Chicagoland

Homes offer safety for young asylum seekers

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
February 7, 2018

Viatorian Father Corey Brost talks to men seeking asylum in the United States at Viator House of Hospitality in Des Plaines on Jan. 31. Now over 18, the residents came to this country as minors seeking safety. They came to the house of hospitality after being released from juvenile detentions centers at age 18. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Getting to work or school from the Viator House of Hospitality in Des Plaines isn’t exactly easy.

For many of the 20 young men who live in the house on the campus of Maryville Academy, it involves a ride in a van driven by volunteers to the CTA station in Rosemont, nearly 7 miles away. They take the train into Chicago, and make their way by bus to Truman Middle College, an alternative high school run by Truman College.

It’s a trek that takes about two hours each way.

A smaller group of young women, who live in the similar Bethany House in the western suburbs, have an even longer journey.

But the men’s daily travels do not compare to the paths they walked to get to the house, which was founded in January 2017 by the Clerics of St. Viator.

The residents are mostly Muslim and mostly from Africa. Nearly all of them arrived in the United States alone before they turned 18, fleeing danger in their home countries and seeking asylum in the United States. For some, the journey itself took two years or more, flying from Africa to Peru and then working their way north, often on foot, through South and Central America.

Those who arrived and asked for asylum before they turned 18 were turned over to the custody of the Office of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and sent to child care centers, where they were housed, fed and clothed — but which they could not leave.

Then, for most of them, they were released to the house of hospitality at one minute before midnight struck on their 18th birthdays.

The children’s detention centers release them that way because when people in children’s detention centers have no place to go when they turn 18, immigration enforcement agents put them in shackles and take them to adult detention centers, even if they have legal permission to live and work in the United States while their applications are considered, said Sister Rayo Cuaya-Castillo, a member of the Society of Helpers, who is a case manager at Viator House.

The young people do need somewhere to go, Sister Rayo said.

 “It’s not just legal documentation they need,” she said. “They need life skills to live in America.”

They also need education, legal advocacy and advice, and the basics of food and shelter while they figure out their next steps.

Viator House and Bethany House work with the National Immigrant Justice Center, which offers pro bono legal assistance to the residents, and the Young Center of the University of Chicago, which advocates for children in detention.

Viatorian Father Corey Brost said that the houses offer their young residents something else they have not had for a long time, if ever.

“We see their basic human dignity and the value they have in the world,” said Brost, who is co-director of Viator House with Viatorian Brother Michael Gosch. “We try to surround them with an environment of care and compassion and hope.”

Brother Michael said the house has become a kind of family environment for the young men who live there.

“I never wanted kids before,” he said. “And now I feel like I have 26 sons.”

The residents have things to teach the staff and volunteers as well.

“They teach us a lesson about maintaining hope and good spirits,” Father Corey said. “One of the things that’s remarkable is the level of hope and persistence these kids show, and the lack of complaining. There’s remarkably little sniping, for a house with 20 young guys in it. They are remarkably patient.”

That’s important, as the hearings for asylum seekers can stretch out for years.

Benedictine Sister Patricia Crowley, president of Bethany House, said one of the young women there had a first hearing on her asylum application in January; the next hearing is set for 2021.

Crowley started Bethany House after attending the opening of Viator House. She had already volunteered to help Father Corey with his mission; when someone asked why there was no home for young women, she thought, “I can do that.”

She convened a group of representatives from women’s religious communities who formed a board and are providing financial support for Bethany House, which opened in October. So far, 23 communities are providing support.

Darlene Gramigna, co-director of Bethany House, said the first goal was to make the house into a home. The building has 10 bedrooms, and with five residents in January, each young woman had her own room.

Both houses have had a few residents come and then move on, as they found family connections to live with in the United States. Both hope to eventually have apartments in Chicago for their residents to move to as they get on their feet, creating a step between group living and total independence.

Father Corey acts as de facto chaplain for the men, although the vast majority are not Catholic. The house, while sponsored by a Catholic religious community, is intentionally interfaith. That means Father Corey sees that each of the men gets a Bible or Quran or other appropriate religious text, helps them connect with their own religious institutions, and uses their own faith and beliefs to encourage them to maintain hope.

In addition to staff members, more than 70 regular volunteers form part of the community, doing everything from driving the van to offering one-on-one tutoring. 

“I can’t keep up with the tutor requests,” Father Corey said. “These guys are so eager to learn. But it’s not that these are the people in need and the volunteers help. It’s one community.”

Topics:

  • immigration
  • immigration ministry

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