Parish welcomes refugee families, helps them settle in

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

When Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph Parish, 1107 N. Orleans St., sponsors a refugee family arriving in Chicago, parishioners provide more than help with rent and furnishings.

They provide directions to the grocery story, guidance on how to use public transit, advice on communicating with school officials — in short, they provide friendship, said Lisa Dellagiarino Feriend, one of the volunteers from ICSJ.

“Lisa calls me and she visits me,” said Nan Lin, a Burmese refugee who arrived in Chicago in 2017 with her husband and oldest child after spending about 10 years in Thailand. The family now has two more children. “We take the kids to different playgrounds and her kids play with my kids.”

Volunteers commit to visiting or at least keeping in contact with refugee families for a year after they arrive, said Betsy Woodward, who coordinates the refugee welcoming program at ICSJ. The parish has welcomed eight family groups — ranging from one person to more than five people — since 2017, working with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s refugee resettlement program.

When Catholic Charities finds out that a family is arriving, it approaches community partners such as ICSJ for help in securing and paying for an apartment, making sure it’s furnished, and helping acclimate the family to life in Chicago, Woodward said.

With the first three months of rent and security deposit for an apartment, plus furnishings, it costs about $7,000 to $9,000 for the parish to welcome a family.

She spoke by phone in September, while waiting for word about the eighth and most recent family the parish has sponsored, a family originally from Burundi. Their 7-year-old has cerebral palsy and needs a wheelchair, but arrived without one, so that family was going to a clinic in hopes of setting up medical care and help with equipment.

“The resilience of these families amazes me,” Woodward said. Most have spent a decade or more living in refugee camps outside their country of origin, and when they arrive in Chicago, they often must learn a new language and new way of life. Even if they were educated in their home country, most qualify only for entry-level jobs, and many worked in the hospitality industry, which has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has also affected the work that parish volunteers can do, curtailing visits to those that can be accomplished with social distancing and forcing a greater reliance on phone and video calls and texting apps.

In past years, the parish has collected warm winter clothing for the refugee families and offered a kind of walk-through shopping experience, donating any items not selected by the families to other charitable organizations, but Woodward said she wasn’t sure how that would work this year.

“None of these families has spent a real winter in Chicago, and they all come from much warmer countries, so we had to do something about that,” Woodward said. “The first year, I remember sorting up to 40 pairs of women’s jeans. The kids’ room had 75 coats, sizes 5 to 10. We made a point of saying, ‘Don’t bring anything you wouldn’t wear yourself.’ This year, we’re going to have to do something about winter coats and boots and all for the kids.”

Woodward said she is worried about all the families during the pandemic because of the reduced contact. Often volunteers only learn about the family’s needs by being with them.

“They hesitate to ask for help,” Woodward said. “A lot of the time, the culture is that you put on a smiley face and say everything is fine. You don’t put your troubles on anyone else. They’re so happy to have their family safe that they don’t want to appear ungrateful for whatever reason.”

Shan Abraham, who has volunteered with a family from Myanmar consisting of a mother with her teenage son and elementary-school-age daughter, said it wasn’t until he got to know the family a bit that he realized they needed a laptop for the kids to do their schoolwork.

After asking around, he was able to find someone with a used computer to donate.

“If you want them to open up and confide in you, that doesn’t happen immediately,” Abraham said. “You have to get to know the parents and the kids and the kids will talk to you. Just asking what they need — that doesn’t always quite cut it.”

Abraham, who immigrated to the U.S. from India, said many of the refugee families come from cultures that feel familiar to him, but they are in much more difficult position.

“I live a reasonably nice life in Chicago,” said Abraham, adding that he volunteered because he wanted to get out of his comfort zone.

Woodward said she also worries about the reduced number of refugees being admitted to the United States, both because of the effect on those who don’t get in and those who do. When relatively few are admitted, she said, agencies formed to help them are downsized and there are fewer resources available.

According to Catholic Charities staff, the agency has welcomed about 50 people total over the past three years. Before that, Catholic Charities was settling 225 to 250 refugees in the Chicago area each year, asking people like the volunteers from ICSJ to provide both financial assistance and friendly faces.

Feriend said Nan Lin, with her husband Aa Ka and their now three children, have become good friends.

“They are the sweetest family!” Feriend said. “Every time we would visit them, pre-COVID, Lin, the mom, would make a ton of delicious food for us. I’m pretty sure they’re the most generous people I know. Once they gave my son a toy because he said he liked it and wished he had one. I refused to accept it, but they insisted, so finally I had to agree to take it, but I said we would just borrow it and return it the next time we saw them.”


  • refugees
  • catholic charities
  • parishes

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