. a year ago.

The agency connected Nsabimana's daughter with medical care and physical therapy.

Not only did his daughter get care, but a diagnosis, too: an inoperable benign brain tumor.

"What was stressing me was my child," Nsabimana said. "That stress is no longer there."

Once a week, Margaret Ayot, program supervisor for the Refugee Resettlement program, gives a three- to four-hour presentation about refugee rights, the immigration process and some legal prohibitions, including domestic violence.

"When they come here into a very fast culture," she said, "it's very difficult for them to acculturate, so you have to give them constant orientations."

This type of attention has helped Nsabimana adapt. He can now read and write his own name, and he has a full-time job at Wal-Mart. Ayot said he calls once a week to say, "I am self-sufficient."

Sustaining families

Keeping her family together is crucial for Idanay Diaz, who journeyed for seven months before arriving to Houston in August with her brother, Ysvany Flores. At Casa Juan Diego, a nonprofit that houses refugees and undocumented immigrants, Diaz described their treacherous journey from Ecuador.

In Colombia, a bout with the chikungunya virus delayed their progress. They bailed water for 11 hours on the boat ride to Panama during a lightning storm. Their guide abandoned them as they slowly climbed a dangerously high hill on the Panama border.

After they crossed into Mexico, she gave birth to a daughter two months early. Although Diaz saw her daughter alive at birth, a doctor later told her the baby had died, something that still haunts her. Eventually, she and Flores reached Matamoros and turned themselves at the U.S. border in August.

"We didn't have family here; we didn't have money," Diaz said. "Somebody told us about Casa Juan Diego, and that day we came, and we're still here."

Inspired by Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, Louise and Mark Zwick founded Casa Juan Diego in 1980. When unaccompanied 15-year-olds fleeing violence began trickling in to Houston, the couple rented "the ugliest building in Houston" and opened Casa Juan Diego's doors.

"And our secret is, of course, that in the Catholic Worker, there are no salaries. We don't pay anybody so that donations that are given, which sustain us, can be used for the service of the poor," Louise Zwick said, quoting her husband.

Currently there are about 120 immigrants and refugees living in eight buildings. In addition to the men's and women's houses, there is a house for the sick, a vegetable garden, a medical clinic staffed by volunteer doctors and a community food pantry. Another 125 non-residents also receive medical care, Louise Zwick said.

Sr. Josephine Vasquez commutes two hours by bus each way to give one-on-one English classes for those who want them. "Loving classes," she calls them.

Recently, she sat down with Rahwa from Eritrea, whose 3-month-old son, Shalom, snoozed by her side. She pointed to the word "brown" in a book and asked Tewelde to point to something brown in the room. When Tewelde motioned to a coffee cup, Vasquez beamed. (This family's surnames have been withheld for security reasons.)

But the Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus said her most important mission is much deeper than providing language skills.

"When the women come here after having gone through so many countries to get here . . . they feel lost, they feel abandoned, totally abandoned by society, by their God, by our God," Vasquez said. "But they come here, and this becomes family."

And while the Refugee Resettlement program at Catholic Charities takes up practical burdens that can weigh down families, places like Casa Juan Diego and the archdiocese's parishes are lifting their spiritual ones.

"I think that within the Catholic context, once we have addressed the basic temporal needs of these families, I think it becomes incumbent upon us, to the extent that they're open to the faith, to begin addressing their spiritual needs," said Sam Dunning, a deacon in the archdiocese and director of the Office of Justice and Peace.

Just sitting and listening to the women at Casa Juan Diego is important, Vasquez said. "This heavy weight that they had, which they hadn't expressed to anyone else, has been lifted."

Every Wednesday, a Mass is celebrated at Casa with an invitation for guests to tell their story. Diaz proudly described her brother, a devout Catholic, getting up to give his testimony. Watching him and seeing the actions of workers at Casa inspired her to renew her lapsed faith.

Fr. Simon Kipiti, a priest from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has seen how resettlement struggles can hurt his community. When he first came to the United States, he had no Congolese family to sponsor him, and he felt alone. While in seminary, he devised a plan to make refugees feel part of the church family again.

"Many Congolese people were leaving the Catholic church because they had no Mass in their languages," Kipiti said.

So after being ordained in June, he started a Mass at St. Benedict the Abbott's Catholic Church — half in Lingala for the Congolese and half in French for Africans from Cameroon, Ivory Coast or other French-speaking nations. This was in addition to his duties at his home parish.

During a recent Sunday, altar servers processed down the center aisle, swaying their feet from side to side in perfect sync with the conga drums. Kipiti clapped his hands while the choir sang, "Bandeko boyakani e tolakisa mokonzi esengo" ("Everybody come to show our joy"). Only about 25 attended that day, but their energy was evident.

"They are coming back to the Catholic church," Kipiti said, "and they are very enthusiastic to start over."

But Kipiti has not let his mission end within the walls of the church. He now meets once a month with his fellow Congolese to help those who are coming to the United States "to welcome them . . . to give them good information."

He has seen many of his countrymen lose their way, turn to alcohol or land in jail, things that will often break up families.

"It's easy for someone to get lost or to get discouraged, to lose the hope that he had when he was moving to the United States," Kipiti said. "We try to help them . . . to live again in the community."

Changing attitudes?

Klineberg, the Rice University professor, said his surveys in Houston over the years have shown the public's opinions toward immigration have become more positive.

When asked whether respondents favored a path to legal citizenship, 72 percent responded favorably in 2015, compared to 64 percent in 2009. More than 70 percent favored admitting the same number or more legal immigrants in 2015, up from 59 percent in 2009.

"Every question we asked about immigration has shown a systematic, gradual, unmistakably increasingly less antagonistic views," Klineberg said.

"Unquestionably, we've had a role in this," said Dunning of the archdiocese's peace and justice office. He gave examples where Catholic business leaders have "stepped up to the proverbial plate" to "take on this issue in a very positive way" and where the Catholic church has partnered with other faiths to advocate for immigration reform.

When he first started speaking in church communities, Dunning noticed "vehemence against immigrants." But lately, he said, things have changed. "I go back to the same parishes, and in some cases, speak to the same folks and there . . . has been a removal of the sharpness in the debate which I find positive and helpful, and it gives me a little bit of hope."

Tariq, the Syrian refugee, has felt welcomed this first month in Houston.

"What we noticed here first that even people we don't know, they are smiling to us. There is always a smile on their face," he said. "That means they accept us, and we do like it."

[Nuri Vallbona is a freelance documentary photojournalist. She worked for the Miami Herald from 1993 to 2008 and has been a lecturer at the University of Texas and Texas Tech University.]

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that nearly all of Catholic Charities funding, 97 percent, comes from government grants. This percentage is true only for Catholic Charities' refugee resettlement programs, not for the agency's activities overall.