Boston Catholic groups reaffirm commitment to refugees

BOSTON -- Catholic organizations are reiterating their commitments to aid refugees and immigrants following President Trump's recent executive order that bans them from traveling to the U.S.

Signed Jan. 27, the order bans all refugees from resettling in the United States for four months, and all Syrian refugees from resettling indefinitely. It also blocks immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from traveling into the country for three months.

For Catholic organizations that regularly assist refugees and immigrants, the action has prompted swift responses.

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) is an international non-profit organization that works to protect and serve uprooted people around the world. It's based in Geneva, Switzerland, but has an office in Boston, which works on raising funds and awareness.

Speaking to The Pilot Jan. 30, ICMC Secretary General Msgr. Robert Vitillo reaffirmed ICMC's commitment to aid refugees and immigrants across the globe.

Since 1975, "The International Catholic Migration Commission has worked for many years with the U.S. government in terms helping refugees who are applying for resettlement in the Unites States," he said.

"At this time, certainly there are many refugees who are uncertain about what their future will be, and we continue to, first of all, share the information that we have from the U.S. government, and also to help them with any of the concerns that they have in the meantime in terms of the waiting they will have to do," he continued.

For refugees that are "extremely vulnerable," he said that the organization works to find them "temporary solutions."

In addition to working with the refugees on a hands-on basis, ICMC also helps educate Catholics and clergy on "policy positions that have been taken by the U.S. bishops on these issues."

Msgr. Vitillo said he wants to help share "the good experiences" of resettled refugees, highlighting their success stories.

"We're trying to help people understand the positive aspects of resettlement, and also, then, help Christians to connect with the need to be welcoming to the strangers in our land."

The organization, with help from the Boston office, has launched a "Hands of Mercy" campaign. The campaign asks people to write messages on their hands that offer encouraging words to refugees, and then to share pictures of the messages on social media using the #HandsOfMercy hashtag.

By sharing these hopeful messages, Msgr. Vitillo said, "we can turn this into a real situation where we give hope to each other, as well as support the people who are now in very special needs."

Catholic Charities of Boston also launched a campaign following the executive orders, which can be found on its website

The campaign calls on people to donate to the organization, which yearly settles 230 refugees from around the world. Since the orders, said President Debbie Rambo, "our systems are being challenged."

"We run a fairly large refugee resettlement program, and of course all of those arrivals have been canceled for at least four months, whether they're from the Middle East, or other parts of the world," she told The Pilot during a conference call with other Catholic Charities of Boston employees, Jan. 31.

She added that Catholic Charities' legal immigration services team, which provides new immigrants with legal consultation, referral, and representation, have been flooded with calls, bringing the workload to "beyond capacity."

We're "working to see what we can do to bring in new staff," she said.

"There are just financial challenges for our organization that come with this action."

Also part of the call, Director of Refugee and Immigration Services Marjean Perhot said she sees "a lot of people who are scared and not really sure what to expect now."

"Our heart does break for the refugees we were expecting to receive in the month of February who were so close to finally be admitted to the United States after really long wait times," she said.

"The refugees are amazing, courageous survivors, and I know they inspire me, and I think I can speak for the rest of us, they inspire all of us all the time," she said.

As an "ambassador" with CRS and as a deacon, Deacon Tim Donohue says he has "a call to serve others."

"We can do that in our parishes on one level, but then how do we serve others outside of our own parishes? How do we do that?" he asked, speaking to The Pilot Jan. 31.

A volunteer role, CRS ambassadors work within their parishes, schools, or communities to promote global solidarity and to help provide care for those in need overseas.

Personally, he's created his own opportunities to help others, traveling to places around the country to assist people in need, and even traveling to Chile, to work with "the poor around Santiago, Chile, and we also worked with the immigrants and some refugees in the northern part of Chile."

On a local level, however, there are also ways to help, said Deacon Donohue.

"We can raise awareness, we can talk to others, we can work with CRS," which he called a source of "reliable" information on immigration and refugees.

"You can raise money for (CRS), you can ask CRS to come in and talk to you about it and to provide information on the crisis or on other works CRS is doing around the world," he said.

Both receiving and giving reliable information are important, Deacon Donohue said.

"I think it's really important now, as we put the spotlight (on the refugee crisis), to make sure that people have truth," he said.

"One of the things you can do or I can do is find out where there are sources of information and where there are people who are advocating for the immigrants, or for the people affected by human trafficking, or other challenges that we're facing -- find out where they are, then bring them into our parishes to just educate our own parishioners," he said.

Maura McSweeney, a student CRS ambassador, is a senior at Boston College.

She's one of the student leaders of the BC CRS Ambassador Chapter, and recently she and other ambassadors on campus have been conducting advocacy trainings for students.

"What we've been doing as a group is reaching out to the current organizations that represent groups that are being particularly affected by the new administration's actions and discourse, and training them in letter writing and how to do phone calls to their members of Congress and how to use social media effectively for advocacy purposes.

It's been successful so far, she said, noting that two of these training sessions have taken place since the beginning of the semester, and four more need to be scheduled. Around 20 to 30 people attended each session.

In the past, the campus ambassadors have made efforts to make people aware of climate change, "especially after the release of Pope Francis' encyclical (Laudato Si)," as well as the Syrian refugee crisis, collaborating with the Muslim Student Association to do so.

"We're in a Democracy, so hopefully, we can just see kind of a growing movement that feels like they know how to respond to what's going on around us," she said.

"For me, personally, doing these advocacy trainings is just kind of a way to keep hope in times like this."

For those interested, the CRS Parish Ambassador Corps will be holding an orientation and training session on Feb. 11 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College, Simboli Hall, Room 243. RSVPs may be sent to Ellen Romer ( by Feb. 6.