Catholic Charities give long-term aid to migrant farmworkers displaced by Washington wildfires

From left are Rob McCann, Executive Director of Catholic Charities Spokane; Father Luta Nsubuga, pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Okanogan; Tim Crabb, from Catholic Charities’ furniture bank warehouse; and Father Pedro Bautista-Peraza, pastor of the parishes in Brewster and Twisp. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Charities Spokane)

Yakima, Washington — In the wake of this summer's devastating wildfires in Washington state -- including the ongoing Okanagan fire, the largest fire complex in the state's history -- Catholic Charities from all three dioceses in Washington are banding together to provide emergency relief and continuing support, both financial and spiritual, for the fires' most vulnerable victims, migrant farm workers.

"At least 1,500 families have been displaced in the Chelan area alone," said Yakima, Wash., Bishop Joseph Tyson. "There are between 15,000 and 25,000 migrant farm workers* in Washington, in a variety of stages regarding documentation." 

Tyson explained that while "those on the front line are trying to help everyone," many of the first responders have "not been equipped to deal with different populations in the fire zones. … For example, it took up to 14 days to get necessary information translated into Spanish." Lines of communication into the remote fire-effected areas are extremely limited, he said, "since there is only one radio station in the region that provides information in Spanish, and only on Sunday afternoons."

John Young, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in the diocese of Yakima, added that "many families don't know the scope of the fire until it is upon them, and they have to flee." 

Fr. Rogelio Gutierrez, pastor of St. Francis de Sales parish in Chelan, concurred. "They have no place to live, as there is not much housing in Chelan," he said. "They have no choice but to move. They have lost their jobs as well as lost everything."

Young depicted the extreme difficulty for his bilingual outreach teams in accessing and helping the fire-effected areas. "A lot of these communities are in remote areas; they are literally off the grid," he said. "… There are no advocates for the poor, they have no insurance." 

"Our parishioners are trying to help, and keep these families in Chelan, but most have no choice and have to leave," Guitierrez said. For the families that are able to stay, "we are trying to help them feel at home here."

Catholic Charities has provided the families with Walmart gift cards. Gutierrez said that many of the families had already purchased their children's school supplies, which were destroyed along with all their other possessions by the fires. "With Walmart gift cards, they were able to buy school supplies again," he said. "They are living with other families," so their children could start the school year as planned.

St. Francis de Sales parish has also started religious education classes for the children and has offered Masses for the families.

Gutierrez said his parish has also provided field Masses for the firefighters as well as farmworkers. The parish held a Mass for three firefighters who lost their lives. Several firefighters have asked him for icons or blessings, and he gave one firefighter his own "guardian angel icon. It was very meaningful to him."

Tyson, along with other local priests, has also been offering Masses in and around the fields and camps, many on privately owned land.  "Most of these people are temporary workers on H-1B status," he said. "As part of that, the employers provide transportation to the job sites, but not to church on Sundays. So, we go out to them."

 "Our parishes have become our first responders" for this population," Tyson added. "Our parishioners are giving in the second collections at Mass." 

Yakima Catholic Charities has been relying on local financial assistance and has yet to access the $10,000 immediate assistance available from Catholic Charities USA because of the generosity of the local population.

"From links on parish webpages, plus specific gifts from parishes," Young said, "totaled almost $10,000 so far."

Gutierrez also cited financial assistance from Eastern Washington parishes -- including St. Paul's Cathedral in Yakima -- as well as food boxes provided by churches in Chelan and Wenatchee.

Young added that Catholic Charities USA will be providing more "material assistance, blankets, water, sleeping stuff." While the larger organization is an early responder, the Yakima Catholic Charities "will be here for the long view," Young said.

He said that "the discernable long-term effects" of the wildfires and displacement for the farm workers will not end when the fires are put out. "PTSD, depression, the real fallout" of this disaster will linger long after the embers cool and the smoke clears. 

"The three Catholic Charities in the state of Washington have the unique ability to move and act as one organization," said Young.  "[But] how are we serving both the documented and undocumented? Both the English and Spanish speakers? We have a mandate to serve both."

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

*An earlier version of this story had inaccurate information regarding the numbers of migrants in the area displaced by wildfires.

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