Migration and Refugee Services aids immigrants
By Charlene Scott-Myers
Southwest Kansas Register
Catholic Social Service opened its satellite office in Garden City July 1, 1975 with three employees. But only a few weeks after it opened, the employees realized a new need: resettlement of Southeast Asians through Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
The Asians had fled the war-torn countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and their imminent persecution under the new Communist regimes.
“Bishop Marion F. Forst requested Catholic Social Service (CSS) to assist in providing refugee resettlement to the peoples who had fled their homelands,” said Levita Rohlman Rupp.
“The parish model was the preferred method for resettlement, and parish leaders were invited to consider the task,” Rupp recalled. “In many ways it was like our adoption process as we matched refugees to parishes and their resources.”
Several parishes around the diocese sponsored refugees and assisted with all that was necessary for them to relocate to a new land and a new life. Parish assistance came in the form of housing, employment, language classes, car pooling students, grocery shopping, and learning to drive.
“It was very risk-taking for some of the parishioners who had no experience with people from foreign lands,” Rupp said. “But at the same time it was very faith-rejuvenating for parishes as they lived with new neighbors and checked in on them for weeks.” Most of the refugees were Catholics in Vietnam, so attending Mass and the sacraments were vital for their adjustment. Visiting priests often celebrated Mass in the apartments or homes of the first refugees and offered times for confession in their native tongue.
Don and Clarice Kliesen of Dodge City were another example of hospitality in the diocese, offering a mobile home on their property, “the Ole Fishing Hole.”
“We were able to relocate a small Vietnamese family, who were fishermen by trade, to live there while working for the Kliesens,” Rupp said.
Catholic Social Service in Garden City resettled 431 Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees from 1975 through 1982. Most of the original refugees have moved to other parts of the United States, “but they always remember their sponsors and their first hometown in the USA,” Rupp added.
“I am extremely proud of the Faith-In-Action parish leaders and volunteers who made resettlement work in Southwest Kansas. They were the loving presence felt by refugees torn from home, family, and everything familiar.
“Our refugees were led to a new home and new hope through the acts of kindness and generosity of our fellow Catholics, who became the face of Jesus to the stranger.”
Catholic Social Service ended its relationship with direct refugee resettlement in 1982. The diocese continued to support the resettlement of refugees directly into Southwest Kansas through the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB). Rupp assumed the role of directing resettlement efforts from 1982 through Dec. 31, 2013.
During those years, refugees arrived from countries of Cuba, Bosnia, Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Burma (Myanmar).
“These refugees were joining families or friends already living and working in Garden City, Liberal, and Dodge City,” Rupp said. “The parish model was foundational in resettlement, but as refugees moved to the area for job opportunities, they took responsibility in sponsoring their family members.”
The USCCB provided the Reception and Placement monies to assist in resettling refugees after 1982. The Catholic Agency for Migration and Refugee Services was an affiliate of the USCCB until the end of 2013.
“Thousands of refugees got their first start in Southwest Kansas and continue to grace the landscape with their culture, food, and language,” Rupp said.
With the advent of immigration reform, Rupp hopes to continue working with peoples from many nations and backgrounds as they navigate the complexity of the immigration system.
“Refugees, migrants and immigrants have blessed my life, and my cup runneth over,” she said.
“My thanks to Sister Frances Biernacki for her missionary spirit when we opened our Garden City office in 1975. She introduced me to ‘mission work’ and openness to different cultures and their traditions, values and dreams. ‘For I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.’”