By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
An exhausted family of seven — mom, dad and five young children — disembarked from a United Airlines flight a little after 8 p.m. Nov. 20. They had traveled to the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport from Tanzania, though that’s not where their lives began.
The family originally came from the Democratic Republic of Congo and they were reunited at the Louisville airport with family members they haven’t seen for 20 years.
Emerance Malenga, who came to the United States about five years ago, said she was excited as she waited for her brother and his family to arrive.
When the family appeared at the arrivals gate, she and her brother hugged and then grinned at each other. Much has changed in 20 years.
The family was also greeted by staff from Catholic Charities of Louisville and members of St. Gabriel Church, who have been working to provide a comfortable, clean and well-furnished home for the family.
At the airport, Shannon Bishop and Sharon Miller provided baskets of food and other hospitality. Marie Glass carried a welcome sign made by students in the parish’s religious education program. Others held plastic clappers bearing smiley faces and another volunteer held an armful of winter coats for the family.
Nearly 150 St. Gabriel parishioners helped prepare for the family’s arrival — that figure is even higher if you count the number of people prayerfully supporting the effort.
The parish will continue to help the family for up to a year.
“This is not about four people doing big things,” said St. Gabriel’s pastor, Father John Schwartzlose. “This is about 100 people doing little things.”
St. Gabriel is the latest parish to join Catholic Charities of Louisville’s sponsorship program. While Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services program handles the professional side of refugee resettlement, the public is invited to help supplement their work.
Sponsors help furnish a home for new arrivals, collect household items, welcome families at the airport and then accompany families as they learn about life in Louisville.
“A lot of people can do a little that makes this great basket of welcome,” noted Father Schwartzlose. “It’s wonderful on the part of our parish that we looked within and said, ‘We can do this.’
“It lifts my heart; there’s new energy in the parish because of it,” he said.
The refugee resettlement program in the United States has been the subject of controversy in recent years. President Donald Trump has dramatically reduced the numbers of refugees that will be admitted into the country this year to 18,000. In 2016, the United States had capped the number of refugees to be admitted that year at 85,000.
But the magisterium of the Catholic Church — from Pope Francis to the bishops of the United States — have very clearly expressed their support of refugee resettlement as an act of faith.
“It’s the foundation of what we are called to do,” said Father Schwartzlose. He believes most objections to refugees are rooted in fear.
“It’s fear of the unknown, fear of the stranger,” he said.
But, he said, “Perfect love casts out fear. If we are embracing the one who is love, then we have nothing to fear.
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” he added. “If they get a house, I don’t have less of a house. They are not taking from us. They add to the broth, they thicken the stew, they make us better for being here.”
Refugees resettled by Catholic Charities here in Louisville are expected to be self-sufficient — that means employed and paying their way — within about three months.
With the help of federal funds, Catholic Charities staff helps refugees find a job, provides English classes and offers help with rent and utilities in the beginning, said Colin Triplett, director of the charity’s Migration and Refugee Services.
“They become self-sufficient very quickly,” he said. “It’s typical they start paying their rent in three or four months.”
Last year, Catholic Charities resettled 279 refugees, about a third of its capacity a few years ago, Triplett noted. So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, Catholic Charities has received 17 refugees, all from the Congo.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, waves of unrest in the Congo since 2016 have displaced an estimated 4.5 million people. Others fled the Congo in the early 2000s, during a civil war. Political and ethnic conflicts in multiple regions have fueled violence.
Like the family that arrived last week, many Congolese come here from a refugee camp in Tanzania.
“It’s an improvised camp — there’s no stability,” noted Triplett. “You’re sleeping in an improvised tent.”
Yet families are born in these camps; children grow up in these makeshift homes.
Providing a stable home here in Louisville can change everything. That’s where parishes can help.
“We need parishes to help — especially for refugees who may not feel welcome — to see there are still people of faith and goodwill,” said Triplett. “They can help them understand the community, improve their English, sort through junk mail and paperwork in their kids’ backpacks. How do you know what’s important and what isn’t?”
St. Gabriel parishioners will be helping this new family with those tasks and others. The social committee will help with these things.
“We’re trying to help the family acclimate and achieve independence,” said Marcia Brey, one of the organizers of St. Gabriel’s effort.
She said a variety of committees have made the effort possible — from a cleaning committee that prepared the home and a committee that collected furniture to a cooking committee that studied recipes from Tanzania and prepared familiar food for the family’s arrival.
St. Gabriel adopted this model from St. Agnes Church, said Brey.
“It’s a great model. It has been amazing to see,” said Brey, noting “I can’t fix the whole world, but if we can make one small step forward, that’s what we’ll do.”
Triplett added that Catholic Charities and the volunteers who assist the agency aren’t only motivated by the Gospel call to welcome the stranger.
“We really believe in the value immigrants and refugees can bring to our community. They have nowhere to go. They are vulnerable.
That narrative doesn’t mean they have the least to give. They give back.”
He noted eight former refugees are currently volunteering with Habitat for Humanity to build a home.