Afghan refugees, gathered in San Antonio, have come here with little more than the shirts on their backs. Most have been ripped away from their home, their culture, and their friends — especially their circle of supportive women. If given a choice, would they have taken the first step? Prior to this journey, life may have been hard or easy, but it was the way of life they knew. Fearfully fleeing violence and uncertainty, they came with the hope of being able to start a new life!
After a grueling journey, there was time at the camp at the military base, then a move to the hotel (for no more than three months), followed by a move to an apartment — an empty apartment. Catholic Charities has taken on the monumental task of helping to resettle these refugees. Settling families in their new apartments and seeing how little they have was quite an eye-opener for me. With everything they have been through, their spirits seem to be quite good.
There was an Afghan flag in one apartment. As I pointed to it and smiled, acknowledging that this was their flag, the gentleman who was the head of the household went to the bedroom and came back carrying what looked like a folder for a diploma. When he opened it, the top of the paper was written in Pashto and the bottom part in English. With great pride he showed us how he had been commended by the American forces for what he had done to help. The look of pride on his face was a beautiful thing to see. As I reflected on it, my prayer was that the welcome he received here in the United States would live up to the hope that was in his eyes, the trust that appeared to be in his heart.
One morning we were gathered in the lobby of the Catholic Charities office in San Antonio, with many people milling around. There was a woman sitting with an infant on her lap. When I saw the baby, I approached with a smile, a look of joy on my face. Her husband stepped up and identified himself as her husband, not possessively, but with caring pride. Almost immediately, three more small children who had been playing outside came into the lobby to join us. I looked at the mother, and what will always stay with me was the lack of affect on her face, completely blank, staring. The child, while held safely on her lap, seemed like a dead weight — not because she didn’t care, but because she was so traumatized by her whole experience. This mother has left a lasting mark upon my mind and my heart. I felt like she summed up the difficulties that all these refugees have faced making an escape, leaving everything behind, desperate to get away safely. We may not see it outwardly, but I am sure it is deep in their hearts and memories. I will continue to pray for her.
There is so much that these families will need to learn. The men may go out and find a job, but the women will be home with the four, five, six, seven, and sometimes eight children, all about a year and a half to two years apart. They are confronted with an electric stove, washing machine, vacuum, and microwave—all things we take for granted, simple time-saving devices. I am sure they will adjust quite quickly and learn how to use all these devices, but right now there is so much for them to cope with.
The Sisters who responded to this call to be of service came from all over the United States. Some, like Sister Kathleen, met the refugees as they settled into the hotel, some having shopped copiously for supplies for the apartments. I am not sure Walmart has ever seen the shopping that was done to outfit apartments from the ground up. Others, like Sister Martha and Sister Jeannine, sorted, sorted, and sorted clothing and other donations that had been dropped off by many generous people. I found myself doing data entry. This very basic task was essential to moving along each case so that the refugees could be resettled. I was in awe of the workers at Catholic Charities, amazed and not sure how they manage to get anything done. As soon as a set of forms is completed, or almost complete, another new or more updated form is sent over from the government and they have to start out all over again. Sometimes the forms needed to be handwritten, sometimes they could be completed on a computer, but it’s a constant stream of information that needs to be put into the right folder, for the right family so they may continue their journey toward independence.
Catholic Charities is offering support for every step the new arrivals need to take, even though they are very short staffed! To their credit, Catholic Charities has hired bilingual Muslim refugees to join their regular staff members dedicated to this task.
What a blessing this encounter with the Afghan refugees has been for me. Since returning home I am acutely conscious of my many blessings. When faced with a problem or difficulty, I realize I have the ability to straighten things out— with no language or cultural barriers.
The next part of their journey may be more difficult than leaving their homeland – trying to raise their large families. They have no idea how much it costs to raise a child here! Please keep them in your prayers!
“If you could see the journey whole
you might never undertake it
might never dared the first step that propels you
from the place you have known toward the place you know not.”
– Jan Richardson, from “For Those Who Have Far to Travel: An Epiphany Blessing,”
Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons (2016), 67.
– Sister Catherine Patrice Morgan, OP
Sister Catherine Patrice resides in Pennington, NJ, and ministers in retreat work and spiritual direction.