November 17, 2017

Mentors play a key role in helping refugees and migrants

By John Shaughnessy

Beth RussellImagine moving to a new country to live a life you have always dreamed of, yet it’s a country where you don’t know the language and you don’t understand the culture or how to navigate the bureaucracy.

And in the midst of this dramatic life change—a change that makes you feel excited, lost and overwhelmed at the same time—someone offers to guide you through the challenges of daily life, and the challenges of starting a new life.

That’s the difference a volunteer mentor can make to a refugee or migrant arriving in the United States, says Beth Russell, supervisor of outreach and education for the Refugee and Immigrant Services program of Catholic Charities Indianapolis.

In 2016, Catholic Charities Indianapolis helped 676 refugees and migrants by offering food, clothing, housing and job readiness classes. Refugee and Immigrant Services also worked to match the refugees and migrants with volunteer mentors.

In an interview with The Criterion, Russell talked about the refugee experience and the difference that mentors can make to them.

Q. Talk about the refugee experience and the challenge of making a new life in a new country.

A. “In most refugee situations, families are torn apart either by death or physical separation. Many times, the families do not know whether their loved ones are alive or not. Imagine being a young adult, separated from your family, home, country, culture and language, and you find yourself in a new country where everything is different, you are grieving those losses, and you know your parents and siblings are across the world.

“You now have the responsibility of learning a new language, working, paying rent and utilities, trying to figure out how to balance getting an education and working, becoming part of a community and meeting the expectations of the new country, and you feel isolated and alone.

“Some may hear this and think, ‘All young adults do this when they leave their parent’s home.’ This is a different situation for a refugee. Many times, they are trying to heal from the traumatic years previously experienced fleeing their home countries and simply trying to stay alive.”

Q. What does it mean to a refugee to have a mentor who can help make the transition to life in a new country easier?

A. “Having a mentor in our refugee sister’s and brother’s lives is huge. Mentors are able to build lasting relationships with our newly arrived sisters and brothers. Having a mentor can help them from fearing the unknown in their new country, and helping them learn to become self-sufficient so they can rebuild their lives. A mentor helps them maintain their dignity by welcoming them and sharing about the community, the culture and English.”

Q. What are some of the everyday ways a mentor can make a difference?

A. “They help them with the practical skills they learn during their orientation, employment and acculturation classes through Catholic Charities. Some skills mentors help with are learning how to write a check, fill out an envelope, make an emergency phone call, call the school if their child will be out sick, open mail—and help learn what mail is important to keep or which can be thrown away.

“Sometimes mentors will take the clients to places throughout the city they would not know about or get to see because of the limitations of not having transportation other than the bus system or walking. Mentors have shown our sisters and brothers downtown, the canal, Eagle Creek Park, museums, the [Indianapolis] zoo, the Indiana State Fair and other local events. Sometimes sharing in meals together is a great way they can learn about one another’s culture.

“Mentors also take them to the grocery store and help them learn about different fruits and veggies. They show them how to use their oven, dishwasher and garbage disposal. They get ice cream, go to the park, carve pumpkins and go sledding. And sometimes it is just sitting together, trying to communicate with one another. Being present, smiling and showing Jesus Christ through the mentor’s presence is sometimes all that is needed.”

Q. Do most refugees have a mentor, and is there a need for more?

A. “We have been blessed to have an outpouring of volunteers over the last two years. Almost all of our clients during 2017 have had a mentor. We are always looking for mentors for our new arrivals, and we have several other volunteer needs such as tutoring in English, helping in the donation room and helping with our immigration services.”

Q. Considering all the controversy surrounding travel bans and a decrease in the number of refugees being accepted by the United States this year, what has this year been like for the archdiocese’s Refugee and Immigrant Services program?

A. “This year has been filled with unexpected scenarios, and the uncertainty of what the future holds for our brothers and sisters who have been waiting for years to be resettled to a third country. We have been blessed as a program because we have not had to cut any staff positions during this time, and we have had many opportunities to help educate our community about who we are serving.

“It is important for people to understand who we are serving, and that we belong to our brothers and sisters—even those who live across the world from us. Please pray for those we serve, those serving, for families to be reunited, and for the conversion of those persecuting our brothers and sisters. Until they have conversion, these situations will not stop.”

(For more information about being a mentor or volunteering for the Refugee and Immigrant Services program of Catholic Charities Indianapolis, contact Beth Russell at

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