Inside his Catholic Charities office in Sheboygan, Joshua Lee might be wearing a suit jacket and collared shirt. But when it comes to the demands of his job as the agency’s migration and refugee service case manager, a T-shirt and jeans are more functional for meeting the needs of refugee families.
Before the arrival of refugee immigrants, Lee receives a message from the program director, Steven Xiong, in Milwaukee that he should prepare for their arrival. Sometimes he has 30 days notice. Sometimes it’s two weeks or less.
In that time, Lee must make legal preparations, fill out paperwork, obtain Social Security cards and IDs, food stamps and secure housing for the family or individuals. He coordinates volunteers to provide basic requirements: food, clothing, home furnishings and personal items.
Donations help meet refugee needs
Patty Kloppenburg, a member of the human concerns committee at Holy Name of Jesus Parish and St. Clement Parish, is a huge help. She puts notices in the bulletin and gathers donations – mostly household items – from parishioners. She collects beds, furniture, clothes, bicycle helmets, car seats, and food from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the local food pantry. Not forgotten are toys and stuffed animals for children.
Housing must be fully furnished before the immigrants arrive, so Lee and Kloppenburg often bear the brunt of the work. This past winter, they cleaned and arranged the house that was to shelter a Burmese family of four and two men, all Malaysian refugees.
When the refugees arrived in mid-February, they found everything ready for them.
“They come here just with the luggage, the clothes on their back, and nothing whatsoever, nothing at all,” said Lee. “Some of these people are from refugee camps, so maybe when they lived in their home country they lived in a village and they have never seen electricity.”
Kloppenburg took this winter’s immigrants to buy jackets, mittens and hats from the St. Vincent de Paul store. Lee worked to obtain medical care, education, public benefits and employment.
Goal is for self-sufficiency in 5 years
The goal of Catholic Charities is to help each refugee individual or family to become self-sufficient within a five-year period. That time can be extended another year or two if needed. Every year, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee receives nearly 200 refugees, about 30 of whom settle in the Sheboygan area. Catholic Charities is responsible for placing them, and to do so, works with non-profit organizations like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and local churches.
Catholic Charities and volunteers are the first welcoming community that refugees encounter. Case managers like Lee greet them when they step off the airplane. He will immediately provide them with a bite to eat, and then the lessons begin. One of the first is showing parents how to buckle their children into a car safety seat for the ride home.
Whether refugees stay in Sheboygan or relocate depends on where they find employment and whether or not they have relatives living elsewhere. The house vacated by the family of four is home to a new immigrant family of three that arrived on April 28.
Radical life change for young couple
Life for Lal Uk Lian and Rebecca Cin Cuai and their 2-year-old son Moses Sang has undergone a radical change. Leaving parents and brothers and sisters behind, these natives of Burma and refugees in Malaysia arrived in Milwaukee with just two suitcases of clothes and baby’s milk powder. With wide eyes and trusting hearts, they depend on Lee for everything – transportation, interpreting the language, and providing for all their basic needs.
For instance, when your Catholic Herald asked Lal Uk Lian where he gets food, he replied, “Joshua.”
They speak some English and both are college graduates in their own country with knowledge in computers. While Rebecca says they received a college education, she added, “Just learning. No practice at all.”
Couple clings to hope
Finding employment is their current task. Lee will also enroll them in school. While challenges abound and differences are overwhelming, the young couple holds onto hope, the reason they immigrated here. During your Catholic Herald’s visit, Lal Uk Lian expressed that hope: “For baby’s future” and added, “I think here we will get human rights.”
While the immigrants depend on Lee, he explained that he also depends on others.
“These families that we help now, they have no sponsor whatsoever. So without the local parish, local charity, and local volunteer to help me, it would be very hard for me to find them a job, worry about how they would keep the job and how they would go to work every day,” said Lee.
Volunteers play key role
The greatest challenges of refugee resettlement revolve around the language barrier, transporting immigrants, helping them find their way around as well as finding jobs.
Volunteers like John Vang are integral to helping the newcomers adapt. He drives an immigrant father to work every day, teaching the family English, answering their questions and simply being there for them.
Vang is motivated by the love he feels for them.
“I just love them,” he said, “because if I was stuck in their situation I would love for somebody to be there for me, too. I look at them and they’re just another people like us.”
Swe Swe, a Burmese exchange student at Lakeland College, volunteers with Catholic Charities to help immigrants learn English. She places English labels with words for everything on the walls and objects in their homes.
Kloppenburg admitted it takes a lot of effort, but said, “We’re doing it to serve Christ and the underprivileged or oppressed or newcomers and that’s where you derive the strength from.”
Lots of love needed
Lee, who makes home visits among the more than 50 refugee families in Sheboygan and Fond du Lac, is constantly challenged by the demands of the job.
“It takes a lot out of myself, a lot of love for them and patience,” he said.
At the same time, Lee knows what it is like to be one of them.
“I myself was a refugee. I know how hard it is. There are a lot of times when my staff ask me, ‘How do you get the energy to keep working here?’ I don’t know,” said Lee, laughing. “I think one of these days when I am out of love, then I will quit the job.”