Offering a room to asylum seekers

Offering a room to asylum seekers

Members of two N.J. Unitarian Universalist congregations host political asylum seekers as part of interfaith group.
Jane Greer


After Judy Scanlan’s children had left home and her husband died, she was left with an empty three-bedroom house. So when another longtime member of her Unitarian Universalist congregation asked Scanlan to consider housing political asylum seekers, she didn’t hesitate. “I felt that I wanted to do something with my house that would help others,” Scanlan said, “and thought that having an asylum seeker here was an appropriate way to give.”

Within months she was hosting a young woman from sub-Saharan Africa in her New Jersey home. The young woman, who stayed with Scanlan for almost two years, had escaped from a country in Africa with her family after a coup before being forced into a marriage with an abusive man who brought her to the United States. “One day she packed everything into a suitcase when he was at work and ran out into the street crying,” Scanlan said. “A woman heard her say in French, ‘I have to get away from here, and I don’t have any money.’ The woman told her that there were many French Africans living in Newark, N.J., and paid her bus fare from Washington, D.C., to Newark.”

“I felt a lot of responsibility for her,” Scanlan said. “I really ended up being like a parent. She called me Nana Judy and said that I was her American mother.”

Scanlan, a member of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, N.J., volunteered her home at the invitation of Helen Lindsay, a fellow congregant and one of the founders of the Bergen County Sanctuary Committee, an interfaith group that offers housing and humanitarian aid to people who have either been granted asylum from the Elizabeth (N. J.) Detention Center or who have been “paroled” while awaiting a hearing. The Ridgewood congregation and the Central Unitarian Church of Paramus, N.J., are charter members of the group.

Founded in 2004, the committee provides qualified asylum seekers with housing, transportation, medical care, English-language instruction, access to lawyers, educational opportunities, and an orientation to American life. Those placed in congregants’ homes have stayed anywhere from a few weeks to almost two years, as in Scanlan’s case. The two UU congregations are now hosting their ninth client.

The committee was the brainchild of Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County in Teaneck, N.J., in conjunction with the founders of two organizations aiding asylum seekers at the Elizabeth Detention Center: First Friends and the Interfaith Refugee Action Team at Elizabeth (IRATE). The committee is comprised of the Ethical Culture Society, the two UU congregations, an Episcopal church, a mosque, and a Jewish temple, in addition to First Friends and IRATE. So far, the committee has helped around a dozen clients.

Almost all of the clients are from sub-Saharan Africa, said Chuman. And almost all have been the victim of torture and/or sexual abuse.

“All of them were dazed by the time they came to me,” said Mary Fran Raynault, a member of the Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, who has hosted five clients. “The older woman I took in sat on my couch for almost a month without being able to participate in life. She had even been abused by her own country people when she first arrived. They kept her in their house as a maid and babysitter.”

One of the clients who most stands out for Raynault is a 48-year-old woman from Kenya. “She was a women’s rights activist in Kenya. She was leading a women’s group to defy the tribal tradition of female genital mutilation. In Kenya it’s against the law, but the tribes in Kenya were still doing it. She was persecuted by tribal leaders over the years. One day thugs came to her house and beat her husband nearly to death and raped her. She had been raped several times before by groups on the street.”

Both congregations became engaged in this work through their social justice committees. The Peace and Justice Committee of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood and the Social Responsibilities Committee of Central Unitarian Church in Paramus first came into contact with political asylum seekers through the First Friends program, which sends visitors to the Elizabeth Detention Center. Political asylees are housed at the detention center while waiting for a hearing to determine whether they will be offered asylum. (The Detention Center now houses undocumented immigrants as well as those seeking political asylum.) Candidates for Sanctuary Committee assistance include those who have already received asylum and need a temporary place to stay as well as “parolees” who are released pending a later hearing.

When congregants started to visit the detention center through the First Friends program, people were waiting over a year to get a hearing, said Deborah Goodell, a member of the Ridgewood congregation and Sanctuary Committee board secretary. “You don’t even know if you’ve got a case for political asylum until you’ve had a hearing.” She said that the Obama administration was trying to expedite hearings, and more people are now being paroled.

The Rev. Dr. Justin Osterman was the minister of the Paramus congregation when Chuman approached him in 2004 about the possibility of creating a religious coalition to gather host families for paroled asylum seekers. Shortly after that, Osterman, along with the Rev. Sarah Lammert, then minister of the Ridgewood congregation, visited the detention center.

“We were so outraged and appalled by the facility and the treatment to which these people were being subjected that [Lammert] and I decided to rally our respective congregations to work with the Ethical Culture Society,” Osterman said. (Osterman is now senior minister of the Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon, Pa., and Lammert is the new director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Ministries and Faith Development department.)

Clients come to the Sanctuary Committee via several routes, Chuman said. Some are referred by the International Institute of New Jersey, which is the oldest immigrant service agency in the state. Other clients are referred to the Sanctuary Committee by lawyers. After getting a recommendation, Chuman “calls members of the committee to see if anyone’s available to help out on a case,” Raynault said. Each congregation is also alerted via newsletters and special reports.

Hosts help clients adjust to many aspects of life in the United States, a place that most have never been before. Hosts help them enroll in classes, take them to the doctor, assist them with their English, and teach them to drive. One was able to help her client procure visas for her two children to come to America.

The Sanctuary Committee, which has an annual budget of approximately $20,000, gets the bulk of its funding from its member groups, Chuman said. The Paramus congregation holds an annual auction, and the Sanctuary Committee is one of several beneficiaries. This year’s auction, held November 13, raised more than $41,000. “Because we’re a volunteer group, we have almost no overhead,” Chuman said. “When we get donations, the dollars are going directly to the cause.” Most of the money goes for asylee educational purposes, he said.

Host families are paid $200 a month and the clients receive $300 a month. The clients also get $30 each month for cell phone expenses.

One challenge the committee faces is finding people with the time and space to take in a client. “A lot of people who have room feel like they cannot give up their privacy, or that it’s too much responsibility,” said Luis Merlo, a Sanctuary Committee board member and former host. “They understand, they empathize, they’re willing to give money but are reluctant to make the commitment.” Merlo is a member of the Central Unitarian Church.

Another issue that hosts face is that the needs of the clients vary greatly from person to person. “The clients are so diverse,” said Helen Lindsay, a Sanctuary Committee board member and one of its founders. “And the way that they handle the transition into our society is different for each one.” Each client is assigned a case manager, usually a board member or a retired social worker.

Despite the public controversy about undocumented immigrants, Chuman said it isn’t hard to find support for the Sanctuary Committee. “The constituencies that we appeal to understand what’s at stake,” he said. “The people we’re dealing with are very sympathetic. The stories that our clients tell are horrendous and gut-wrenching.”

The importance of being aware of what’s going on beyond American shores is another crucial factor. Osterman said, “Support for the Sanctuary Committee helps the congregation connect with the wider world. It helps them see how some of the reactivity to 9/11 has caused great harm.”

Merlo said, “As a Latin American, I care very much about immigration issues. But we UUs have to be aware of the global situation. We have to be educated that this is a global situation, and we’re affected as much as they are. If they’re affected, we’re affected.”

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