Parish volunteers help refugee family resettle in Atlanta

Volunteers to welcome the refugee family April 15 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, holding a sign which says "Welcome" in Burmese. (Jennifer Harmeling)
This article appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" blog series covers life in U.S. and Canadian Catholic parishes. The title comes from Pope Francis' words: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. …"

If you have a story suggestion, send it to Dan Morris-Young (dmyoung@ncronline.org) or Peter Feuerherd (pfeuerherd@ncronline.org).


Jennifer Harmeling last year felt stalked by disparate images of desperate refugees.

First, she clicked on "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," the CNN travelogue, which happened to focus that night on the plight of refugees in Lebanon and how they survive camp life. Then there was the famous wire service photo of a dead boy on a Turkish beach who drowned after his family's doomed effort to reach Greece from their home in Syria.

Finally, there was Pope Francis calling upon the churches of Europe to open their arms to refugees from the Middle East.

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"That was my sign," she told NCR in a recent phone interview.

I've got to do something, thought Harmeling, a member of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Peachtree City, an Atlanta suburb, and the mother of two children, ages two and three. With the support of her husband, the family got involved.

Following a series of parish meetings and consciousness raising about refugees, Harmeling is now a key volunteer leader in a Catholic Charities Atlanta resettlement of a Rohingya 11-member extended family from what most Americans know as Burma, also known as Myanmar.

Some 30 volunteers from the parish assist the family, who, after arriving in Georgia earlier this year, moved into two adjacent apartments. A particular need is transportation, particularly in public-transit free suburban Atlanta. Peachtree City is known for its golf cart pathways, however, and the family is learning to navigate those mini-roads. A six-year-old girl in the family will attend local public school in the fall.

The family comes from far away from the Middle East, the original focus of Harmeling's concern, but they are as needy as any other unsettled family in the world. As Muslims, they are part of a group long persecuted by Burmese Buddhists, and had been living in Malaysia until coming to the United States last year. In Malaysia, they were legally unable to work and subsisted on small stipends. As resettled legal refugees in Georgia, the goal is that they will eventually become self-sufficient and have the right to obtain employment. Much of the family is already conversant in English.

The family consists of a grandfather patriarch, three daughters and their husbands, and their combined four young children.

T-shirts among the volunteers emphasize their focus: "We help because we are Catholics," the shirts read. Harmeling noted that the parish has proven to be hospitable to Muslim refugees in the past, having helped to resettle a family from Kosovo back in 1999, who, 17 years later, are well-established in the community.

"We didn't put any strings attached," she said.

More information about the refugee resettlement effort can be found on the Holy Trinity parish website.

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR's Field Hospital series on parish life and a professor of journalism at St. John's University, New York.]

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