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Catholic Charities mobilizes the power of parishes to aid refugees

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A growing number of parishes across the Arlington diocese are helping resettle refugees in Northern Virginia through a new initiative of Catholic Charities’ office of Migration and Refugee Services.

Ahead of an anticipated influx of refugees this year, the office has given two recent online trainings through a program called Parishes Organized to Welcome Immigrants and Refugees (POWIR), created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help mobilize volunteers on the parish level.

Refugees have been welcomed in the Arlington diocese for decades, and this is a new way of engaging the power of our parishes. (Parishioners) are there and they want to help.” Lourdes Iglesias, Migration and Refugee Services

“Refugees have been welcomed in the Arlington diocese for decades, and this is a new way of engaging the power of our parishes. (Parishioners) are there and they want to help,” said Lourdes Iglesias, community engagement specialist at Migration and Refugee Services.

The office has resettled and assisted more than 20,000 refugees and asylees since 1975. All have been vetted by the U.S. Department of State and most have Special Immigrant Visas, granted to refugees who have assisted U.S. military efforts overseas, most recently in Afghanistan.  

In the past two years, Catholic Charities has supported 300 to 400 refugees a year but expects to see about 600 in fiscal year 2022, the agency said.

President Biden on May 3 lifted the annual cap on the number of refugees who can be admitted into the United States through September to 62,500, from a record low of 15,000 set by the Trump administration.

Some volunteers had begun parish projects to support refugees even before attending the trainings.

Donna Hansberry of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington was one of a core group of volunteers organizing food drives during the pandemic when the parish learned several Afghan refugee families were due to arrive in the diocese. The parish decided to “adopt” a family of eight to assist with resettlement needs, which include securing housing as well as outfitting the household with furniture, kitchen supplies, sheets, towels, and other necessities.  

With the support of their pastor, Father Frederick H. Edlefsen, “we were immediately off to the races,” Hansberry said. The team organized a household goods drive in March to supplement federal resettlement funding. They arranged to have a Catholic Charities staffer come speak about refugees and answer questions at an information table one Sunday after Mass. A parish webpage for the project included links to wish lists on Amazon and Walmart so people could have housewares and linens shipped directly to the Catholic Charities warehouse in Manassas. People donated everything from gently used bedroom furniture and a computer to utensils and tubes of toothpaste. 

“It really floored us, on our little volunteer team, how much people wanted to help,” said Hansberry. The parish ended up collecting $10,000 in donations, “with a relatively quick effort,” she added. Donations also benefited other refugee families. 

Helping refugees is “a worthy cause in and of itself, and it’s part of our Christian mission to welcome new neighbors, especially people who have suffered a lot,” said Father Edlefsen, who has been at Our Lady of Lourdes since July. He worked with Migration and Refugee Services previously as pastor of St. Agnes Church in Arlington and as chaplain at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, where students played soccer with refugee children. “Helping in this manner really brings people together,” he said.

Volunteers from other parishes also have been supporting Migration and Refugee services through a number of efforts. A group from St. James Church in Falls Church organized donations in the Manassas warehouse one recent Saturday. Volunteers from St. John Neumann Church in Reston donated a truckload of furniture and other items. At Church of the Nativity in Burke, several collections organized by the Women of Nativity service group have benefited refugees; this month the group will pack about 100 “new arrival bags” containing toothbrushes, shampoo and other personal items for refugee families. “I am always amazed at the amount of generosity for the things we do,” said Angela Coghlan, Women of Nativity president. 

“There is a chain of volunteer help and involvement that is really precious to us and exceedingly important,” Iglesias said, adding that once refugees settle in, volunteers shift to teaching English, mentoring youths and running citizenship programs. “It really does take a village to do all this.”

Find out more

To learn more about Migration and Refugee Services, go to


 To learn about volunteer opportunities, contact Lourdes.Iglesias@ccda.net  


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021