Bergen County Sanctuary Committee Helps Refugees Adjust To Life In America
Teaneck groups part of effort to help asylum seekers entering America.
Since 2004, the Bergen County Sanctuary Committee (BCSC) in Teaneck has helped more than a dozen asylum seekers transition from their traumatic pasts to a new life in America.
According to founder Joseph Chuman, the roots of this committee trace back to the 1980s, when the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County was committing acts of civil disobedience in the name of justice.
'YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE TO STORM OUR CHURCH'
El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war, and people were running for their lives.
"It was a very violent time with one-fourth of the country fleeing to America," Chuman said. "America's policy then was to deport everyone, even those who were victims of persecution and/or torture. So, in the late '80s, there was a nationwide movement that was undertaken by houses of worship to put themselves between the political refugees and law enforcement, basically saying that if you want to get at these people, you're going to have to storm our church."
Chuman said eventually the courts determined that what the government was doing was illegal, thus vindicating the actions of the religious organizations who were harboring refugees.
The Ethical Culture Society housed a 17-year-old El Salvadorian for two years among two separate host families. "When the civil war ended and his country became peaceful again, he returned home," Chuman said. "He eventually came back to the United States, married and moved to Los Angeles."
Earlier this decade, the society became involved with the federal Elizabeth Detention Center. "It has 300 beds and houses detainees – those picked up in immigration sweeps and those here as political refugees," Chuman said.
"At that time in the early 2000s, a member of First Friends, which is a group dedicated to visiting detainees on a regular basis to lift their spirits, thought of the idea to create communities of support for these refugees when they were released from detention," Chuman said. "We reached out to houses of worship to create a coalition, and six sustain the work of our sanctuary committee."
The six religious organizations that make up the BCSC include:
- The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, Teaneck
- St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Teaneck
- Dar-ul-Islah Mosque, Teaneck
- Temple Emeth, Teaneck
- The Unitarian Society of Ridgewood
- Central Unitarian Church, Paramus
The final two organizations that round out the BCSC are the Interfaith Refugee Action Team - Elizabeth (IRATE) and First Friends, both of which offer visitation and advocacy services to detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center.
'THEY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT LIFE IS LIKE HERE'
All the asylum seekers the committee has helped have been from Africa. And with the exception of one client, all have been victims of torture, including sexual abuse, said Chuman.
Mary Fran Raynault, a member of the Central Unitarian Church, got involved with the BCSC about five years ago. During her time as a host, she housed four women and one man, all on separate occasions. Two women were entrusted to her care for 10 months, while the others stayed for about three months.
Raynault insisted she wasn't nervous about opening her home to complete strangers, many of whom had experienced much trauma in their lives.
"The refugees do get counseling," she said. "And Joe (Chuman) is the filter; he sorts out who we can help the best. When a client is suggested to the committee, it has to be someone sane and reliable and who will not be harmful to themselves or others."
Raynault said anyone considering hosting an asylum seeker needs to have an open heart and mind and "not be nosy."
She said one client in particular kept very much to herself.
"One woman in her late 40s came to this country and stayed with her countrymen, who didn't treat her well. By the time she came to my home, she had lost a lot of weight and was very lost," Raynault said. "I remember her sitting and staring, but to see her eventually blossom within a few months was very moving. She eventually got herself a job and moved to another city."
Raynault also recalled how clients can experience a sort of culture-shock in America.
"They have no idea what life is like here," she said. "One woman was amazed that our streets were paved and how we had traffic lights. And one woman was used to cooking over a large open flame in her home country, so when she tried to use my kitchen, it was difficult for her."
'THERE'S A LOT OF WAITING INVOLVED'
Helen Zinn of Teaneck was a member of the BCSC for about four years. She got involved through St. Mark's Episcopal Church.
Zinn, now retired from the committee, provided another invaluable service to clients: transportation.
"I did a lot of driving getting them from point A to Z," she said. "I took them to medical appointments, legal appointments, the Social Security office, and places where they were applying for a job. There's a lot of waiting involved when you drive people to their appointments."
Zinn said she enjoyed volunteering her time and driving skills, as well as inviting clients into her home for meals and fun activities. She also took clients out shopping and to museums and other cultural events.
"This work requires a lot of dedication, but it's rewarding," she said.
WITH NO HOST FAMILIES; PEOPLE STAY DETAINED
While most people are sympathetic to the plight of the asylum seekers, it takes a special person or family to volunteer their time, energy and home to someone in need.
"Our biggest challenge is finding families willing to give up an extra bed and take in a complete stranger," Chuman said. "Our program, as far as we know, is the only organization in the New York-metro area to provide complete and comprehensive support to refugees. Our success rises and falls on being able to find homes to house these people – sometimes for up to a half-year or more."
Sanctuary Committee Secretary Debby Goodell said her group unfortunately is unable to help all the people who are referred to them.
"We don't have the funding or the homes available," said Goodell, who's also a member of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood. "We just recently had to turn down a woman asylum seeker who could've been paroled from the Elizabeth Detention Center if a home could be provided for her. It's heartbreaking to think she has to stay in prison because she has no place to go."
But despite all the challenges that the committee encounters, the end results keep members forging ahead.
"These people may never return home, and it may be years before they see their family again," Chuman said. "But, with our help, we see them move toward a better life."