One Church Congregation’s Struggle to Bring a Syrian Family to America
On the night when the nearly 200 volunteers from the Holy Trinity Catholic Church should have been greeting their family of refugees at the airport, they were at a candlelight vigil instead, praying for the two parents and their six young children, whose flight to a new life had been canceled by a presidential executive order.
The next day, when the volunteers had planned to settle the displaced Syrians into a home filled with furniture they’d collected over months of scrounging, and offering food they’d cooked that would be familiar and comforting, they were walking the halls of Congress instead, pleading their case to anyone in the House or Senate who would listen.
And in the coming days, instead of enrolling the children in school, and helping the father find work, and explaining how to navigate the bus system, enroll in English lessons and find a local mosque, they will be following statements by federal lawyers and judges and White House officials, hoping the legal door stays open long enough for them to get the strangers they all call “our family” onto another plane.
Despite all the talk of refugees since the Trump administration order freezing entry from seven predominantly Muslim countries, little attention has been paid to the Americans who are waiting to welcome them. By law, no refugee can be admitted to the United States without a volunteer organization to sponsor them and nurture them toward self-sufficiency.
At Holy Trinity, a Jesuit parish in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, that group is more than ready, like adoptive parents pacing outside the fully stocked nursery for the child they have never met but already love.
“These are our people, they are our family,” they repeated over and over from one congressional office to the next this week, as well as to each other, almost like a prayer. “We made a promise to help them. Help us keep that promise.”
It all began with that photo — the one taken in late August of 2015, of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, in his red shirt, blue shorts and tiny sneakers, face down in the surf on a Turkish beach, after the rubber raft carrying his fleeing family flipped in the waves.
Twenty-five-year-old Chris Crawford saw that photo and decided he had to do something. He was already embarked on a life of service, active in pro-life marches and helping to run a youth ministry at Holy Trinity, which he’d joined soon after college graduation, when he was considering becoming a Jesuit priest himself. After meeting his girlfriend at the church he chose not to enter the priesthood, but he remains committed to Pope Francis’ declarations that being pro-life means protecting all life, particularly and specifically including refugees.
Lauren Roy saw the same photo and was also moved to help. “This breaks my heart,” she told her husband over breakfast that morning. “We need to do something, something real. What can we do?” The couple, both raised and schooled at a Jesuit parish in Seattle, joined Holy Trinity when they moved to Washington in 2008, hoping to raise their five daughters in the same tradition. That afternoon she called Kate Tromble, the pastoral associate for social justice at Holy Trinity, and offered her basement as a new home for any refugee who might need it.
Eighteen months later, Crawford, Roy and Tromble are the coordinators of the Refugee Welcome Project at Holy Trinity, and the first thing they learned was that it’s not as simple as offering your basement. There are nine national voluntary agencies authorized by joint agreement of the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to resettle refugees in the United States. Anyone entering the country as a refugee must go through one of the nine: the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the International Rescue Committee, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and the World Relief and Corporation of National Association of Evangelicals.
The groups prefer to settle refugees in neighborhoods where the cost of living is low enough to give a newcomer a good chance at becoming self-sufficient. The greatest number of Holy Trinity’s congregants live in the Virginia suburbs outside of D.C., where rents are more expensive than in much of the rest of the country, but lower than other parts of the area. Tromble called around and learned that the only refugee group working there was Lutheran Social Services (LSS), an affiliate of the LIRS, which settles about 600 refugees in the area every year. So the LSS became their designated partner in this effort.
The next step was to decide what level of commitment the congregation was looking for. There are four, ranging from three months of involvement that mostly includes collecting home furnishings and conducting food drives before arrival, to a full year of involvement, which involves everything from finding and funding housing to offering friendship and help adapting to a new culture.
The Holy Trinity group quickly decided they were in at the highest level. It was “clear pretty early on that accompaniment, walking side by side with a family, was what people felt called to do,” Tromble says. Word spread, and soon they were signing up the first of an eventual 200 volunteers and raising a sum that would reach $60,000, several times the minimum required by the LSS.
Next the congregation had to prove itself capable of meeting the needs of a family that would arrive with next to nothing — a process that included a legal contract signed on behalf of the parish, and an orientation and security screening for all congregants who would come into contact with the newcomers. They were taught the philosophical underpinnings of the program — to make a family self-sufficient, able to pay their own bills and pay back within a year the loan the U.S. government provides upon entry. And they were taught practical matters as well: not to collect a lot of clothes in advance, allowing the family to dress in keeping with their own tastes, traditions and sizes, but to have coats ready at the airport for refugees arriving in winter from warm climates.
Once they were accepted as a co-sponsor, the Holy Trinity team ramped up. The volunteers were divided into committees for housing, transportation, education and food. Arabic speakers appeared from within the congregation, many of them former Foreign Service workers or current language students, who offered to serve as translators. Furniture donations poured in: a law firm that was remodeling its conference room offered what could serve as a large dining table with chairs; a congregant selling a condo provided three cars’ worth of bookcases, desks and rugs; there were bunk beds, and futons, and chests of drawers crammed into congregants’ storage units, basements and garages. An Amazon Wish List, with such items as garbage bags, garbage pails and laundry detergent, was bought out almost as soon as it was posted.
All this preparing took place against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential campaign, as Republican nominee Donald Trump began to speak out against refugees with increasing volume and venom.
“We don’t know anything about them,” he said regularly on the stump. “We don’t know where they come from, who they are. There’s no documentation. Lock your doors, folks!”
The talk worried Crawford. He describes himself as a “single-issue pro-life voter”; he organized for John McCain in 2008 (before he was even old enough to vote) and Mitt Romney in 2012, and he attended the March for Life in Washington every year. But Trump’s statements on immigration, he says, made him realize he could not vote Republican that year.
“He kept promising ‘extreme vetting,’ but I knew all the levels of scrutiny these families were going through, and it was already extreme,” Crawford says. “Only a small percentage meet the existing standards, they have to produce paperwork and documentation and spend years passing interviews and tests,” he says. “I am pro-life, but the pope makes it clear that means all of life. Welcoming the most vulnerable is pro-life.”
It was one thing to decide not to vote Republican, and another to back a candidate who supported the right to abortion. “I went back and forth for weeks,” he said. “Do I vote for Clinton, or do I not vote at all?” Crawford wrote two essays, one defending each option, and sent them to friends whose opinions he respected to debate the merits. In the end, he voted Democratic.
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