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The Marathon – with Hurdles

Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County staff welcome refugee foster care team at San Jose International Airport.

By Gregory Kepferle
CEO, Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County and President, Charities Housing Development Corporation

The young man’s eyes were bleary with fatigue as he stepped slowly toward the crowd cheering him forward on his last leg of his marathon. As the youth stepped through the airport security gate into the welcoming arms of his new family and friends, he was greeted in English and in his own language: “Welcome to America! Welcome to San Jose! We are so glad you made it.” The marathon took him four years through three countries, from the Congo through Kenya and finally to the United States of America. He wasn’t running all those years, only the first year when his parents were killed and he had to flee for his life. It also took jumping hurdles those four years — vetting first by the United Nations High Commission of Refugees, and then by the U.S. State Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and TSA and acceptance by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program with travel arranged by the International Organization for Migration. Through extensive interviews and assessments all determined that, yes, he was a refugee from the vicious civil war in the Congo. Yes, he had a reasonable fear of persecution and his parents were dead. Yes, he had foster parents ready to accept him in San Jose. No, he was not a terrorist. Yes, he was permitted to travel to the United States.

The marathoner from the Congo was one of the 140 refugee foster youth resettled by Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County over the past twelve years and one of 7,000 refugees resettled by Catholic Charities over the past 38 years. He was one of the lucky ones to finish his long run to safety. Currently there are more than 65 million displaced people around the world. Last fiscal year 84,995 resettled in the United States, 0.13% of all the refugees in the world.

I had the honor of welcoming this courageous refugee foster youth across the finish line to America as part of Catholic Charities welcome party at the San Jose International Airport. It was a moment fraught with both joy and concern. Joy that he made it, but concern that many others seeking a safe haven from war and terror would be blocked because of an executive order. I was proud of our compassionate and competent staff and humbled by the generosity of the foster parents. I rejoiced that on that night we saved a life.

At Catholic Charities it is our mission as the social service and social justice arm of the church to act on Jesus’ call to “welcome the stranger”. For more information on how to help with our Refugee and Immigrant Integration and Refugee Foster Care program, go to www.CatholicCharities.org/refugee-services.