Accompanying refugees: advice from people who walk with them

Ann McGlynn, executive director of Tapestry Farms, speaks during a lunch and learn, “Refugee Resettlement in our Diocese,” on Feb. 4.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Upon arrival, refugees to the United States face a number of obstacles. “Simple things like using a can opener” can be challenging for people who have never seen one before, said Nicky Gant, who with her parish, St. Paul the Apostle in Davenport, assists World Relief Quad Cities in making refugees feel more at home.

The Diocese of Davenport’s Social Action Office hosted a lunch and learn, “Refugee Resettlement in our Diocese,” Feb. 4 on Zoom. Representatives from several area organizations that help refugees offered perspectives about refugee resettlement, the challenges that refugees face, and ways for parishes and individuals to offer assistance.

Laura Fontaine and Habie Timbo from World Relief Quad Cities (WRQC) spoke about their experiences working with refugees, immigrants and secondary migrants (people who initially settled elsewhere in the United States). Traditionally, WRQC served Rock Island County in Illinois, but the agency has expanded into Iowa in recent years. “Our goal is to welcome (people) who come to our door; we hate to turn people away,” said Timbo, the organization’s community outreach case manager.


Fontaine, director of WRQC, said the Moline, Illinois-based organization is the only refugee resettlement agency within a 110-mile radius. Agencies like hers work with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to assist in the relocation process and provide needed services for individuals granted asylum in the United States. According to the ORR, these individuals include victims of human trafficking, those seeking asylum from persecution, survivors of torture and war, and unaccompanied undocumented children.

Over the past two years, WRQC assisted in the resettlement of 193 refugees and 206 secondary migrants. “People are coming here because of the low cost of living, job availability, churches and support,” Fontaine said. WRQC can help refugees with a variety of needs including housing, rent assistance, employment transportation, translation services, learning English and adjusting to American culture. WRQC also offers a food pantry with ethnic foods to help refugees feel more comfortable.

Tapestry Farms in Davenport also provides assistance and resources to refugees. “Farms” refers to the organization’s urban farms that employ refugees and distribute produce among families in need. Executive Director Ann McGlynn said Tapestry Farms and WRQC often collaborate to help meet the needs of refugees. Tapestry Farms has more outreach in Iowa, but is not a refugee resettlement agency like WRQC.

WRQC and Tapestry Farms partner with local churches and volunteers to help refugees attain self-sufficiency. Gant said she remembers picking up a Congolese family from the airport several years ago. “The mom comes looking exhausted with a beach bag, five kids and no idea how to speak English.” For about six months, Gant and others from her parish helped the refugees navigate the bus system, get to medical appointments and look for work. “I came away feeling really inspired. They were full of joy and life, and it was a gift to be able to (help them).” Gant keeps in touch with the family; recently, the oldest son asked if he could come to Mass at St. Paul the Apostle.

Gricelda Garnica, an immigration counselor with the Diocese of Davenport, explained how the diocesan Immigration Office helps refugees apply for more permanent immigration status.

Mazahir Salih, interim executive director of Center for Worker Justice in Iowa City, said it is important for people to take the first step in reaching out to refugees who may be afraid to ask for help. “Immigrants and refugees often assume and are afraid that people won’t accept them, so taking that first step helps a lot,” she said. Refugees may not have family nearby to call in a crisis, which makes community support vital.

Some of the organizations were familiar with each other prior to the meeting; Tapestry Farms and WRQC have long been allies, Fontaine said. “We work together to support our families.” The other organizations planned to talk about ways to collaborate in the future.

Ryan Burchett, a deacon candidate and a member of St. Paul the Apostle, said he felt inspired after participating in the lunch and learn, especially after hearing Gant talk about how WRQC offered guidance and resources for parishioners to accompany refugees.

“Just accompanying (refugees) in walking through this crazy time in their lives will change parishioners too,” he said. Parishes are generally proficient at raising money and donating items but personal encounter “is something I don’t feel we do enough of in our parishes.”

Video recording

Video recording of the lunch and learn:

Contact Information and Resources:

• World Relief Quad Cities,

• Tapestry Farms,

• Diocese of Davenport Immigration Program,

• Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa,

• Justice for Immigrants – Refugees Page,

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