Oct. 16-22, 2003
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Refugees cycle nearly 250 miles to give thanks and raise awareness
In September, representatives from the first six Somalian and Bantu refugee tribes who settled in Syracuse went on a five-day bike tour sponsored by Catholic Charities to thank families, parishes and the non-profit agencies who were instrumental in their successful resettlement.
On donated bicycles, they traveled to parishes in Oswego, Oneida and Madison Counties to express their gratitude for the freedom and opportunities they found in the U.S. “We wanted to show the entire diocese, not just those in Syracuse, what a gift it is to sponsor refugees,” said Kip Hargrave of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Services. The bike tour began at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Syracuse because of the parish’s work with Sudanese refugees. The first day of the tour was the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul who is remembered for his preaching that the poor were a gift from God. “The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has encouraged all dioceses to get involved in refugee resettlement, but those in the outlying parishes feel they are too far away to do a sponsorship,” said Hargrave. “We have been struggling to find a way to get them involved and we thought this was a good way to do it.”
Gabriel Dit, a refugee from the Sudan, has been in the U.S. for two years. He said the help he received from parishes and Catholic Charities has been very valuable. “The City of Syracuse welcomed us,” he said. “It’s easier for us to resettle in the city because there are more people available to help us shop and help us orient ourselves to Syracuse and the surrounding area.” Transportation is an important factor. If the refugees can’t find someone to transport them to job interviews, appointments, or other day-to-day activities, it is very difficult for them to become self-sufficient. According to federal guidelines, they must become self sufficient within six months of arriving in the country.
Dit attends Onondaga Community College (OCC) and works part-time. “My schedule is tough,” said Dit. But without the help of so many people, his transition into a new world would have been difficult. Dit received help from Ann Mayes, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Bernadette Parish. “Mary helped me register at OCC and helped with the admissions process and testing,” said Dit. “ “My role is like that of a high school counselor,” said Mayes. She helped the refugees fill out college applications and financial aid forms. “The refugees I assisted with OCC admissions are now graduating and looking into continuing their education at a four-year college. We’ve traveled to SUNY Morrisville and SUNY IT in Utica to look at the campuses,” she said.
Mayes thought the bike tour was a wonderful way for the outlying parishes to meet the refugees. “In order for the outlying parishes to become involved, they really need to get to know the families face to face,” said Mayes. Her parish began its involvement through tithing. Parishioners have been tutoring the refugees, and one man from the parish travels to Syracuse weekly to take the refugees on field trips. While there is a great need for providing transportation and sponsoring refugee families, Mayes said there are other ways that parishes can help. “Sponsoring mini-events such as hosting a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner or a summer picnic is a good way for parishes to become involved. A few years ago, we sponsored a Thanksgiving dinner and had over 100 refugees from Bosnia, Somalia, the Sudan and other areas join us. Once our parishioners met the families, they started networking which lead to a continuation of helping them and filling their needs,” said Mayes.
Joan Ramin is chairman of the Human Development Committee at St. Mary’s Church in Baldwinsville. She admitted that it’s hard to host a refugee family in Baldwinsville because there are fewer employment opportunities in the suburbs. “They would have to take a bus into the city to sign up for any programs or benefits, to attend church or go to school,” she said. “Instead, under the directorship of Father Richard Kopp, we help furnish their apartments by asking for donations of appliances, furniture and other household items they may need.” Ramin said that they also provide the refugee families with holiday food and gift baskets. “They are so appreciative of everything we do for them,” she said. And to show that appreciation, the bikers stopped at Ramin’s house during their tour to thank her personally. Ramin was convalescing at home after surgery and was happy to see the cyclists at her door.
At the end of the tour, Dit was full of smiles and looking forward to the celebration and welcoming feast that was scheduled to take at Immaculate Conception Church in Fayetteville. Dit is aware that the number of refugees allowed into the country has dropped dramatically since Sept. 11, 2001. Hargrave estimated there will be approximately 20,000 refugees settled in the U.S. this year, compared to 70,000 that were resettled before Sept. 11. Hargrave’s statistics didn’t affect Dit’s attitude. “Hakuna Matata,” he said smiling. In Swahili that translates into “Don’t worry.”