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World Refugee Day puts the spotlight on service and hospitality

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José Ochoa Martinez worked hard to bring his wife and son to the U.S. so that they would be safe from gang violence in El Salvador. After five years living thousands of miles apart, he was finally able to bring them to Virginia in December 2017. 

Just as the U.S. welcomed him and his family, José welcomed visitors from diocesan Catholic Charities and Bishop Michael F. Burbidge to his Arlington home on World Refugee Day, June 20. To mark the occasion, dozens of Catholic Charities and chancery staff distributed boxes filled with donated, culturally appropriate foods, along with cleaning supplies, to 20 to 25 refugee and asylee families in Northern Virginia. Volunteers also brought toys for children, and the group brought a basketball for José’s 16-year-old son, José Adolfo. 

José invited Bishop Burbidge to sit on a wooden chair in the living room across from his son. Wife Candida took a seat with a Catholic Charities staff member on a couch across the room.

“He wants to first thank the church that he’s here,” said Lourdes Sandoval, refugee health liason and outreach manager, translating for José. “Because of the gangs he wanted to take his son for safety.”

With assistance from Catholic Charities, José was able to obtain safety for his son by applying to the Central American Minors Program, which was established in 2014 to stem the tide of minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum. The program, which was terminated in August 2017, allowed children to apply for reunification with an eligible parent in the U.S. if they were at risk from violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. This allowed many minors to avoid traveling thousands of miles in unsafe conditions.  

“You’re very loving parents,” Bishop Burbidge told the mother and father. After chatting a while longer about Candida’s health and José Adolfo’s plans for a job, he thanked the family for inviting him over and left to celebrate a Mass at the cathedral.  

The family is one of more than 1,000 clients assisted by Migration and Refugee Services each year. Most are existing clients rather than new faces, since refugees are eligible for five years of services. In fiscal year 2019, Catholic Charities helped resettle 182 refugees, down from the 723 resettled in fiscal year 2017. The reduced number is due to a steep drop in the number of refugees accepted by the United States, according to Migration and Refugee Services. At the same time, the world is experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis: a record 70.8 million people had been forcibly displaced by war, persecution and other violence at the end of 2018, according to a recent report from U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. 

After all the packages were delivered, Qasim Salman, who a few years ago had fled violence in Iraq, joined the rest of the volunteers for a meal. Salman was assisted by Catholic Charities when he came to the U.S. from Iraq on a special immigration visa several years ago and wanted to be there because he knows the importance of a warm welcome. 

“To be honest, I would like to be here always, giving some support to a refugee family and help them feel that they are welcome,” said Salman. “It’s very hard when you are coming from different cultures. This is why I am here today.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019