Catholic communities prepare for Bantu refugees

As Somali Bantu refugees prepare to resettle in Richland County, Lutheran Family Services and Catholic Charities are among several groups helping the adults and children move to South Carolina during a storm of controversy.

The U.S. Catholic Conference Migration and Refugee Services is also working in partnership with the other groups to help resettle the Bantus.

The Bantus who are coming to South Carolina are currently living in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya after fleeing from persecution in Somalia.

South Carolina was chosen as a resettlement site because of its affordable housing and its entry-level jobs that don’t require English. The Bantus do not speak English, and most do not read or write, but classes in English are being planned for them.

The Bantu refugees are Muslims, with some practicing the African traditional religion, animism.

They have been screened by the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service).

Tracy Kroll, regional coordinator of Midlands Office of Catholic Charities in Columbia, is the Catholic representative on the Refugee Advisory Board of Lutheran Family Services, also located in Columbia. After attending the Roundtable Summer Institute in New York City, Kroll returned to find a public debate sizzling over the Bantus’ resettlement. Television cameras filmed tense public meetings, many of which were marked by shouting and protest over the resettlement.

According to the U.S. Department of State, refugees must be resettled within 100 miles of a local affiliate office of a national resettlement agency. The U.S. Catholic Conference Migration and Refugee Services does not have an affiliate office in South Carolina.

In July, Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas revised its plans for resettlement to respond to concerns of Lexington School District II. The revised plan had been to resettle about 120 Bantus in two groups, one in Cayce and one in Columbia. The State Department requires that refugees be clustered.

The Rev. Richard Robinson coordinates the resettlement project for Lutheran Family Services.

“We continue to be frustrated by the delay in arrivals due to slowed processing because of the situation in the Middle East,” said Robinson. “However, we are taking advantage of the delay to better prepare ourselves for arrivals once they begin. The latest word is that arrivals will not begin in South Carolina until after Oct. 1, 2003. We expect arrivals to begin this fall in small groups and continue into 2004.”

Eighty refugees are expected to arrive this year, and 40 more in 2004.

Other refugees from Somalia are resettling in Sioux Falls, S.D., About 12,000 are expected to relocate to 50 cities by the end of next year.

Each year Lutheran Family Services resettles about 370 refugees fleeing persecution overseasin the Carolinas. The services offered to new arrivals include location of housing, orientation to the community, employment assistance, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, health screenings and medical check-ups, and school placements.

“The response from the faith community has been tremendous,” said Robinson. “St. Joseph Catholic Church and St. Peter Catholic Church in Columbia have committed to sponsoring families. St. Jude Catholic Church in Sumter is in the process of considering sponsorship. Contributions toward the project have been received from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church and St. Joseph Catholic Church.

“Numerous laity from Catholic congregations and student groups from Catholic schools have contributed financially and with in-kind donations,” Robinson said.

Upcoming public information meetings will be held.

Juanita Warthen, youth minister for St. Peter Church in Columbia, said parish families are volunteering.

A parish meeting was held in August, and Warthen said there was a good response. The group hopes to raise pledges of money and time for people to spend with the families.

“They will not have transportation,” she said. “We will provide doctor’s visits and shopping trips. We will help them set up their apartment and be a support system for them for the first six months, predominately. We really don’t know what to expect yet. We just want them to make an adjustment to this totally different culture.”

Warthen talked about the need to practice Catholic social teaching.

“It’s strictly from the Gospel,” she said. “Jesus said ‘whenever you did this for the least of my brothers, you did this for me.’”