Jackson refugee program assists young people

Debra West has several hundred ‘children,’ and she loves when they call on her. West is the director of the Catholic Charities Uncaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) Program for Catholic Charities Jackson. Every table and window ledge in her office is covered in framed photos – graduations, weddings, new babies – reminders of the hundreds of lives she has touched. She has been at her post for 13 years, but the program has been in place in the diocese since 1980.
“They still call me, years after they have left,” she said. Once a participant turns 21 he or she is ‘emancipated,’ but West said she and her staff are always available to help. “We get calls 10, 15 years later, mostly people looking for their documents,” said West, but she likes to hear where they are and what they are doing.
An unaccompanied refugee minor (URM) is a child who enters the United States prior to their 18th birthday without a parent or guardian to care for them. Children who arrive with parents or other relatives may also become eligible for URM program services if their caregivers can no longer take care of them once in the United States.
The program assists the young people in developing appropriate skills to enter adulthood and to achieve economic and social self-sufficiency.
The primary focus of the program has always been to work toward reuniting these children with relatives whenever possible. The program was developed in the 1980’s by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to initially address the needs of thousands of children in Southeast Asia without a parent or guardian to care for them.
Since 1980, Catholic Charities of Jackson, has provided specialized foster care to refugee children from Vietnam, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Haiti, Burma, Eritrea and the Republic of the Congo. These children were separated from their parents due to the outbreak of war or political upheaval in their countries. Their earliest childhood memories are of death, destruction, separation and survival. They witnessed the burning of their homes and villages and the massacre of their families and friends.
Some children had to flee without knowing who among their families had died or survived. At an age when most children were learning their ABC’s, they were running for their lives.
The children endured hunger, thirst, military assaults, and animal attacks to reach refugee camps. They learned to survive on their own and as a group. Refugee camps were able to provide the children with food, shelter, and relative safety to ease their physical suffering but could do little to heal their nightmarish memories or fears over the fate of their loved ones.
Catholic Charities also serves asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking.
Depending on their needs, the children are placed in therapeutic foster homes, group care, or independent living. “We have two group homes which can accommodate eight young men each,” said West. The foster parents in the group homes and individual homes get specialized training to help meet the needs of the young people, some of whom have been through traumatic situations before they arrive.
The URM program also offers assistance in obtaining U.S. residency, court documentation for immigration issues, translation services, English as a second language help, cultural orientation including grooming and hygiene instruction, case management, therapeutic services, tutors, socialization and recreational outlets.
Case workers and foster parents help the youth celebrate cultural holidays from their homelands and offer them the chance to learn about American holidays and culture. The success stories abound. West said 90 percent of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan who came to Jackson, boys who fled the civil war in the African Republic to avoid becoming child soldiers, are now U.S. Citizens. Two of them even became therapeutic foster parents for the program when they completed it. West said most of them have also attainted master’s degrees. One received a prestigious scholarship from Rotary International to study diplomacy abroad. Another is in Texas working with FEMA.
One of the most dramatic success stories is that of Bul Mabil, a Lost Boy who was one of only 50 people worldwide to be selected for a Rotary Peace Fellowship to pursue a master’s of Conflict, Security and Development at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom. He was five when he and his brother were forced to flee their home without their parents. He told his story to Mississippi Catholic in 2014 before he left for his studies.
“This is a chance to make a difference globally, not just locally,” he said. “This program is to train young leaders who can be catalysts for peace and conflict resolution nationally and internationally,” he added.
There is no doubt his own history with the URM program played into his decision to take on the fellowship. “The value of this program is that they are able to help children have an opportunity here in the U.S. Wherever they come from – there was a reason they came. They did not just decide to go,” he said. “None of us (the Lost Boys) wanted to leave the country where we were born. We had to leave because of war,” he said.
“Refugee issues have become big issues nowadays. The situations affecting these people are not well understood. I would like to highlight them,” Mabil said. “It is different coming from a war-torn country. These things (his success) did not come easily. It took struggle and I would not have overcome the struggles without a program like URM,” he said.
When a URM turns 21, Catholic Charities has a celebration for them. This year, two people left the program, both are continuing their education. West is a proud mom, she takes pride in the graduates and her staff. “We do outstanding work. All of our monitoring visits indicate that. The USCCB sees us as a premiere program,” she said.
West said she would like to open another group home for girls and always welcomes people who want to become therapeutic foster parents. To learn more about the foster parent program call Michael Holloway at 601-981-4668 ext. 702.