By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 20, 2008
Catholic Charities Atlanta is resettling nearly twice as many refugees this year as compared to 2006.
The agency, one of six Atlanta organizations aiding women, men and children from war-torn countries, is challenged to find housing and set up homes in March for close to 40 people and then prepare the newcomers for life in metro Atlanta. Those who are coming are natives of Burma and Vietnam.
Frances McBrayer, the manager of Resettlement Services for Migrant and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities, said the surge in people is putting the program through growing pains.
“We are very committed to seeing the refugees succeed,” McBrayer said.
The jump in refugees coming to Atlanta has the staff of four, including a Jesuit Volunteer Corps member, buying groceries to fill refrigerators, wrestling with furniture and trying to explain what a refugee is to property managers. They expect a total of 125 to 150 refugees in 2008.
And the increase in refugees is not a one-time event, McBrayer said.
“We expect next calendar year to be even bigger,” she said.
The Catholic Church operates the largest refugee resettlement program in the country. About 11,250 refugees were welcomed to this country in 2006, the most recent figures available, according to the Migration & Refugee Services office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A refugee is not simply an immigrant. Refugees move here after fleeing their homeland with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” according to the United Nations.
Atlanta is a gateway for refugees. It’s a destination because of job opportunities for people with little education, access to public transit and relatively low cost of housing. Overall, some 1,442 refugees settled in Georgia in 2006.
The Atlanta Catholic agency last year helped some 70 women, men and children from refugee camps make Atlanta their home. They came from across the globe, from Rwanda and Somalia to Cuba and Vietnam. Those coming from Burma are from two different ethnic groups, the Karen and the Chin, who have been forced out and are living in camps in Thailand or Malaysia.
“There’s a lot of things we don’t know (about) what these people have been through,” McBrayer said.
The challenge is getting the refugees settled into homes so they can be self-sufficient.
The federal government expects refugees to be holding a job within six months of arriving here. And McBrayer said 92 percent of the refugees settled by the Catholic organization meet the goal.
In 2000, the refugee resettlement program at Catholic Charities Atlanta received a black mark when refugees were found living in squalid conditions and the long-time director of the program resigned. The program ground to a halt as the flow of refugees dropped.
But McBrayer said the program is very different now. Since the crisis, the nonprofit has beefed up its internal controls. Also, Catholic Charities Atlanta programs now must match national benchmarks established by the Council on Accreditation.
“We’ve become a really good team,” she said.
The program relies on private donations and government money to assist the people.
As it is, the 680 West Peachtree St. office is stuffed with donations, filling up the waiting area.
Asked what would be on her wish list, McBrayer said the program needs storage facilities, moving help and donations.
For instance, the workers set up apartments for families before they arrive. That means sofas, dining tables and chairs, and armchairs are all needed. The program is in most need of four kitchen tables with chairs.
That’s why the refugee resettlement staff would love someone to step forward and offer storage space or moving services. The staff themselves muscle bulky furniture from donors to new apartments. A recent bill from movers at a reduced rate cost $300. That’s out of reach for the program that operates on a shoestring.
McBrayer said she’s reluctant to ever turn down the gifts.
“We know if we pass it up, we’re not going to have it for anybody,” she said.
McBrayer pleaded that donors have a little patience since the office has little storage space. If people hold on to the donated furniture for a little while, it could be directly moved to the apartment, she said.
HOW TO HELP
Items needed to help settle refugees in Atlanta include:
- Kitchen tables and chairs
- Dining tables and chairs
- Small appliances, such as microwaves and toaster ovens
- Bath and bed linens
- Housewares, including lamps, dishes, pots and pans and flatware
- Coffee tables, end tables, bedside tables
- Coats and school supplies
For more information, visit the Catholic Charities of Atlanta Web site at www.catholiccharitiesatlanta.org/donate/furndrive.html.