By Kay Cozad
FORT WAYNE — Imagine traveling across the globe to escape persecution and resettling in a foreign land with nothing but a couple of articles of clothing, a pair of sandals and a personal documentation packet. That, says Nyein Chan, director of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program, is how over 70,000 refugees from Myanmar (Burma) and other countries enter the U.S. each year. “There is something to be said for leaving home, family, loved ones, friends and possessions,” says Nyein Chan.
Upon arrival in the U.S. there are immediate and basic needs to be met for the refugees. The Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program in Fort Wayne works diligently to meet those basic needs, and collaboration with the community, Nyein Chan stresses, is essential to the success of the program.
“Many of the refugees are women and children who spend many years in the refugee camp. The resettlement program is the only hope for them to stay in a permanent home, reunited with their family, and be able to send their children to school again,” says Nyein Chan.
Community assistance with these basic needs is always welcomed, says Lisa Young, assistant director of Catholic Charities. Cash donations as well as personal items such as shampoo, bath soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, dish soap and cleaning products, bed linens and blankets, bath and kitchen towels, kitchen utensils, and pots and pans — would benefit newly arrived refugees as they settle in housing in Fort Wayne.
But, says Nyein Chan, the refugee’s need goes beyond the scope of basic survival donations to encompass employment and communication skills as well. “Besides donations, we are in need of volunteers,” says Nyein Chan.
Young agrees saying, “When we have people who are willing to provide their time, and/or talents and treasure to help serve others, they are becoming a part of a greater picture of providing hope to those in need.”
Of the current volunteer staff at Catholic Charities a group of three octogenarians have driven from Ohio for the past six years to assist the caseworkers with welcome packages designed specifically for each refugee family member arriving in Fort Wayne. “They get a list prior to their (refugee family) arrival. So they get donations and gather sizes to fit the family members. It’s like preparing a care package. It’s very helpful,” says Nyein Chan.
But he says, there is a greater need for “someone to teach English as a second language, so clients can communicate.”
Employment readiness is an essential program for those settling in the Summit City and learning the language as well as the nuances of the American culture is crucial to their successful integration. And though many refugees consider employment their first priority, Nyein Chan understands better the challenges and frustration a language barrier creates. “They worry about who will pay the rent and buy food, so employment is a priority,” says Nyein Chan, adding, “But when you look at the language barrier — they need to learn the language for the long term.”
To assist with the initial challenges these refugees experience, Father Peter Dee De, parochial vicar of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and Catholic Charities board member, actively works with the refugees providing transportation and language interpretation at medical and other appointments. He says, “I am involved when they arrive. I help with reading letters for employment, and rides and helping with English.” Father Dee De encourages volunteers to consider assisting refugees on the weekends in their homes and also reports there is a need for toy donations for the children.
Another aspect of resettlement concerns the school-aged children. Catholic Charities provides an after school program for refugee students in need of homework assistance at Autumn Woods Apartments and volunteers are always needed. English as a second language classes are also taught at this site to prepare the refugees for citizenship.
There are ample opportunities at Catholic Charities in which the faithful of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend can offer the charity of Christ with their time, talent and treasure. In addition to donations, volunteers can offer their time to assist with welcome/care package preparation, setting up refugee apartments, teaching basic English, homework assistance and more.
Gloria Whitcraft, executive director of Catholic Charities says, “At Catholic Charities we are dedicated to service to the most vulnerable. There is no more vulnerable a group of human beings than those seeking refuge from unspeakable trauma, tragedy and persecution. At times, their circumstances and our commitment to them is misunderstood. Overall, however, we are blessed to have the support of compassionate volunteers, devoted staff and faithful community partners.”
World Refugee Day is celebrated June 20. In Fort Wayne Refugee Services of Catholic Charities will host a celebration at the Archbishop Noll Center that will include light refreshments, native costumes, dances, and foods.
How to Help
To donate or to volunteer contact Catholic Charities at 260-422-5625.
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