Catholics have an important role in welcoming migrants and refugees into their communities and to offer support as they become settled here.
Every year, the U.S. bishops observe National Migration Week, this year Sept. 19-25, culminating with the Vatican’s observation of the 108th World Day of Migrants and Refugees on Sunday, Sept. 25. The bishops described the week as “an opportunity for the faithful to reflect on the circumstances confronting migrants, refugees and victims of human trafficking, among others,” according to a statement.
The forced displacement of people is at the highest level since World War II, with more than 65 million people displaced around the world and over 22 million refugees, according to the bishops.
In his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis spoke on the place of migrants in God’s plan, emphasizing that “the Kingdom of God is to be built with them, for without them it would not be the Kingdom that God wants. The inclusion of those most vulnerable is the necessary condition for full citizenship in God’s Kingdom.”
Speaking at a press conference in January with the International Institute of St. Louis, Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski said that immigrants have an important role in the growth and expansion of our communities. He noted that the Catholic Church in the United States was built as a Church of immigrants who looked to the Lord as a guiding light.
“Our moral compass, our compassion as human beings, calls on all of us to welcome and support our fellow people, especially those in need, who are looking for freedom,” he said. “Catholics are called to serve our immigrant brothers and sisters … We are reminded of our biblical mandate to show love and compassion to all. … Together we are called to respond to the multitude of challenges and injustices that stem from global migration with — as Pope Francis says — generosity, promptness, wisdom and foresight.”
Catholic parishes and individuals throughout the archdiocese are working to “welcome the stranger” in tangible ways. At Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in south St. Louis County, the parish’s peace and justice ministry is marking the World Day of Migrants and Refugees with education and activities throughout September.
“We want to present information in digestible form to help people understand the Church’s stance on these issues,” said Susan Buerkle, a member of the ministry. “We’re trying to open eyes and open hearts.”
Dr. Mary Vatterott Hastings is a believer in the power of social media. The member of St. Cronan Parish in St. Louis has long been involved in works of social justice. After hearing about Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn homeland for refuge in the United States, she knew she wanted to help.
Thousands of miles away, Yulia Alekseyeva and her husband, Andriy Kravets, were living in Lviv, but looking for a way out. At the beginning of the Russian invasion in February, the western city was relatively unscathed. But that changed in April, with the first civilian deaths in Lviv.
Through several connections on Facebook, including reaching out to Welcome Neighbor STL, the Ukrainian couple eventually met Vatterott Hastings, who invited them stay in her home.
Vatterott Hastings said she hopes more Catholics in St. Louis recognize the need to help refugees — especially those most recently coming from Ukraine and Afghanistan — and get involved. “As a Church, we need to follow the Beatitudes and take care of people,” she said. “They are children of God and deserving of safety, of promise and hope, and shelter and food.”
Alekseyeva and Kravets held out until the bombing reached Lviv, eventually coming within a mile radius of their home. Alekseyeva, an experienced medical journalist and translator in Ukraine, had a connection to a physician in St. Louis, who had come to Ukraine for work.
The couple came here on visitors’ visas, and not through the Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) Program. The couple knew very little about the program, launched April 21 by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security, which links supporters in the United States, who agree to provide financial support for the duration of their stay, up to two years.
Their visas expire in November, and they are working with Vatterott Hastings to find a way to avoid returning to Ukraine to reapply for the U4U program — but for now, the situation doesn’t look promising.
“We have felt full support” since coming to St. Louis, Alekseyeva said. “We feel safe and comfortable, and we feel like they’re a family.”
Finding a voice
When Ivonne Ramirez began her journey to the United States, she didn’t know the name of the city — or even country — where she was going. She just knew she was going to be reunited with her dad.
Ramirez was 8 years old when she and her mother and siblings made the trek to St. Louis from their home in Mexico City. Her father had come to St. Louis a year before, seeking employment.
Throughout the seven days it took, “I remember my mom telling me, ‘This is the way you need to keep going to see your dad,’” Ramirez said. “I didn’t know I was going to a different country — I just knew it was north.”
Reunited, the family quickly found community at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson, where Ramirez has remained ever since. Since the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City was near her previous home, Ramirez took it as a sign that the Blessed Mother was watching over them.
“When we first arrived in the United States, that church became our home away from home,” she said. “As soon as we went there, everyone was very welcoming.”
Ramirez avoided talking about her immigration experience at school or with new acquaintances, though. “My parents kept stressing to me, ‘If anyone ever asks you where you’re from, you have to say you’re from St. Louis,’” Ramirez said. “The fear was always there that at any moment, I could be sent back.”
The DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which gives immigrants brought to the U.S. as children temporary protection and permission to legally work, was implemented in 2012 soon after Ramirez graduated from high school. Ramirez applied about a year and a half later — and it changed her life.
“When I was a junior in high school, everybody started getting their licenses, everyone applied for summer jobs, and everyone was thinking about the future. I was in the mindset of, I can’t do all those things,” Ramirez said. “So when I got DACA, the first thing I did was get my driver’s license. I got a bank account. I started working at a job that could give me a 401K with better pay and health insurance.”
Now, Ramirez isn’t afraid to use her voice to advocate and educate. For the past several years, she volunteered as a catechist with Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Spanish PSR program and helped with the parish’s youth group. In January, she and a group of 10 DACA recipients met with Archbishop Rozanski to share their experiences. By speaking about her own experiences, Ramirez hopes to create space for others to feel safe doing so.
And she hopes that the more people share their stories, the more Catholics around St. Louis can work together to push for solutions.
“Don’t close your doors — go out there and meet one of us, because you’re going to see that we’re just like you,” Ramirez said. “We’re all one.”
A new start
Rafiqullah Nasrat has been through more in his life than most 22-year-olds.
Nasrat had been working with U.S. military in his native Afghanistan since he was 17. Following the withdrawal of U.S. and other troops in August 2021, the Taliban took control of the Western-backed government, and the United States and its allies began evacuating thousands of at-risk Afghans.
Nasrat and his wife were expecting their first child when they were evacuated and made the multi-stop journey to the United States, travelling through Qatar, Germany and then to a military base in New Jersey. That was where the young couple welcomed their infant daughter into the world and learned their final destination: St. Louis.
They spent several days in a hotel, and then settled in an apartment in south St. Louis through the International Institute of St. Louis. They eventually relocated to the Affton area.
Meanwhile, Scott Rinaberger, owner of McArthur’s Bakery was talking to a neighbor, Tanya Bergantz, who was collecting items through Welcome Neighbor STL for a young family from Afghanistan that arrived here in January. He donated a few things, but then thought he could take it one step further.
He had met several other people from Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin who were helping the family, including Ann Wittman, who has worked with numerous Afghan families and started her own nonprofit, HumanKind STL. Rinaberger asked if Nasrat would be interested in an open position at the bakery, to help him get a start here.
“There are givers and takers in this world, and we all have something to give,” said Rinaberger, who thought about his own grandfather, who immigrated from Germany as an orphaned child. “It can be creative, and it doesn’t have to be a lot. It’s a blessing to be able to help.”
Several months into the job, Rinaberger discovered Nasrat had a gift for working with computers. He did some computer-related work with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and studied computer science, but he wasn’t able to finish his education. Rinaberger offered to enroll him in a 24-week computer coding bootcamp at Washington University in St. Louis. And he’d continue to pay Nasrat’s wage at the bakery but allow him to focus on his studies full time.
“This is a big deal in my life,” Nasrat said. “That is my hope, to get an education in America. My situation was not good for education, but Scott made an opportunity for me.”
“When I came to St. Louis, I was feeling alone,” he said. “My wife, she was crying all the time, but we met so many people and I am feeling so proud because I have a whole lot of friends behind me and are supporting me.”
Welcome Neighbor STL
Welcome Neighbor STL continues to serve the needs of immigrants and refugees in St. Louis. The nonprofit organization recently added information on its website on how to sponsor a Ukrainian family through North America for Ukraine, which is working to provide assistance with the immigration process, host matching, employment opportunities and general resources.
The nonprofit organization continues to work with an influx of Afghan families arriving here, and is still in need of family partners to commit at least a year and up to 20 hours a month providing support for newcomers.
Other programs include a new ESL program to teach women English skills in person or over Zoom, and tutoring from high school teens through its START (St. Louis Teens Aiding Refugees Today) program.
Welcome Neighbor also continues to host its popular Supper Club program, to build relationships and enjoy international cuisine while supporting local refugee women. Several drive-through events are planned for the fall, featuring Syrian and Afghan dishes. A pop-up baked goods event is being planned around Christmastime.
For more information on ways to volunteer or donate, visit welcomeneighborstl.org.
Ann Wittman of Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin joined with several other women to start the nonprofit in April to raise funds to help immigrants, many of them from Afghanistan, start their new lives in the United States. HumanKind STL is a program of Welcome Neighbor STL.
In addition to fundraising, HumanKind STL also develops relationships with local businesses, including Dave Sinclair Ford and Craftsmen Utility Trailers, to help families obtain much-needed items, including vehicles and washers and dryers.
To learn more about HumanKind STL, including ways to donate or volunteer, visit www.humankindstl.org.
St. Francis Community Services
St. Francis Community Service’s Southside Immigrant Services supports and strengthens immigrant families from throughout the region. Its programs include a bilingual youth program, bilingual mental health counseling, a Vietnamese elders group and a Vietnamese health clinic. St. Francis Community Services is a federated agency of Catholic Charities of St. Louis.
Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry offers legal aid to migrants facing challenges in immigration cases.
To learn more about services or how to volunteer, donate or advocate, visit sfcsstl.org.
International Institute of St. Louis
The International Institute of St. Louis continues to welcome an influx of immigrants and refugees, including from Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan and Syria.
The International Institute has helped more than 720 Afghans settle here since 2021. The resettlement agency has assisted with housing, education, employment and donating mobile phones and iPads, among other needs. Since January, nearly 100 people from Afghanistan have resettled in St. Louis from other parts of the United States, often described as secondary migration.
The institute also estimates there are nearly 600 Ukrainians who have come to St. Louis since Russia invaded the country in February. The institute recently received federal funding from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to assist Ukrainians as they arrive here, including financial help, food stamps, medical care, youth support programs, English language tutoring and more.
The institute is in need of volunteers to assist families as they settle here. To learn more about ways to donate or volunteer, visit www.iistl.org.