Year of St. Joseph: A spotlight on refugee life

Lindsay Steele
Fabris, a Tanzanian refugee, works at Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire alongside co-owner Ryan Burchett, a member of St. Paul the Apostle in Davenport. Fabris came to the United States in his mid-teens and hopes to own his own business someday.


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

(Editor’s note: National Migration Week is Sept. 20-26 and coincides with the Vatican’s celebration of the World Day of Mi­grants and Refugees, which falls on the last Sunday of September.)

In his mid-teens, refugee Fabris escaped violence in Tanzania alongside his mother and five siblings. “We didn’t want to be involved in that,” he said. The family settled in Rock Island, Illinois, and while they were grateful to be in a safe place, they struggled with the language barrier and figuring out how to access goods and services.

Now 20, Fabris speaks English fluently and is a high school graduate. He has a steady job and dreams about the future. His family is in the process of buying a home. Still, he hasn’t forgotten about the early days of refugee life, and is thankful for everyone who helped his family get to this point, including members from St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport.


St. Joseph, patron saint of immigrants, likely would have been able to relate to Fabris and his family. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph led the Holy Family from Judea to Egypt when King Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus. Leaving everything they knew behind, the family remained in Egypt until it was safe to return to their home country.

What is a refugee?

A refugee is any person who is unable to return to their home country out of a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, according to, a campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). This is often in the context of civil unrest, armed conflict, human rights violations or other violence motivated by one of these factors. Admitted refugees are assigned to one of nine experienced resettlement agencies in the United States to help ensure successful integration. Sometimes, refugees are able to return to their country of origin. Other times, that is not possible.

The refugee experience

The adjustment in a country of resettlement can be particularly difficult, notes the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services. Cultural and language differences can be particularly challenging. Refugees also may struggle with trauma and other issues related to the persecution they faced in their country of origin.

Trien Martin Ngo, a leader of the Vietnamese Catholic community at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, said the Quad Cities is home to about 1,500 Vietnamese refugees and their descendants. The majority came to the U.S. to escape the Communist regime following the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

Ngo said most Vietnamese refugees did not speak English or understand American customs and culture upon arriving in the United States. They felt “terrified and scared,” but focused on working hard so their children could go to school and have a better future. “Most worked in low- paying jobs and saved money so they could start again. When they see their children doing well in school and having success in life, they are joyous.”

He said the Vietnamese community feels empathy toward other refugees, especially those recently displaced by Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and hopes the U.S. will accept as many Afghan refugees as possible. Acclimating to a new country will not be easy, he noted. The refugees will likely be grieving the loss of their homes, the freedoms they enjoyed in their home country and perhaps the loss of family members.

Finding support

Ngo said Sacred Heart Cathedral’s support of Vietnamese Catholics in the Quad Cities has been vital to their adjustment. The cathedral offers weekly Mass, parish news and other resources in Vietnamese. The community celebrates cultural traditions including Our Lady of La Vang and the Lunar New Year. “The most important things for Vietnamese are faith and family. Faith and family helped the Vietnamese always stay together.”

For Fabris’ family, World Relief Quad Cities (WRQC) was a godsend. Based in Moline, Illinois, WRQC works with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to assist refugees in the relocation process and provides needed services for individuals granted asylum in the U.S. 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.

WRQC relies on trained volunteers to assist staff in helping refugees adjust, including a group of individuals from St. Paul the Apostle Parish. Par­ishioners, including Nicky Gant and Amy Murphy, helped Fabris’ family learn how to pay bills, navigate local transportation so the children could attend school, and figure out how to access services and materials. They are currently helping Fabris’ family through the home-buying process. “I can’t say enough about how much I appreciate them,” Fabris said of WRQC and the volunteers from St. Paul.

The support his family has received inspires him to pay it forward by mentoring other refugees and encouraging them to dream big. Many refugees work long hours at factories to support their families, including his mother, and he would like to help them to achieve more fulfilling work.
Fabris dreams of owning his own business someday and is getting valuable experience working with St. Paul parishioner Ryan Burchett and his brother, Garrett Burchett, at Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire. Ryan Burchett said Fabris is a great fit due to his “can-do attitude,” drive to succeed and friendly personality. Like other employees at the small business, he works in a variety of roles. It’s required no extra effort to acclimate Fabris to the team, Burchett said, and he encourages other businesses to give refugees and other immigrants a chance.

He is confident that Fabris will achieve his life goals and hopes that he “can learn a thing or two (here).”

Get involved

World Relief Quad Cities welcomes individuals and entities who can give time, talent and treasure to help refugees acclimate to life in the United States. For more information on getting involved, go to

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