St. John XXIII Parish volunteers assist refugees, including Afghans, relocating to East Tennessee
By Gabrielle Nolan
Imagine you must flee your home country. All you can take with you is what you are able to carry on your back and in your hands, if it doesn’t get lost or stolen, that is.
Perhaps you are leaving relatives and friends behind, and you wonder what may happen to them.
Now, imagine you arrive in a foreign country where you do not know the language. You are unfamiliar with the climate, the foods, the cultural traditions. And yet, you hope your new life will bring safety and stability to you and your family, so you endure the challenges that come your way.
This is the life of a refugee.
Dozens of refugees come to East Tennessee each year through Bridge Refugee Services, the only resettlement agency for the area, with offices in Knoxville and Chattanooga.
According to Bridge’s website, it has “resettled more than 2,400 refugees from Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central and South America, and the Middle East” over the past decade.
The organization, founded in 1982, averages 90 arrivals per year, many of which are families.
“So, there’s always work to do,” said Peter Green, a volunteer and co-sponsorship manager at Bridge.
Community Assistance Teams
Mr. Green trains groups to work as Community Assistance Teams and partners them with newly arrived refugees.
These Community Assistance Teams provide a support network in addition to the services at Bridge so that refugees have the help and resources they need around the clock. Individual volunteers also provide a helping hand, especially when teams are lacking for families or individuals.
“I’m trying to bring resources and volunteers to Bridge to support our refugees and support our case workers,” Mr. Green said.
“My focus right now is faith-based groups,” he explained. “That’s a place you can find groups of people, and usually they want to do outreach, to come alongside families that are coming here and help us support those families.”
One such group is St. John XXIII University Parish, located in Knoxville on the University of Tennessee campus.
It was in 2017 that parishioners Charlie and Geri Mulligan began working with Bridge and put a notice in the parish bulletin inviting others to learn more about helping refugees.
“It was a time when there was sort of a highlighting of anti-refugee and anti-immigrant opinion in the world,” Mr. Mulligan said. “At the same time, we had Pope Francis, who was saying that the responsibility for immigrants is a particular religious and Catholic responsibility.”
“So, what a few of us thought of was… instead of debating in our heads, why not act with our hands and hearts and welcome a refugee family, because Bridge was bringing in refugees,” he explained.
The pair stood outside after Masses trying to gain interest and also gathered names at a parish ministry day.
“We were willing to try anything to get people to sign up,” Mrs. Mulligan said. “We asked them to just come to a meeting to see what it was about and see if they really were interested, and then we ended up with 14 people, which for us in a small parish we thought was amazing.”
Parishioner Al Pearson, who had long had the plight of refugees on his heart, decided to join the group of volunteers.
“For several years… I was really aware of the refugee situation and always wondered what could I do to help,” Mr. Pearson said. “When a member of Bridge came to talk to people in the parish who were interested in the refugee effort, I viewed that as an opportunity to kind of fulfill an ambition I had.”
After a St. John XXIII group was established, the volunteers signed the necessary paperwork to become a Community Assistance Team.
In February 2018, the group was assigned its first family: a single mother, named Theresa, with two young children who were Congolese refugees coming from a camp in Namibia.
To prepare for the family, Bridge found available Section 8 housing, and then volunteers set up the apartment with furniture and decorations, much of which was donated, and also went grocery shopping to stock the refrigerator and cupboards.
Volunteers go shopping based on a list that Bridge provides, which varies depending on the country from which the refugee family comes and what types of food they traditionally eat.
Mrs. Mulligan and other volunteers waited at the airport to welcome the family to Knoxville on Feb. 20, 2018.
“They came at something like midnight, they walked in, and it was just wonderful to see them. And then we worked continuously with that family,” she said. “[We] showed up to greet them and went to the house with them and everything. It was really exciting.”
Often with refugees, the language barrier can add the complication of needing a translator. However, Theresa was fluent in English, as well as French and Swahili.
“One of the easy things was she spoke English, and that made it really easy for everybody to contribute and to be part of it,” Mrs. Mulligan explained. “And of course, the kids were born in the refugee camp in Namibia, and Namibia is an English-speaking African country. So they spoke English from the beginning, which made their transition to school very easy, as well.”
In the process of accompanying a refugee family, the parish volunteers step into the nitty gritty aspects of daily life. Tasks most Americans accomplish throughout a number of years, refugees have to immediately get done in a matter of days or months.
Such examples include learning how to drive and obtaining a driver’s license; obtaining their Social Security cards; receiving medical shots; applying for food stamps; and learning the public transportation system.
“I have to admit that I was ill-prepared for the whole thing in dealing with health clinics and things like food stamps and all that kind of stuff,” Mr. Pearson said. “I wish I had a primer on that before I started.”
In addition, volunteers give of their time and expertise to help with babysitting, teaching technology, cooking new foods, and acquiring funds for things such as children’s summer camps or adult education.
One of the parish volunteers approached Bishop Richard F. Stika to inquire about utilizing the Pope Francis Charitable Trust Fund, which exists to support charitable outreach at the parish level in the diocese.
Bishop Stika approved “$1,000 toward [Theresa’s] classes at UT, the online course for dental assistant,” Mrs. Mulligan shared.
Mrs. Mulligan noted that their team cannot do everything, but they do what they can based on what their volunteers are able to offer.
“You don’t have to do everything,” she assured. “Bridge asks you, what do you want to do? And so we check, well we want to provide the first meal, we want to go shopping, we want to drive, those kinds of things. If you say, I don’t want to drive, we don’t have anybody… Bridge will do that with other volunteers.”
Other community members pitched in to assist Theresa and her children, as well. Members of the local refugee community who had previously gone through the same challenges were present to offer advice and guidance, such as with tax preparation or child-care laws.
Theresa also found and joined a local Pentecostal church, whose members not only welcomed her into a faith community but also helped supply furniture for her apartment.
Bridge can accompany the refugees from six months up to five years. In that time, Bridge assists them in finding housing and a job.
“It is our goal to put them on a path to self-sufficiency as soon as possible for their own benefit,” Mr. Green said.
“I would say we had pretty heavy involvement for about 18 months. So, it would have been the middle of 2019 that we sort of wound down,” Mr. Pearson said.
“I will forever be grateful to my welcoming team of volunteers from St. John XXIII,” Theresa said. “It is true that Bridge received me and the kids, but this journey wouldn’t have been the same without the St. John XXIII love and support since February 2018 until now, because they’ve never left us.”
“These people have made us feel at home and secure,” she continued. “They are always around making sure we go forward. They have been a source of happiness and blessings in so many ways. We love and appreciate them.”
St. John XXIII parish’s refugee ministry not only provides community for the refugees, but also within the parish among the volunteers.
“What I enjoy the most is the camaraderie with the other members,” Mr. Pearson said. “We enjoy each other’s company, we always feel like we can count on each other, and we have a good time when we do it.”
“Everybody we met in that first group, I don’t know that I knew any of them before,” Mrs. Mulligan noted. “And it was so wonderful to meet our own parish people, you know, who had the same concern.”
The most recent surge in Bridge’s resettlements came after the August 2021 evacuations of Afghans from the Kabul airport, after U.S. troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban reclaimed power in Afghanistan.
Currently, Bridge has helped resettle 35 individuals in Knoxville from Afghanistan, and many of those individuals make up large families.
And for one of these Afghan families, a mix of new and old parish volunteers from St. John XXIII is back in action to provide ongoing assistance.
“After we felt that [Theresa] was pretty settled, we thought well maybe it’s time, and Bridge was asking us,” Mrs. Mulligan explained. “We have seven people in this team, and the same kind of process happened.”
As before, the team greeted the arriving family at the Knoxville airport on Oct. 22.
“It was a wonderful experience, and [we] provided little presents for them, little backpacks,” Mrs. Mulligan explained. “In the backpacks, it was all for the kids, so there were stuffed animals for the girls and cards for the boys and socks and handwipes and things like that, just small things. They loved it.”
Because the family first arrived in the United States at a military base, many of their requirements were completed prior to coming to Knoxville.
“They had done a lot of their paperwork at the base, so we didn’t have to do that with them,” Mrs. Mulligan pointed out. “In the first case, we had to go to everything, like food stamps, Social Security, health. Here, we really didn’t have to because they had their health checks [at the base], and you know, got their shots and all that kind of stuff we usually do with regular refugees coming through.”
Because this family did not speak English, parish volunteers drive them to the Center for English for daily lessons, which will be crucial for the father to obtain a job.
“They’re going to emphasize English first, because your options if you don’t speak English, at least basically, are few and not well-remunerated,” Mr. Mulligan said.
“We’ve had a lot of outpouring about people wanting to support Afghans, and it’s been really great,” Mr. Green said. “It’s really made my job easy, that people have been volunteering or you know, wanting to do a Community Assistance Team, wanting to house them in their homes.”
Reaching out to churches
In addition to Afghanistan, other countries from which refugees in Knoxville have come from include Syria, Iraq, Burundi, South Sudan, and Myanmar, with 95 percent of Bridge’s refugees arriving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “A lot of these refugees who are coming in and have come since 1982 have very similar stories [to the Afghans],” Mr. Green said. “I would like to see that support carry over to a lot of our other refugees.”
“We’re always looking for volunteers to help out. Transportation is always a big need; obviously when they come they don’t have a driver’s license, they don’t have a car,” Mr. Green added. “If there are churches that would like to be a Community Assistance Team, they definitely could reach out to me here in Knoxville.”
The volunteers at St. John XXIII Parish attest to the important work of accompanying refugees and invite others to do the same.
“The many different ways, the little ways, in which a community is pre-formed around an arriving refugee family, the many ways they can help is just life-giving,” Mr. Mulligan shared. “It’s wonderful. It’s better than money.”
“Pope Francis, for years, has been talking about the need to welcome people and to welcome immigrants and refugees, and it’s a passion of his,” he continued. “It’s important to honor the tradition, the immigrant tradition of our Church in welcoming the immigrants of the present.”
“[Theresa] can’t say enough about what a difference it made in her life and in her coming, and she wishes every refugee family had that, too. We do, too,” Mrs. Mulligan said.
For parishes interested in learning more about Bridge Refugee Services’ Community Assistance Teams, contact Peter Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.