Catholic Charities needs $250,000 to continue refugee program

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Saturday, March 25, 2017

Because of the new restrictions on refugees entering the United States, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago needs to raise $250,000 before July to ensure continuation of its resettlement program.

At present, Catholic Charities cares for nearly 250 refugees it has already resettled in Chicago, and anticipates resettling 46 more refugee families this year. Since it began this program 40 years ago Catholic Charities has resettled more than 10,000 refugees.

The U.S. government provides a grant for each family that covers 90 days of help. In 2017, the country-wide network expected to receive 110,000 refugees — a number set by the Obama administration last October. The Trump administration cut that number to 50,000.

“All of the agencies were ramping up capacity and staff to meet that larger target. Now we’re ramping down to deal with the lower target so it’s challenging,” said Kate Kuhn, assistant director of Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program. “We want to make sure that we have enough funding in place to continue to support refugees that are already here and the folks that we anticipate receiving even if it will be less.”

The United States takes in only the most vulnerable refugees — those who were victims of torture, for example, or those who will be killed if they return to their homeland.

“Less than 1 percent of all the refugees in the world are ever going to be resettled, not just in the U.S. but in any country,” Kuhn said. Most remain in camps in the countries they fled to.

Any refugee being considered for resettlement goes through a lengthy and thorough screening process that lasts several years. Initially they make a claim with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, saying it isn’t safe for them to return home. After an interview with the U.N. validates that claim, they are granted refugee status and given a refugee identification card.

“That’s where most refugees stop and are cared for by the U.N. until it is safe for them to return home or indefinitely but for particularly vulnerable cases the U.N. has the option of referring them to the U.S. government to be considered for resettlement,” Kuhn said.

The State Department decides whether the family merits an interview. If so, they will send someone to re-interview the family. If the family clears the interview, their case is forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security for further screening.

“They are reviewed by multiple parts of the U.S. government — by the FBI, counter-terrorism, military intelligence. They are fingerprinted,” she said.

The refugees are interviewed a second and sometimes a third time. If they pass that they undergo medical testing to see if they are healthy enough to travel to the United States.

If they make it through, the State Department refers their case to one of the nine national resettlement networks, one of which is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB contacts its network, mostly Catholic Charities agencies around the country, to resettle the refugees.

Catholic Charities in Chicago receives mostly families for resettlement because the cost of living is too high to receive individuals unless they have family or friends already here.

Once a family is assigned a resettlement city they go through cultural orientation and another security check and medical exam to ensure nothing has changed since their last security clearance.

“Assuming all of that clears they are booked to travel to the U.S.,” Kuhn said. “It’s very lengthy.”

Once Catholic Charities learns it will receive a family — usually two weeks prior to their departure — staff members find an apartment for them and furnish it. Parishes help in this process.

They greet the family at the airport with interpreters, bring them home and make sure they have a hot meal on the first night and know how to live safely in their apartment — especially if they aren’t familiar with Western-style housing.

“Then from there it’s really an intensive set of services intended to make them self-sufficient within 90 days,” Kuhn said.

This includes teaching them how to use mass transit; how to grocery shop and cash a check; enrolling them in English classes within 10 days; enrolling their children in school; meeting with a job developer within five days; putting a resume together; a cultural orientation class to teach them how to live in Chicago; and a medical review.

“Since it is such a lengthy screening process and since there are so many components, pausing it at any point can really impact arrivals,” she said. The security and medical checks are only good for around 15 months. If the checks expire, the individuals and families must be rechecked. That may not seem long, but to the refugee it could mean years of delay.

“For example, I had a case that was supposed to travel in 2014 from a refugee camp. The mom broke her leg two days before she was set to travel and wasn’t able to make the flight. They still haven’t been able to get her here,” she said. “By the time her leg had healed her security check had expired.”

In the case of Thaer Alhasnawi, his sister died just a few days before the family heard from the U.N. that she was cleared for resettlement. Alhasnawi and his family — including his parents and the families of his two sisters and brother — lived in Baghdad, Iraq, and applied for resettlement four years before they were accepted.

His sister’s case was the first to be accepted but she didn’t live to see it.

The process is very stressful for those going through it, he said.

“I had no idea at any point in time if I would be accepted or not. This was really stressful because you can’t plan for your family or anything for the future.”

They would wait months between the screenings.

“At every point you have no idea if you are going to be accepted or not,” he said. “They always say do not sell anything, do not leave your job, do not do anything to move until we tell you so.”

Eventually he, his brother and his widowed sister and their families were cleared for resettlement. However, his father’s case was rejected because he admitted to working with communists in the 1950s.

To add more stress, none of the siblings wanted to leave their parents behind on their own so Alhasnawi’s brother said he would stay back. Alhasnawi said he considered also staying behind up until three days before their departure, but decided to risk it for his children.

“I had a great job back home. Even leaving that good job for the unknown was a risk,” he said.

Alhasnawi was the only member of his family fluent in English, and as the only adult male he took over caring for nine family members including himself on the trip here and since.

They arrived in Chicago in August 2015. The children were enrolled in school right away and Alhasnawi eventually found work as a security guard in a warehouse and works part-time for Catholic Charities as an Arabic interpreter and case manager.

“It really gives me sometimes not continuous hours of sleeping a day. I have to run here and there I have to support the family,” he said.

The children have mostly adjusted to life here although everyone wishes to return to Iraq, were it safe again.

“My wife is still missing her family every day,” he said.

Donations to Catholic Charities’ campaign can be made online at or by texting CCAC to 243-725. A donation of $60 sponsors a refugee family for a day, $400 sponsors a family for a week, and $1,700 sponsors a family for one month.


  • refugees
  • catholic charities

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