California retreat center houses Muslim refugees in transition

Danville, Calif. — Franciscan Br. Michael Minton had already been attending Friday prayers at a local mosque to further his understanding of Islam when he read an urgent appeal from Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. They desperately needed temporary housing for single Muslim male refugees, whom the agency was charged with resettling. Immediately Minton, director of San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville, knew this request was the answer to prayer.

"We had been reflecting on who are the marginalized in our community and how we are to respond," he said, noting that this affluent northern California suburb didn't have the problem of homelessness. But rising rental costs were making it near impossible for the Jewish agency to find housing for its refugees.

Minton felt comfortable offering some rooms at the 80-bedroom retreat center, knowing that the gesture would help the young men adjust to life in the U.S. and would bridge some of the Christian-Muslim divide.

The first refugee arrived at the hilltop retreat last summer. He stayed for three weeks while his permanent placement was being readied. One day he was spotted on the center grounds with his phone raised in the air. "I'm Skyping with my mom," he told a staff member. "I want her to see how safe I am."

The next two men stayed for seven months while they found jobs, learned English, and became self-sufficient. One of them asked Minton on the first day, "I really get to live here?"

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Two Afghan brothers in their early 20s came in October. They had fled as small children with their parents and had lived for the past 17 years as refugees in Turkey, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Iran, and eventually Russia. The rest of their immediate family remains in Russia.

Kamal Shamsi, 21, said he is amazed that a Jewish agency and a Catholic retreat center are helping two Muslims.

The two quickly found jobs in restaurants, continue to attend English classes, and are saving for a place of their own. Jalal Shamsi, 22, wants to go to culinary school. Kamal hopes to study computer science.

"As long as they are working towards their goals and those goals are compatible with our values, they can stay here as long as needed," said Minton, who joined the Franciscans nine years ago at the age of 44.

He asks each refugee living at San Damiano to pay $200 a month in rent once they are earning a paycheck -- part of teaching the men how to budget and live within their means.

Minton said refugees who arrive without other family members need additional emotional support to achieve long-term stability. He's noticed that once the adrenalin high of finally coming to a safe place and having a normal day-to-day routine begins to wane, some issues related to the trauma of violence and war begin to surface. He provides a listening ear and referral to more professional help when needed.

From the beginning, the interfaith community reached out to help. Mormons gave food, Muslims provided clothing, a Methodist church stepped up with funds, and members of an Episcopal congregation have offered rides.

Offering refuge "has given us the opportunity to be the best of humanity that God has created," said Minton. "There is a rebirth and something new happening here," he added, saying that his retreat center is becoming a "house for all people."

[Monica Clark is NCR West Coast correspondent. Her email address is mclark@ncronline.org.]


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