A program of Catholic Charities of St. Louis is helping families in Afghanistan leave the danger they face there and come to the United States. Catholics in the archdiocese also are assisting refugees and immigrants through various other programs.
St. Louis is getting ready to receive at least 1,000 refugees in the next year from Afghanistan, according to a joint statement from the St. Louis mayor and St. Louis County executive. The Afghan citizens fought alongside the United States during the war as translators, clerks, contractors and community leaders.
Seeking permanent status
Kris Walentik, immigration managing attorney with St. Francis Community Services, is working with two large families and a few smaller families with what’s called humanitarian parole, which gives the clients legal status in the United States for two years. They can get a work permit and apply for permanent status. In all, she’s working with about 50 cases.
“We’re hopeful this will help,” Walentik said. “These are people who are stuck in Afghanistan still. Given the dire situation, it’s a chance for them.”
She’s worked with Afghan refugees previously. The largest caseload, however, is new arrivals from Central America. All the cases are similar in that the people don’t feel safe in their home countries.
She’s had several clients whose fears stem from close relatives being murdered. In Afghanistan, a mom and her four girls are living in a cave, only going out at night for fear of Taliban wanting to force them into marriages. Others couldn’t get out after waiting at the airport. “One client is fighting for her brother and her parents. She came in crying, and I can’t make any promises. We’re just doing what we can,” Walentik related.
The key is to remember they’re human and deserve dignity and respect, Walentik said. “They’re doing what they need to do to protect their families and making hard decisions on what’s best for their families to protect them, feed them and get them out of harm’s way. They just want the right to be treated well and to have a chance to stay in the country. They deserve the same support, respect and love that anyone else does,” Walentik said.
Catholic Charities and its legal assistance program at St. Francis Community Services helps anyone who meets income and other requirements, Walentik said. The aim is to follow Catholic social teaching.
Jessica Mayo, an attorney who is co-director of the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project, also has experience working with Afghan families. During the period U.S. troops were helping with evacuations in Afghanistan, her agency worked with about 60 people, 30 of whom left the country via a flight. One of them is the wife of a green card holder in St. Louis and entered the United States as a humanitarian parolee.
Most of the families she’s working with have a connection to people in the United States. Parolees are not eligible for food stamps or ongoing housing assistance but are eligible for some resettlement assistance. They usually apply for asylum.
Mayo, a parishioner of St. Margaret of Scotland in St. Louis, credits her Catholic faith for leading her to the work. She was working in Iowa, and a meatpacking plant was raided by immigration authorities on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It didn’t sit well with Mayo. “I felt passionate it was a civil rights issue, an issue for my faith and that people’s dignity wasn’t being respected. Family unity and safety are what people are seeking regardless of what country they’re coming from.”
She is inspired by the immigrants and refugees’ faith and bravery. A lot of them have children the same age as hers, and she understands their need to get their children to safety and enough food to eat.
‘They’re children of God’
Leslie Dao of the Immigrant and Refugee Ministry at St. Pius V Parish in St. Louis said the program hasn’t assisted Afghan refugees recently but has helped them in the past and is expecting to in the future. “I don’t ask how they got here and what happened to them,” Dao said. “Each one of us has a story, and most of the time that story’s not a pleasant one. I don’t want to trigger that. All I know is they’re children of God, and when they come here I help them, paying rent, food, utilities or diapers. I work closely with their caseworker so they can be on their own.”
Betsy Cohen, executive director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project, said the Catholic community in the area has a history of supporting refugee resettlement and building bridges between cultures and faiths as part of their efforts to welcome the stranger.
Jessica Bueler, executive director of Welcome Neighbor STL, said her organization started in 2016 as Syrian refugees arrived as a way of helping them with a sense of belonging. A few hours of help can change people’s lives, Bueler said.
One of Welcome Neighbor’s programs is START (St. Louis Teens Aid Refugees Today) begun by two Saint Louis Priory School students. It now is represented at 14 high schools and universities. Its mission is to aid refugee families in St. Louis by connecting them with teens seeking volunteer opportunities. Volunteers help through fundraising, providing moving assistance and tutoring.
“There’s no way we could have done this without the support of the Catholic community. We definitely have had the most support from the Catholic community than any other group,” Bueler said.
>> Ways to help
Among the programs serving refugee and immigrant families in the St. Louis area are:
• Catholic Charities St. Francis Community Services, sfcsstl.org
• Welcome Neighbor STL, welcomeneighborstl.org
• START (St. Louis Teens Aiding Refugees Today), start.welcomeneighborstl.org
• Immigrant Home English Learning Program, ihelpstl.org
• International Institute of St. Louis, www.iistl.org
• Mosaic St. Louis, www.stlmosaicproject.org