The Catholic Commentator

Heartbreaking pictures of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing war ravaged Syria continues to touch the public’s conscience daily. Perhaps no image is more horrific than that of a 3-year-old boy who drowned and his body washed up on shore near a Turkish resort.

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As thousands of Syrian refugees continue to pour into Germany and other countries officials of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge watch from a distance with a heightened sense of awareness. Corina Salazar, director of Refugee and Immigration Services for Catholic Charities, said she would not be surprised to see some of the refugees land in Baton Rouge next year. Photo provided by CNS


As the refugee crisis continues to escalate, Corina Salazar looks on with a heightened sense of awareness. As director of Refugee and Immigration Services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, she fully understands the faces she sees in media reports from across the globe may be the same people she will greet as they step off a plane in Baton Rouge to settle into a new life.

In fact, Salazar said she is surprised her agency has yet to be contacted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding potential acceptance of refugees.

“We have kind of been on alert for the past 18 months expecting we would be getting (Syrian refugees),” she said. “Honestly, I thought we would be receiving Syrians already this year. They are trickling (into the United States) but definitely not in the high numbers we were expecting.

“For the immediate future, we have not been asked to receive any Syrians.”

Salazar said nationally only about 1,400 to 1,500 refugees have been accepted into the country, but explained a shift in presidential policy will have a dramatic impact on that number in the next several years. The president traditionally authorizes the number of refugees the United States will accept annually, and for the past several years the average has hovered around 70,000. However, President Obama recently announced the number is being increased to 80,000 for the fiscal year 2016-17, which began Oct. 1. Of that number, 10,000 of those slots have been reserved for Syrian refugees.

Obama’s plan is calling for an ascending scale that is expected to top out at 100,000 during the 2018-19 fiscal year. However, Salazar admits the figures could be altered since a new president will take office in January 2017.

“That’s a pretty significant increase,” she said. “Binding? Probably not. It’s not necessarily binding unless Congress makes some sort of financial allocation for (that period), then it would be.”

“For the immediate future, we have not been asked to receive any Syrians,” she added. “I do expect that we will be asked to receive Syrian refugees at some point next year.”

Catholic Charities is well rehearsed at resettling, officially starting in 1974 with the fall of Saigon and the end of the 21-year conflict in Vietnam. However, Catholic Charities communications director Carol Spruell said she found evidence that the agency played a role in resettling families from Cuba during that country’s crisis in the 1960s as well as refugees from Russia.

“The roots of resettlement are well established in our diocese,” Spruell said.

Salazar noted the tradition dates back even further, saying the roots of resettlement in Louisiana started with the Acadians in 1764.

In 2014, 325 families resettled in Louisiana, with Catholic Charities assisting 130 in the Baton Rouge area. Those families’ countries of origins included Burma, Eritrea, Cuba and Iraq.

The agency helped families with needed medical services, secure housing and furnishings, enroll children in school, employment services and counseling, orientation, enculturation and assure those refugees are enrolled in English as Second Language classes.

Additionally, nursing students at Our Lady of the Lake College are tutoring children from refugee families as part of their semester project. Several church parishes are also active in donating commodities, especially during the Christmas season, and Christ the King Church at LSU in Baton Rouge has allotted space to teach ESL.

All of those services are likely to be needed if refugees from Syria eventually land in Baton Rouge. Salazar said families must first endure an arduous process that can last anywhere from two to 10 years.

She said once a family flees their home country and is established in a refugee camp, family members must register with the United Nations. From that point, they must go through a health evaluation and assessment and also a security check if they are being accepted into the United States.

“The whole point of the refugee process is to try to reunify families, even if it is a cousin, mom or dad or a friend. ” Salazar said. “It depends on the person.

“It could very well be once a name comes up, the civil war in their country may have finished and they want to go back home. Or they have decided there is nothing else back there so they are going to move to another country instead. It can be pretty tricky.”

Several religious organizations worldwide receive refugees, including the USCCB, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Episcopal Migration Services. Nationally, the process then filters down to about 150 Catholic Charities agencies equipped to receive refugees.

“A lot of agencies decide who they receive based on what their particular capacity is,” Salazar said, adding capacity is defined as a region’s availability of medical and mental health services, housing, education services, employment and ESL classes.

Catholic Charities has caseworkers fluent in Spanish, French and Arabic and some contracted interpreters fluent in Burmese.

According to Salazar, several Syrian families have been in the area for many years and are medical professions, engineers and accountants. She said original immigrants are likely to speak their native language but that erodes by generation.

“Our capacity is limited by our language,” she said. “I am not going to accept a case where I have no particular language capacity. Our mental health services in this state are very limited so there are cases where we are not able to provide services for them. It would not be fair (to the refugees) to accept them.”

“If we were to get an increased capacity for Arabic, we would have to find resources and appropriate financing to find a particular person to do the job,” Salazar added, to which Spruell said, “That’s where volunteers and donors come in.”

Refugees must even take out interest-free loans through the International Office of Migration to pay the cost of travel to their new country. Families have five years to repay the loans and in the United States the USCCB is the loan collector.

Salazar said the most immediate goal is to help refugees find suitable employment, although language barriers do present unique challenges.

She said worldwide the number of refugees is the highest since World War II. Because of the onslaught of Syrian refugees in Germany, that country has replaced the United States as the world’s largest recipient of refugees.

Salazar expects this number will continue and will make certain Catholic Charities remains prepared to assist those seeking a new life.