By Joe Lee
MADISON – Can you imagine meeting your future foster son or daughter at a soccer match?
That’s what happened to Joey Luse of Brandon and his family, as the young Afghanistan native who joined them and one of Luse’s biological sons were on the same travel soccer team. After inviting the teen to their home a couple of times and getting to know him, the family held a surprise birthday party for him and popped the question on their minds.
“We said we wanted him to be part of our family as long as he wanted,” Luse said. “It was a little awkward at first, but as we were getting to know him, he said, ‘I am really glad to be here. I miss being part of a family.’”
Luse is one of many Jackson-area parents who’ve had teens from The Catholic Charities Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program (URM) placed in their homes. URM, through funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, places minors in therapeutic foster homes, group homes, or independent living arrangements appropriate to developmental needs. All URM youth must enter the legal custody of the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services prior to their eighteenth birthday.
“The URM program has been active for more than thirty years in Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties,” said program director Ebonye Debose-Moore. “The goal is to assist unaccompanied refugee minors in developing skills to enter adulthood and achieve economic self-sufficiency. Our services include youth therapy, cultural orientation, translation services, assistance with obtaining U.S. residency and more.
“We place teens from age fifteen until their seventeenth birthday. They can remain in our program until age twenty-one. The minors come from many countries, including Haiti, the Sudan, Guatemala and Honduras. Some are victims of human trafficking. Some are victims of political persecution. There has been no information released at this time regarding Ukraine, but it’s a possibility we may receive referrals from there.”
The foster parents, who go through a URM training program, have varying backgrounds. Carol O’Connor of Jackson is a first-time foster parent. A former educator with the Jackson Public School District who once lived in Ethiopia, O’Connor has had a foster son from Eritrea (a country north of Ethiopia) with her since Thanksgiving 2020.
“During the pandemic I felt I wanted to do something of value,” O’Connor said. “An Ethiopian friend suggested I contact Catholic Charities, and I went through the training and got certified.”
Her foster son, though argumentative at first, became comfortable with O’Connor’s parenting style over time.
“He had a rough upbringing, spending time in a refugee camp. There’s no biological family he’s in touch with,” O’Connor said. “But he’s a cheerful person – I can tell when he’s up first thing in the morning because he is singing – and he has calmed down over time. He is now in twelfth grade. It has been really a worthwhile experience for me.”
While it’s only O’Connor and her foster son at her home, Sandra Pugh of Hinds County has a biological daughter as well as the African foster daughter she has taken in.
“She has been with me two years,” said Pugh, who has served as a foster parent for over a decade. “There were cultural changes for her, but we have a similar faith. Language was not a problem. Once she got going in school, it wasn’t a large challenge – she’s a smart girl. She will be graduating high school and going on to college.”
“Because we’re Christians, we enjoy offering a better life and opportunity. It would be good if we had more parents volunteering, because we can make a difference in their lives. There are many of the same challenges you face in raising your own. Once the foster understands your culture, they blend in with your family.
“We’ve found that the biggest challenge is the language barrier,” Debose-Moore said. “The youth that come over speak several different languages, English often being their second or third choice. Once they get into the home, they start working on improving English skills. Most would love to be in foster homes where they are culturally matched. That’s not always possible, but we do our very best.”
Luse’s foster son works part-time in the restaurant business and will join his foster brother closest to his age at college this fall. While very close to his Jackson-area family, there is healthy, ongoing communication between the foster son and his biological family in Afghanistan.
“It takes commitment, and not just in terms of time,” Luse said. “There were adjustments we had to make – we didn’t have a fire evacuation plan – but if that’s the price to pay to help a young child get through high school, get a car, get a job, and plan a path to adulthood, it’s a small one. We’ve gotten as much or more from the relationship than he has.”
(If you are interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent with Catholic Charities Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program, please contact program director, Ebonye’ Debose-Moore at (601) 981-0725 or visit www.catholiccharitiesjackson.org.)