SIDNEY — Megan Sargeant Zarnitz, of Cincinnati, visited her hometown on Monday evening to give a presentation titled “Welcome the Stranger” in the Holy Angels School cafeteria. A Sidney native, Zarnitz is the director of Refugee Resettlement for Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio.
Sponsored by the Holy Angels Outreach Committee, the presentation was designed to raise awareness of the crises facing refugees of all faiths worldwide. The message was about restoring hope and dignity for those who must flee their homelands, and was not intended to be political.
The Rev. James Riehle, parochial vicar at Holy Angels Church, opened the program with prayer, and Judy Zimmerman of the Outreach Committee introduced the speaker.
Zarnitz began by explaining the difference between a refugee and an immigrant. The international definition of a refugee is a person who has fled across a border, and cannot return safely to the country of his or her birth for fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social or political group.
“In 2015, 65.3 million people were displaced by war worldwide,” said Zarnitz. “There are 21.3 million refugees seeking asylum which is one out of every 113 people on earth. The process of resettlement is painfully long. Most families will be on the run or live in refugee camps for an average of 17 years before returning home or being resettled in another country.”
Resettlement is usually the last option because most people want to return home. But when home is not safe, returning can be a difficult choice.
“Most families who resettle do it for their children,” said Zarnitz. “They want their children to be safe and have a better life.”
The leading countries accepting refugees are the United States, Canada and Australia. Many who come to America are following family members who have already been resettled here.
To enter the United States, refugees must seek “refugee status,” a legal designation that means that the person has gone through a lengthy screening process by the State Department before being invited to live here. They are considered legal residents on the path to citizenship. Women and girls at risk, children and adolescents, and those with medical needs are given priority.
People must first apply for refugee status through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and show that they have been driven from their homeland by war or persecution, and fear for their safety if they return. Once they pass the first step, they go through a screening process that includes a thorough background check, in-depth interview, and a medical exam. Success is far from guaranteed; last year, 23,000 applied and only 2,000 were accepted.
Zarnitz noted the refugee crisis is not new and to illustrate that fact, she showed a short video of an elderly Jewish man who had fled Europe during World War II speaking on one side of the screen and a young Syrian boy speaking on the other. Their parallel stories were a reminder that people have sought asylum throughout history.
Agencies like Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio, based in Cincinnati, and Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley, based in Dayton, have a huge role in the resettlement of refugees.
“Our mission is to work with the most vulnerable populations,” said Zarnitz. “It is our faith in action. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord says ‘I was a stranger and you did not welcome me’. He challenged His disciples to see each person as a child of God. So are we called to welcome the strangers in our midst, whether that means a new neighbor or co-worker, or someone from a distant land.”
When the Agency receives word that an individual or family has been approved for refugee status, they jump into action. Staff and volunteers must locate housing and set up the house with furniture, bedding, kitchen utensils and food. They welcome the refugees at the airport, provide a culturally appropriate meal, and help them get settled. Many refugees do not speak English and may not even understand things we take for granted, like indoor plumbing.
“Our goal in Cincinnati is self-sufficiency in 30 to 90 days,” said Zarnitz. “The government provides a one-time allocation of $1,075 per person which must cover rent, utilities, food and basic necessities. It is important that housing is on a bus line so there is access to employment since obtaining a car and driver’s license would be difficult. Our biggest challenge is finding housing for large families.
“We provide ongoing services to help the refugees with employment, language skills, legal assistance, school enrollment, shopping, and acclimation to the culture,” said Zarnitz. “Refugees are eligible for benefits such as SSI and Medicare. The benefits end if they do not become citizens in seven years so we encourage them to get a green card after one year and work towards citizenship in year five. They are not in danger of deportation unless they commit a crime.”
Last year, Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio resettled 330 refugees of which 43 percent were Bhutanese and 18.9 percent were from the Congo or Zaire.
“We consider ourselves to be successful in what we are doing, but that doesn’t mean it is easy,” said Zarnitz. “Refugees may picture the American dream in their minds and not realize that starting out is tough. Families with kids settle in faster, but older refugees can struggle. We often need to follow up with counseling for issues like depression and anxiety.”
Catholic Charities uses volunteers to make home visits, teach English classes, provide assistance with transportation, collect donations and stock the warehouse, and serve as employment mentors. They have interpreters who help with job interviews and trainings, and have developed partnerships with companies and downtown hotels that can provide jobs. Most refugees find jobs in hospitality, janitorial, or factory work.
The daughter of Jay and Elaine Sargeant of Sidney, Zarnitz graduated from Holy Angels and Lehman Catholic High School (Class of 2003). She holds a degree in Social Work from Xavier University and a masters in International Social Work from Boston College. She spent a semester in Ghana and served six months with Habitat for Humanity in Bangladesh. After working with several other agencies in Cincinnati, she joined Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio in 2015. Zarnitz and husband Erik have one child, 4 ½-month-old Nolan.
“I enjoy working with those in need, especially from other cultures,” said Zarnitz. “Once you get to know these people, you find that the world is much smaller. We have much more in common than we realize.”
Ways that you can help include donating items to furnish a home, making welcome baskets for a family, working to set up a house, or providing a culturally appropriate meal. Monetary donations are always accepted. For more information about the Refugee Program of Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio (Cincinnati), contact Zarnitz at email@example.com. To connect with Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley (Dayton), contact Refugee Resettlement Manager Michael Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.