Refugee family for Jesuit parish stopped by Trump executive order

 |  NCR Today

[UPDATE: It looks like the refugee family will arrive Thursday evening, Feb. 16.]

When Pope Francis visited the Italian island of Lampedusa and challenged Catholics not to be indifferent to the plight of refugees, parishioners in the Jesuit parish in the up-scale Georgetown district of Washington, D.C., asked what they could do to help.

The Holy Trinity parishioners soon discovered that Lutheran Social Services across the Potomac River in Falls Church had resettled refugees in Northern Virginia, and so they worked with them to see what it would entail to help one refugee family.

"It takes a lot of people to accompany one family," explained Kate Tromble, pastoral associate for social justice, in the Holy Trinity parish bulletin on Sunday. "We need teams for food, housing and furnishing, finance, employment, transportation, welcome, clothing, education and ESL, medical and legal services, and interpreters who speak Arabic."

But it was not difficult getting volunteers. "We just needed to ask and people jumped at the chance to assist a family," writes Tromble. "Our team grew large rather quickly."

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The pastor, Jesuit Fr. Kevin Gillespie, reports that 70 parishioners have contributed financially and some 200 parishioners as well as some students from the parish school have been involved. 

But getting a refugee family turned into a long, drawn out process. It took three months before a family was assigned to the parish. The Cheikhos, a Kurdish Muslim family of eight from Syria, was currently in Iraq and had been refugees for more than two years.

"It took another two months for them to be approved to travel and yet another two months for them to have airline tickets," explains Tromble. "They had been rigorously vetted and had done all the things required of them for visas and entry into the U.S."

They were supposed to arrive at Dulles International Airport on Feb. 6 at 7 p.m., but then came President Trump's executive order. "We read the president's executive order and cried," reports Tromble. Lutheran Social Services phoned to say their family's travel had been canceled.

"After all of our efforts and all of the Cheikhos' hopes, we had lost our family," she told the parish. "I imagine the Cheikho family is devastated. We are devastated. In the almost six months that we have known of them, the Cheikhos have become part of our Holy Trinity community. The prohibition on their entry into the U.S. is not just a canceled trip; it is the loss of a family from our community."

There is still hope. After Mass on Sunday, the pastor was approached with an offer of help by someone who works on immigration in the State Department. This could only happen in Washington. Perhaps the family will be able to get into the country while the courts block implementation of the executive order. If not, not only will the family be disappointed but also the parish that is hoping to welcome them.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org.]

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