July 13, 2007

'That's my passion': Joyce Overton leads efforts to change lives of refugees to America

As the longtime director of the refugee program for the archdiocese, Joyce Overton and her staff have helped refugees from around the world adjust to their new lives in the United States.

As the longtime director of the refugee program for the archdiocese, Joyce Overton and her staff have helped refugees from around the world adjust to their new lives in the United States.

By John Shaughnessy

Years had passed since they first met, but Joyce Overton immediately recognized the man walking down the hall toward her.

After all, it’s hard to forget someone who seemed to hate you with a passion when you first met.

Yet that was the situation in the 1980s when a then-just-arrived refugee from Ethiopia came to see Overton, the longtime director of the archdiocesan Refugee Resettlement Program.

The man had his own idea for his version of the American dream, a dream that included going to school right away. Yet Overton told him it would be better for him and his family if he got a job. The man stormed away, furious.

Last summer, that same man came back to see Overton, walking down the hall toward her.

“He came up and asked, ‘Do you remember me?’ ” she recalls. “He said, ‘You told me I had to go to work instead of school to help my family. I didn’t want to do it, but I did it. I was so mad at you. But now I want to thank you.’ ”

Overton smiles and says, “He eventually did go back to school. He’s now a chemist at Lilly.”

As Overton shares that story, there’s a framed poster on a wall behind her, a poster about “Passion” that states, “There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only a few will catch your heart. Pursue those.”

For the past 30 years, Overton has pursued her passion of trying to make a difference in the lives of refugees who have come to the United States. She joined the archdiocese’s refugee program in 1978—three years after the program began in response to South Vietnamese refugees arriving in America following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

Since then, the archdiocese has helped about 15,000 refugees from around the globe, people who have fled their homelands because of war, persecution, civil conflict or a major natural disaster. The refugees have come from Africa, Asia and Europe, including the countries of Cambodia, Laos, Poland, Russia, Cuba, Haiti, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan.

Hundreds of refugees have been arriving in Indianapolis this spring and summer from Myanmar, also known as Burma, fleeing the political suppression of the military regime in that Southeast Asian country.

“Helping refugees is important to the archdiocese,” Overton says. “It goes back to ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ The refugee program has always been a priority of the Catholic bishops.”

The seven staff members of the program meet refugees at the airport, help enroll children in schools, and provide clothing, furniture and temporary housing to the families. They also assist with job placement, medical checks, cultural orientation and government benefits.

And when that’s not enough, Overton often leads the way in providing extra assistance.

“She’s very tenacious. She’ll go the extra mile,” says Marguerite Keys, an assistant in the program. “She’s not easily rattled. She’s witnessed many clients who seem to have insurmountable problems adjusting to life here and she’s helped them reach self-sufficiency. She feels a sense of responsibility for our clients.”

Keys shares the recent story of a refugee who was injured in a car accident shortly after she started her first job. Overton stepped in, using her connections to make sure the mother could still keep her home, pay her utilities and take care of her children.

“She loves the refugees,” says Thawng Ling, the pastor of the Chin Evangelical Baptist Church in Indianapolis that also helps Burmese refugees settle in the city. “I’ve been working with her since 2001, since the first refugees [arrived]. She is wonderful. A lot of people don’t have the passion to help strangers, but she does.”

Overton deflects all credit, turning it toward the refugees.

“There are still some families struggling, but I see every family as a success story,” she says. “The fact that people can come here and, within six months, they can adapt, get a job and their kids are in school, that’s amazing. I hope I never have to do that, to adapt to everything new. I don’t know if I could do that.”

Like the man from Ethiopia, the former refugees often return to visit Overton to thank her. For more than 20 years, a woman from Vietnam has come into the refugee program’s office on Overton’s birthday, Oct. 1. Usually, she brings the gift of a homemade doll. Overton keeps the collection of dolls in her office.

“She came here in 1984,” Overton recalls. “She was a single mother with three kids. Her oldest child’s father was an American soldier. That’s how she got into the country. At the time, Congress was having issues with the refugee program and the entire budget for the country. I was the only one working here. She remembers me every October 1st. It’s nice. She just called me a couple of weeks ago.

“The first refugees I worked with were from Vietnam. That was in 1978. I remember when I was asked to take the job. They gave me a Vietnamese-American dictionary and told me to learn a few phrases.”

She never did learn the phrases. Instead, she relied—and continues to rely—on a universal language.

“What I’ve really learned is that people are people are people,” she says. “I find most people are the same. The language is just a barrier. You hear it said all the time, ‘We’re more alike than we’re different.’ And that’s true. A translator is helpful, but I find if you go into the home, look around and use hand gestures, usually we can communicate. If all else fails, you get on the phone and get a translator.”

She’s also learned that a dose of reality needs to temper the American dream that refugees have when they arrive here.

“Everybody comes with great expectations of what life will be like in America,” she says. “They soon realize that here in America you have to work for what you get.”

That thought leads to a smile for Overton as she recalls all the people who have come with their hopes and dreams.

“You see all the people who have come. They have kids and now their kids have kids,” she says. “It’s a good feeling knowing that the archdiocese and I have helped them start a new life and, hopefully, a better life.”

She has continued to help them make the transition even as she has dealt with her own health problems in recent years—problems that have required three surgeries. The pain continues from those problems. But the pain hasn’t stopped her passion.

“I love working with the refugees,” she says. “In 32 years, we’ve done a lot of good. And we keep trying. So many people have come here and lived the American dream. I try to make sure we have the

dollars we need and the connections we need to give them the programs and the support they need when they get here.

“That’s my passion.” †

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