Originally posted in the Catholic Voice online edition: http://www.catholicvoiceoakland.org/2014/09-22/frontpage2.htm
By Michele Jurich
Staff writer at Catholic Voice
That’s the mission of Catholic Charities of the East Bay, the social services arm of the Diocese of Oakland.
With service centers in Oakland and Richmond — and plans to expand services in Eastern Contra Costa County — Catholic Charities assists victims of violent crime, refugees and immigrants and the poor.
Catholic Charities of the East Bay is one of the beneficiaries of the Reclaiming Christ’s Mission Together Capital Campaign, with $4 million in new funds earmarked for additional service centers and programs to help alleviate poverty.
Refugee resettlement and employment services, under the direction of Sister Elisabeth Lang, OP, provide an example of Catholic Charities of the East Bay’s work, which touches on all parts of the mission.
“Most of our refugees are coming from refugee camps,” Sister Lang said. They are escaping political or religious persecution.
While Sister Lang and her staff are welcoming new arrivals from many countries, the majority are coming from Afghanistan. Typically, the male head of the families worked for a U.S. interest in the country, and speaks English fluently. Most of the spouses do not speak English.
They are leaving their homeland to save their lives, and those of their children.
Under a contract with the U.S. government, the goal was to serve 156 individuals; 230 new arrivals have been served over the past 12 months. Sister Lang estimates 70 percent are from Afghanistan, with the remainder arriving from Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia and Cuba.
Refugees are resettled in the East Bay if they have family or friends here.
The work of Sister Lang and her small staff begins before their arrival, sometimes with just a couple of weeks’ notice. Her staff reaches out to the refugee’s local contact, verifying if that person is available to work with Catholic Charities on the resettlement.
The staff must then perform an almost miraculous task in the Bay Area housing market: Find an affordable apartment for the arriving family. The rent needs to be something the family can sustain. A two-bedroom apartment can cost $1,200-$1,400 a month, she said. The place needs to be near transportation. And it should be in a safe neighborhood.
The refugees will be arriving at the airport with whatever possessions they can carry. Before they do, Sister Lang and her staff provide the home with beds, furniture and cooking utensils. They buy food.
No one is coming to an empty new home on their watch.
Even when the refugees have contact people in the Bay Area, Sister Lang or a staff member goes to the airport to ensure the arrival goes smoothly.
A myriad of paperwork awaits: Government services will provide food stamps, MediCal coverage and a small cash stipend. Alameda County Social Services will have to be navigated.
“All children go to school,” Sister Lang said. Children are enrolled in the school nearest their homes. The first order of business is to acquire the immunizations necessary for enrollment. Oakland Unified School District, with funds from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, helps with services for children.
There are challenges, such as immediate medical care, which Sister Lang and her staff get done in a timely fashion. “We have a miracle every day,” she said.
For the parents, making a living in their new country is the highest priority.
“They want to get a job as soon as possible,” she said. CCEB’s success in placing job applicants is high: An entry-level job might be as a production worker or a restaurant worker.
There are incentives to enter the workforce quickly: Assistance for a single person ends at eight months; for a family, at two years.
Some refugees might speak little English; some may have skills from another country that don’t match the available work in the United States. Sister Lang counsels patience, encouraging refugees to make plans for the first year, and then have longer-range goals.
A mechanical engineer in his home country taught computer classes for two years before finding work in his field, for example.
The refugees from Afghanistan, she said, are “very antsy.” “They want a job right away,” she said.
Through the refugee job employment services, soon-to-be workers learn how to work in the United States, how to talk to an employer and fellow employees, and about the workplace culture — especially the need to be on time.
Learning English is a major goal with classes taught morning and afternoons at the St. Anthony’s site. There’s English as a Second Language (ESL) and Vocational English as a Second Language. Students in the classes speak more than 30 different languages.
“Transportation is the biggest challenge for our program,” she said.
But attending classes, and joining the workforce, pay off in many ways. “Once they go to work,” she said, “you can’t stop them.”
Once employed, some refugees offer tips on when an employer is hiring. The network builds.
But it is a struggle along the way. Leaving everything behind and starting over is never easy, especially when you have no choice.
“We walk with them. We listen to them. We encourage them,” Sister Lang said. She tells them: “It’s not easy. Everything in your life is upside down. Things you did in your country you might not be able to do here.”
“Learn to do as we do in this country” is backed up with cultural orientation. “We don’t want you to make any mistakes,” she said.
Sometimes, those served by Catholic Charities are more than a little surprised by the help available from what they might initially see as an unlikely source.
“Some of the Muslim refugees are so stunned: ‘Catholic Charities works with us? We’re not Catholic.'”
Sister Lang offers a word of reply: “So?”
“We serve your needs,” she said.
About Catholic Charities of the East Bay
Founded in 1935, Catholic Charities of the East Bay serves families in need, regardless of religious beliefs, in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. The organization has sites in Concord, Pittsburg, as well as the headquarters in Oakland and has been Costa County, for more than thirty years.