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July 12, 2000


Refugees delight in simple joys of life in Colorado

By Roxanne King

A family of Catholic Cuban refugees expected to arrive in Denver within two months is in need of a church to sponsor them as they get resettled, refugee service officials said.

Refugees are people who have fled their countries fearing persecution or death because of their race, religion or political views. They must prove persecution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. They also are screened to confirm that they have not been involved in criminal activities, said Bob West, sponsorship developer for Ecumenical Refugee Services, Inc., a nonprofit resettlement organization that helped 500 refugees from around the world relocate to the metro area last year.

Ecumenical Refugee Services seeks churches of all denominations to sponsor legally approved refugees for three months. Sponsors are asked to provide a deposit on an apartment, to furnish the home and stock it with food, to assist with transportation, and to befriend the family. The organization provides support services to the sponsor by guiding the refugees through social services and by helping them to find employment, West said.

Information the organization receives about the refugees is limited to name, date and place of birth, occupation, education and sometimes, religion. All that is known about the Cuban family is that it is a young family of four — a father, 35, a mother, 28, and two boys ages 14 and 8.

"It's funny, if people don't see something on TV, they think nothing is happening with refugees, but we have just as many refugees now as ever," West said.

A January 1999 United Nations High Commissioner report shows that one out of every 280 people on earth is either a refugee, a returnee or is displaced within their own country.

From January through May this year, Ecumenical Refugee Services helped 55 families relocate to the metro area, organization records show. The majority came from Bosnia and Serbia followed by those from African countries. A significant number came from Iran and Vietnam.

The goal of Ecumenical Refugee Services is to help refugees become self sufficient as soon as possible, said caseworker Genevieve Cruz.

"Churches are the best way to sponsor because they can spread the workload around," West said. "Some parishes want to find an apartment near the church so they can be close to the family."

Small parishes sometimes join forces with one or two other churches to co-sponsor a family. Other parishes who may not be able to commit to a full sponsorship help with donations of food, furniture, personal items or money, West said.

The federal government provides financial assistance to refugees for up to seven months, but it is far less than what is actually needed to cover the cost of food and housing, West said.

"Right now the housing market is crazy - it's almost $600 for an apartment," he said. "It's such a burden for refugees.

"These people aren't coming here because they want to, most would like to return home," said Marcus Garcia, fundraiser coordinator for Ecumenical Refugee Services. "They leave behind family and possessions - they leave with nothing, sometimes in the middle of the night."

Helen Olaka, 28, fled Nigeria with her husband, Immans, 38, and their four children a year ago. From different tribes, "trouble" began for the couple five years ago when their tribes went to war, Cruz said.

While living in Helen's area, Immans was arrested, imprisoned and beaten. He was released from jail, but continued to live in fear. When soldiers came for him a second time, he fled. Helen, who was seven months pregnant with the couples' third child, was raped. She sought refuge in the bush with her teenage stepdaughter and the younger children. There she gave birth and lived with the children and other displaced people for a year before finally returning to the village.

Believing her husband had been killed, Helen was in disbelief when an acquaintance told her that Immans had been seen living in a refugee camp in Benin, a neighboring country. A Christian church that had helped to feed the displaced group while they were in the bush provided Helen and her children with the funds to make the trip to the camp to see if the news was true. "I thought maybe it was a ghost," Helen said of her first visit with her husband in the camp, two years after he had fled. "The two of us were afraid to greet each other. He said about our (youngest) child, `Who is this?' I say, `The child.' He was so happy." The reunited family lived in the camp for a year before receiving permission to go to the United States. Like they do for so many, Ecumenical Refugee Services helped the family without the aid of a church sponsor. "The first day we come here, (Ecumenical Refugee Services) took us to a place to rest," Helen said. "They pay for the rent (here), everything in my home. They take care of my kids, help them to go to school and give my husband a job. Especially this one (Genevieve Cruz). She is my mother. "I know God works," she added. "God blessed me." Drinkable running water, dependable electricity and snow rate highest on the list of things that have delighted the newcomers. The family has also found a network of friends with other Nigerian refugees and has connected with a church, which has helped with everything from food, to shopping trips, to providing the family with a car. "I know God from my childhood, I know God is blessing me," Helen said. "I pass through everything. God delivers me. I have child without hospital. I would never leave God. The first thing I ask for here is church. "I love God. I love my church, all Christians - I love them and they love me, too," she said. About Ecumenical Refugee Services and its umbrella organization, Church World Service, which helps to support the Benin refugee camp and helped the family to relocate, Helen said, "They make me to be happy and to survive and to be alive - they make me to forget all that happened to me in Nigeria." Thrilled that she recently acquired a driver's license and a job, Helen and her husband now both work cleaning local hospitals. They have an apartment in east Denver. Helen's stepdaughter, who is now 18, also has a job and her own apartment. "I feel better here. I feel safe to sleep at night. I'm so happy," Helen said. "America saved my life."

To contact Ecumenical Refugee Services, call 303-860-0128.