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Foster Care and More for Children From Afar

Youngsters forced to flee their homeland as unaccompanied refugees start life anew in U.S. through Catholic Community Services program

Reprinted with permission of the Catholic Northwest Progress

Just last month, two days before Christmas, two more children arrived at SeaTac Airport to embark on new lives.

Ages 10 and 12, this brother-sister duo from the South Asian Kingdom of Bhutan had already experienced much disruption in their brief years. Their mother had died when they were much younger, while their father had left the family and is today considered missing, according to their files. The siblings bounced from one relative to another following their mother’s death. Eventually, they ended up with an aunt, and were living with her in a refugee camp in Nepal when they became separated from the woman. That’s when they received a new classification: unaccompanied refugee minors.

When they arrived at SeaTac Dec. 23, they were welcomed by Catholic Community Services’ International Foster Care program, a Tacoma-based program that provides such children with safe and nurturing foster care homes and support until they reach adulthood. On hand to greet them were their foster parents and their CCS case worker. They held signs bearing their names, plus a “Welcome” sign written in Bhutanese.

The program is among those primarily funded through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, which is celebrating National Migration Week Jan. 4-10.

Most are in their teens
The addition of the siblings from Bhutan brought the total number of children placed or served in 2008 by the CCS program to 67, said program manager Betsy Ellington. Twenty-nine were unaccompanied refugee minors. The rest were undocumented children who came to this country illegally from Central America and other parts of the world. The CCS program expanded to serve the latter group in 2003.

Founded in 1979 to serve child refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, the International Foster Care program today receives children from more than a half-dozen hotspots all over the globe, including Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the Sudan.

For the unaccompanied refugees a group that goes on to attain U.S. citizenship -- CCS arranges long-term foster care in licensed homes while providing or linking them with counseling, support groups, interpreters, living skills training, medical coupons and other services. For the undocumented children, it arranges legal aid, medical coverage and other services, and links them with foster care while their status which can range from asylum to a return to their family or homeland is resolved.

The newly-arrived unaccompanied refugee minors from Bhutan came with somewhat of a head start, having attended primary school and having learned some English. They are younger than most “URMs,” Ellington said. Most are in their teens.

Psychological baggage
Unaccompanied refugee minors often arrive with psychological baggage, having fled civil wars, unstable dictators or human trafficking.

“They have grief and loss and varying degrees of stress related to that,” Ellington said. Being separated from their families, and trying to deal with the “cultural shock” of coming to America “can be hard,” she said. That’s why counseling and support groups are key.

A while back, Ellington wrote a brief reflection on one of the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan, in which 12,000 children were forced to flee the civil war in their African nation on foot. By the time their two-year, 1,000-mile journey to the safety of a Kenyan refugee shelter had ended, only a few thousand were still alive, she wrote, the rest falling victim to starvation or attacks by pro-government militias or wild animals. The International Foster Care program was among those that assisted some of the Lost Boys when they arrived in the U.S.

Watching refugee children attain stability in their lives and go on to achieve success is what keeps Ellington going as she enters her 30th year with the program. She says many of the children become so bonded with their foster parents that they continue living with them as they attend college.

Approximately 95 percent graduate from high school and go on to some type of secondary schooling, she said.

“It’s like (they’re) your own kids,” she said. “You get to watch them grow up and become independent, and successful, happy adults.” And “some get reunited with their families.”
And with the children coming from all over the world, Ellington never gets bored in her work as she encounters one new culture after another. “It’s like a new job every few years,” she said.

She added that foster parents are needed. For more information, call Betzy Miller, the program’s foster home licensor, at 253-502-2676.

National Migration Week

Western Washington parishes and schools are celebrating National Migration Week Jan. 4-10.

This year’s theme, Renewing Hope, Seeking Justice, “reminds us of our obligation to bring hope to the hopeless and to seek justice for those who are easily exploited,” said Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration, in a letter.

“For many migrant communities, injustice and hardship are too commonplace an experience,” he said. “Given the often marginal and vulnerable status of migrants, it is important that communities everywhere treat migrants justly and provide a welcoming presence to all people on the move.”

Bishop Wester noted that Pope Benedict XVI last April encouraged the U.S. bishops and the faithful to stay informed on the political and cultural issues surrounding migration.

“I want to encourage you (bishops) and your communities to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today,” the pope said, “to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials, and to help them flourish in their new home.”

 First printed in the Catholic Northwest Progress - January 8, 2009 Edition

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