Maria Blancheri is hopeful.
Tonight Blancheri, who is a senior grants specialist with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, faced a crowd of local residents and parishioners at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in South Orange and gave them a way to feel useful at a time of frustration for those wishing to aid refugee families.
The 120-day ban on all refugees entering the U.S. would be over by late May, and volunteers and organizers needed to be ready to greet those families when they arrived, Blancheri said. Affordable housing was needed, furniture, toiletries, cleaning products, school supplies, clothing, pillows and so much more. Translators, tutors, drivers — all these needed to be lined up.
Blancheri said that the Archdiocese of Newark had expected to greet the first of its 51 refugees in March.
Although that date has been pushed back (indefinitely for Syrian refugees), she held out hope that special waivers would be granted to those refugees who aided U.S. military abroad — and that the Catholic Charities Migration & Refugee Services program through the Archdiocese of Newark would be able to resettle refugees even before the 120-day ban was up.
“Maybe we’ll seem some of them,” Blancheri said.
Scores of local residents, including Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, crowded into the basement chapel at the church, surrounded by the stations of the cross, and listened as Blancheri described the vetting and resettlement process for refugees. She outlined the challenges — finding landlords willing to rent to those with no credit or employment history and with limited funds, helping refugees pay the cost of their airfare, and more.
She also hinted at the disappointment that the ban meant for the thousands of Americans working through church groups and non-profits to resettle refugees. Blancheri noted that Archdiocese of Newark’s operation was new, created to help deal with added capacity as the Obama Administration increased the number of refugees the nation would accept. “We were in D.C. for training the day after the election and we were hoping [Trump] would see how rigorous the process was … and maybe he will in 120 days.”
Outside the room, sign-up sheets were filled with the names and email addresses of those looking for more information or to volunteer. Inside, Blancheri also directed volunteers to the ccannj.org website to sign up and learn more.
“Click on our icon,” she directed.
The icon depicted Jesus, Mary and Joseph traveling with a donkey.
“We like to say Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees too,” said Blancheri.
Blancheri noted that the response to the refugee program from parishes within the archdiocese — spanning Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Union counties — had been tremendous. Parishes had signed up to organize drives; some were collecting pillows, others were gathering school supplies.
(Despite the Catholic bonafides of the evening’s hosts, it should be noted that the crowd was diverse, drawing well beyond OLS’s parishioners. Arlene Johnson, active in the Chatham-Summit Quaker Meeting was there, as were members of the Jewish community, which has likewise worked to resettle refugees.)
“Can a parish sponsor a family?” someone asked.
“Can we help with airfare?” another questioned.
Blancheri said it was all possible — including monetary donations. Besides directing attendees to the archdiocesan website, she said that Our Lady of Sorrows parishioner Tom Morris would be helping to coordinate OLS’s participation in the program.
“Monsignor Emory is on board too,” said Morris, who explained that the pastor couldn’t attend tonight due to a conflict.
In the hallway, Morris said, “This is great. We sponsor the food pantry. We host homeless families. We are trying to follow Pope Francis.” Morris paused then added, “My parents were born in Ireland and they were economic refugees who came in the 1950s.”
A man carrying a baby and entering the meeting late heard Morris’s reference to Ireland. He extended a hand and greeted Morris with a brogue.
“We’ve got to do something,” Morris told his new acquaintance.
Contact Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark at ccannj.org.
Email Tom Morris here.
With reporting by Zoë Perkul.
Click on photos to view: