A worldwide humanitarian crisis

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There's a basic difference between an immigrant and a refugee - choice.

Immigrants have time to plan their departure. Generally, they can return to their home country when they want and they often have family in their new country who can offer them support.

Life is different for refugees. When they leave their home it's in haste, often with just a few hours of notice. Because of the quickness of their departure, they often take only the clothes on their backs and a few personal items.

Refugees are fleeing some sort of persecution, and they usually have no say as to where they eventually will settle. A return to their country is impossible unless there are profound changes in their homeland. It's a tough and dangerous journey.

To be a refugee, you need to cross an international border and fear persecution in one of five areas: race, nationality, religion, political opinion or be a member of a particular social group.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, nearly 60 million men, women and children have been displaced by war in 2014. It's the highest number of refugees recorded since record-keeping began.

The Peace and Justice Committee at St. Mark Church in Vienna wanted to share the story of refugees with its parish. On Nov. 5, it hosted a presentation by Father Robert J. Richter, a Global Fellow at Catholic Relief Services, and a priest in-residence at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, and Patricia S. Maloof, program director of Migration and Refugee Services for Arlington Catholic Charities.

Father Richter began the evening with a short talk on CRS and its work with refugees. He said his job is to "bring the people in the pews closer to the work of CRS."

When asked what can be done at the individual level, prayer, he said, is more important to the work of CRS than contributions.

Father Richter also said that individual activism can be helpful too. Go and visit your representative on Capitol Hill, he said, and tell them of your concerns about the refugee crisis.

The bulk of the presentation was given by Maloof, who recently began work at Catholic Charities. She has a long history of work with immigrants and refugees.

Maloof spoke on the process of refugee migration.

For the United States, the president consults with the State Department to determine the number of refugees to be accepted. For 2015, 4,000 refugees were allowed from Europe/Central Asia, 13,000 from east Asia, 3,000 from Latin America, 25,000 from Africa and 34,000 from the Near East and South Asia.

According to Maloof, there are three parts to a refugee's migration path: pre-flight, flight and their arrival in the United States. People in the pre-flight stage are facing imprisonment, abuse, malnutrition and a loss of home and livelihood. During their flight from their homeland, they could face illness, robbery, assault, rape, beatings and refugee camps. News reports of poor treatment and crimes against refugees are almost a daily thing.

In the United States, there are nine public/private partnership agencies that handle refugee resettlement. The largest is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The agencies partner with the federal government and local groups like MRS, which is the largest refugee resettlement agency in Virginia. Since 1975, they have resettled about 23,000 refugees.

MRS serves all races, nationalities and religions.

Even after their arrival in the United States, life is not easy for refugees. Maloof said there is isolation, language barriers, loss of identity, low socioeconomic status and general disappointment. But with help from MRS their struggles are lessened. The agency provides case management, help with food, clothing, housing, health screening and orientation to life in the United States.

Maloof concluded her presentation with a list of prominent refugees, including Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida and Andrew Grove, the founder and chairman of Intel Corp.

The fear of immigrants is not uncommon in the United States. Maloof said much of the fear is unfounded. She gave an example of Lewiston, Maine, which began accepting refugee resettlement in 2001.There were fears of increased crime and poverty. In reality, Maloof said the crime rate decreased and the per capita income increased. In 2007, Lewiston was named an "All-American City" by the National Civic League.

People who attended the event found the presentation helpful to see what CRS and MRS do to ease the transition of refugees fleeing war and finding a new home.

Patricia McAdams from Washington came with a friend and said she was better able to understand the refugee process.

Not everyone agreed with accepting refugees and immigrants in general. One person said that immigrants come here and spread disease.

Maloof was asked if the model that MRS uses to help refugees is a good one. She said it works well.

"People are faring better here," she said. "We are encouraging them to get on their feet."

Find out more

For information on Migration and Refugee Services go to ccda.net/programs_mrs-refugee.php.

For information on Catholic Relief Services go to crs.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015