As a national debate churns over travel bans and border walls, one thing is certain: human lives hang in the balance. Because the Catholic Church is prolife, ministries have been created to protect and defend these lives. Specifically, Catholic Charities of Central Florida Refugee Resettlement Services has been helping newly arrived refugees seeking refuge from war, oppression and poverty since 1975. Their mission is to embrace all those in need with hope, transforming their lives through faith, compassion, and service.
Recently, Gary Tester, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Central Florida (CCCF) and Carolina Toro, Refugee Resettlement Program Manager for Catholic Charities were interviewed about their ministry for a podcast and program on Faith Fit Radio. Excerpts from the interview are below. Click here to listen to a podcast of the complete interview.
Q: Why is it important to welcome refugees into our community?
Gary: Each human being is created in the image of God and as Catholics, we believe that it’s our Gospel call to treat one another with love and respect and to embrace those that we have the opportunity to serve. We’re taught by Christ to love our neighbor, so we need to love the folks that come our way and in this case we’re talking about refugees. In Matt. 25:35-40, Jesus essentially says, “When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me water. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.” And so we use that as the basis for this service because these are strangers to the United States and we endeavor to welcome them.
Q: How many refugee families does CCCF Resettlement Program assist yearly?
Carolina: We serve between 55-60 families. Currently they are coming from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia and then Burma, Honduras, Columbia, El Salvador and Cuba.
Q: The policies of our government regarding refugees change quite often. How do these changes impact your ministry?
Gary: Laws and policies affect everything we do and we have to be mindful of them. Either way, we will continue to serve people who are fleeing horrible conditions in their homeland.
Q: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) made a statement after the temporary ban on refugees from seven nations was issued by the new administration. Would you care to comment on their statement?
Gary: The USCCB’s statement is a statement of solidarity. It says that every human being is created in the image of God. We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters to do all that we can to make their lives as meaningful as possible, given the circumstances that they experience.
Q: How are these refugees screened before coming to the U.S. and what is life like for them before they arrive?
Carolina: Our refugees have been screened through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and they go through an extensive process. There are about 14 steps before a refugee comes to the U.S. They go from their home country, to a second country to ask for refugee status, in order to be resettled in a third country. Only 1% of 26 million refugees are resettled. It takes about 18 months, but there are refugees that have been waiting for years. They could be waiting eight years, so all of their children were born in a refugee camp while they were waiting. Between those years, those assurances expire and they have to re-do the whole process in order to be resettled in a third country. Once they arrive in the U.S. all of these refugees are employment authorized and within a year they will be permanent residents. They are eager to be independent.
Q: Can you clarify the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?
Carolina: A lot of people think that a refugee is an immigrant that comes into the United States. There is a big difference. A refugee is a person who has to leave his or her own country because of fear of persecution because of race, religion, politics or something else. Refugees are actually given this status in a second country, to where they have fled and while they are applying for resettlement elsewhere. An immigrant is a person that is leaving their country, coming to the U.S. either on a work or tourist VISA or across the border and are looking to adjust their status, either as an asylum seeker or seeking a working permit with a company.
Gary: The great majority of people living in the U.S. are immigrants. They have immigrant backgrounds. They don’t have refugee backgrounds. It is because of that lack of understanding that we fearfully look at refugees. If we can step back and prayerfully contemplate how God calls us to serve, then you can see this is a beautiful program. The people that we serve— it’s a joy to serve them.