A Somali family’s dream of coming to the United States is finally a reality, thanks in part to a group from Oberlin’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
A 42-year-old mother and her six children entered the country in late March after spending years in a refugee camp in Kenya. The family is now living in a house in Cleveland.
“Last June, my brother, who is a priest in Cleveland, told me about his sponsoring a refugee family. I was interested in get getting involved with it,” Oberlin resident Ted Chmura said. “I met with our pastor, Robert Cole, and he was all over it. He had previous experience with it at a previous parish. He suggested I talk with the people from the peace and justice committee at Sacred Heart.”
The committee was quick to lend support.
“Ours is a loosely knit group of people who do different kinds of projects every year,” said member Lori Taylor. “When Ted had talked about his brother’s experience and submitted it to us, we said, ‘OK, this is something we’d want to do in 2016.’”
Volunteers underwent training, were fingerprinted, and had background checks conducted over the next several months.
For Taylor, helping a family of refugees just made sense, since it is something near and dear to her heart.
“My husband is from Germany and is a green card holder with a history of refugees. His mom and dad, aunt and uncle, and grandma and grandpa were refugees after World War II,” she said. “They were living in Bohemia and were forced to leave and put in a refugee camp outside of Munich. They lived there for three years. They were then given housing and helped by the government of Germany.”
Taylor began acquiring furnishings for a house the Somali family would live in. When word got out about the effort, others began offering support.
“People were crawling out of the woodwork wanting to help,” volunteer Kelly Prill said. “Lori and I both had strangers asking what they could do to help.”
Once the furnishings were collected, though, the group had to sit and wait.
“We were all ready to go probably around the holiday season. There weren’t a lot of people then, so we didn’t get a family,” Chmura said. “We thought we’d get a family in February, but the political situation in our country changed and there was a stoppage. Word we got was that because of the political situation, we would not get family until at least mid-summer.”
The problem was that Somalia is one of the countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Though the family was living in a camp in Kenya, it was originally from Somalia.
While the legal battle on the travel ban was waged, a window of opportunity opened.
Suddenly, word came on March 22 that the family would arrive in six days.
“I’d given up any hope of having a refugee family,” Prill said. “To hear from Lori that we have a family coming in in six days, to then go through the last-minute acquisition process, it was just go, go, go.”
Catholic Charities in Cleveland secured a rental house for the family to live in. Sacred Heart volunteers had to get the house ready by clearing and furnishing it.
After an exhausting six days, they went to Hopkins International Airport and waited for the family to arrive.
“When we got to the airport, we waited and waited,” Prill said. “I was starting to wonder if they were ever going to come through.”
On the other side, the family of seven — the mother, her four daughters, and two sons, ages 10 to 19 — spent around 30 tense hours traveling from Kenya to the Middle East to Chicago and then finally to Cleveland. Each stop offered new challenges as they were questioned and prodded before the next stage of the journey.
Finally, though, they arrived in Cleveland.
“To see them getting off the elevator was just very fulfilling and rewarding,” Prill said. “It was also really something to be able to share it with my son, who is 16. It’s something that’s going to stick with us all for a very long time.”
Even upon arrival in Cleveland, there were still some tense moments.
“They have documentation from the Organization for Migration. What stuck out for me was the mother had this little white plastic bag that had all their documentation papers,” Taylor said. “It was like she was handcuffed to this box of jewels that would let you in here. That was the first thing the caseworker did, was open up that documentation and made sure it was all OK.
“When it all checked out, tears welled up in my eyes. It was that moment of relief where I realized that yeah, it worked. They’re here for good.”
The reaction of the family was one of being awestruck and overwhelmed.
“When they got here, the little girls had this sparkle in their eyes,” Taylor said. “They were all wearing the same issued clothes. It was as if they had just been given a get-out-of-jail-free card. I think the mom, to me, just seemed overwhelmed by the whole experience.”
While the hard part of getting to the United States is now past them, the Somali family still has a long road ahead of them.
They don’t speak English. They don’t have jobs. They don’t have much money.
But they aren’t expected to figure it all out on their own.
“Every day, this family will go to the Catholic Charities Headquarters for Refugees in Cleveland for language, education, and job training,” Chmura said. “The mother will eventually go in for job training. Typically, after five months here, most of them are employed. They’re very industrious. A lot of them start businesses.”
As for the children, they will attend the Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy, a school for immigrants and refugees who have been in the country less than two years, according to Taylor.
The mother will have to find employment as soon as she is able. Usually, families must begin paying their own rent within three months.
“They start paying rent on their own, which is going to be very difficult,” Prill said. “It’s not a free ride. A lot of people think they get a free ride, but they pay back all of their expenses.”
The repayment of those expenses includes their airfare from Kenya to Cleveland.
Special arrangements have been made for this family, though.
“They’re going to give this family 36 months. She will get a green card and will be able to apply for social services through the government, if she qualifies,” Taylor said. “Also, Catholic Charities picks up additional donations for that particular family. It seems to me like it’s a very well-orchestrated plan Catholic Charities has set up.”
Still, the family will eventually have to repay their expenses.
Catholic Charities also aids the family with legal issues such as getting a driver’s license, immigration paperwork, and other issues that may arise.
They also will have the help of their newfound friends.
“Our role in volunteerism is threefold,” Chmura said. “The first part was gathering furniture. The second was furnishing the house. And the third is probably best described as being their friends.”
In the very near future, the volunteers from Sacred Heart plan to begin helping the family with English lessons and adjusting to the way of life in the United States.
“As soon as they’re a bit settled, we’re going to set up a time that’s good for them and the volunteers,” Chmura said. “It’ll be a regular time to go and talk to them and share cultures. I have a feeling we’re going to learn a lot about Somalia.”
The children will have the opportunity to attend high school, vocational school, and even apply for college. The volunteers from Sacred Heart are anxious to watch the family bloom in its new surroundings.
“I can’t imagine getting anywhere near being done with this family for at least a couple of years,” Chmura said. “What I think is going to happen is the kids are going to learn English and they’ll be so American in a few years, it’ll be incredible.”
Anyone interested in helping the volunteers in their work with the family is asked to call either Lori Taylor at 440-213-7991, or Kelly Prill at 215-255-5113.
Scott Mahoney can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @sm_mahoney on Twitter.