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  May 21, 2007 VOL. 45, NO. 10Oakland, CA

articles list

Refugees find sanctuary in Berkeley

Traumatized teen gets his spirit back

Books recount terror and hope of asylum seekers

Religious groups launch new sanctuary program for immigrants

Construction continues for new cathedral

Rwandan woman says prayer key to survival

All O’Dowd students to read 'Left to Tell'

Physician cites a deep-seated bias to abort in complicated pregnancies

Brazilian rancher
guilty of plotting
U.S. nun’s murder

Don’t be a ‘spectator Catholic’ says former Boston mayor

Catholics for the Common Good
seek to address major social issues

Archaeologists say they’ve found King Herod’s tomb

BA, MA pastoral courses at HNU

Poverty is a major threat to the common good

The challenging choice: making money or doing good?

























Refugees find sanctuary in Berkeley

Franciscan Sister Maureen Duignan, director of the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, stands with Manuel de Paz, a victim of El Salvador’s civil war who received help from the agency and now heads up its community development and outreach program.
Greg Tarczynski photo
A colorful mural of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in San Salvador in 198o, greets all visitors to the Sanctuary Covenant offices in Berkeley.
Greg Tarczynski photo

Maria was frantic.

One morning, officials from Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) were waiting outside the family’s apartment. When her husband, brother and son emerged to go to work, ICE took them away to a detention center.

Now all alone, Maria didn’t know how she would pay the rent and buy food for herself and her 12-year-old daughter.

So she did what scores of other terrified undocumented immigrants in similar situations have done. She phoned the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, a resource center in Berkeley that provides legal services, community education, and advocacy for refugees, immigrants and political asylum seekers.

She was immediately connected to Philadelphia Franciscan Sister Maureen Duignan, a diminutive, blond Irish woman who has been championing the rights of immigrants for the past 25 years. Maria’s story was nothing new. In her position as director of the Sanctuary Covenant, Sister Duignan has heard similar narratives hundreds of times. As Maria talked, Sister Duignan started a new manila file folder.

The family’s case would go to one of the 100 volunteers, many of them from local law schools, who do pro bono legal work for the Sanctuary. Someone would conduct phone interviews with the three men in detention center, advising them of their rights, of what to sign and not to sign. Ultimately, if they had the money to post bond, they could buy some time by going to court, Sister Duignan told the woman. Maria thanked her for the information and hung up.

This conversation took place three weeks ago. Maria has not called back. Sister Duignan suspects that she and her daughter returned to Mexico. “They were afraid to stay here,” Sister Duignan said.

Perhaps Maria’s husband had received an order of deportation but didn’t know what it meant, the nun said. Maybe he did understand but never told his wife. Whatever the circumstances, the current immigration crackdown had created chaos in another family unit.

“This is so heart-breaking,” said Sister Duignan, who believes from the depths of her being that “God and compassion have to be part of the immigration situation.”

Maria’s file folder will be used now to record someone else’s case, perhaps one involving legalization or asylum status. The information will be stored in a large bank of green metal cabinets.

These filing cabinets could be perfect candidates for a neighborhood flea market, but Sister Duignan isn’t going to let them go anywhere. Besides their obvious utilitarian value, they serve as tangible symbols of Resurrection, she explains. In those cabinets are 744 manila folders which represent bright new lives filled with hope, freedom from terror, enough to eat, homes, a job and opportunities to settle into everyday normal stability.

Each folder holds the story of a man or woman from Central America, Haiti, Nigeria, China and other countries with repressive regimes who have been granted political asylum, allowing them to apply for refugee status for themselves and their families. Asylum means that people can stay in the United States and won’t be sent back to their home countries, where imprisonment, torture, rape and murder await them.

“When you multiply the number of asylum beneficiaries, it comes to over 3,500 people -- people who have suffered so much,” said Sister Duignan softly.

Her eyes drift to the entryway hall, where a colorful mural shows Blessed Oscar Romero among a group of Salvadorian peasants, their children, their animals, and their green garden crops. One is immediately pulled into the mural’s sense of peace and happiness, states of being that transcend country and nationality.

“This is about the reign, the kingdom of God, where real wealth is found in the simple basics of life -- enough food, a place to live in peace. These things are what really matter – not war and violence,” she said.

As Sister Duignan continues to worry about Maria, she wonders why more church communities haven’t set up special funds for immigrant families who are being separated by current ICE raids. “We are people of God, and we can all do something to help,” she said in her passionate, breathless, high-speed Irish brogue.

When she began working with refugees in the early 1980’s, she didn’t imagine that 25 years later “there would be so many people in detention centers. Their situation has deteriorated to an unbelievable degree,” she said.

She blames today’s situation on globalization, competition from foreign trade, and political factors that make it impossible for people to earn a decent living in their own country. They come to the United States to be able to feed their families.

Not one of the immigration bills pending in Washington is refugee-friendly, she said.

People who are hostile to immigrants and refugees seem to have forgotten that “we were all refugees at one time,” she said.

Her own exposure to Third World poverty began in 1977 when she went to work in Honduras for L’Arche Community, one of Jean Vanier’s international homes for the developmentally disabled.

She wanted to immerse herself in a Spanish-speaking environment to enhance her skills as a Spanish teacher in a high school operated by her religious community. She stayed at L’Arche for a year, then returned to classroom teaching briefly before enrolling in the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley.

She soon became acquainted with social activists Marilyn Chilcote and Dr. Davida Coady, who were incensed by the U.S. government’s support of right-wing military governments in Guatemala and El Salvador. Because of her facility with languages, she was invited by the two women to return to Honduras to minister among the poor in a refugee camp. It proved to be an eye-opening year.

“The situation was so inhumane, people living on top of each other,” she said.

She heard story after story of children who had witnessed the murder of their parents by military squads. She met old people with memories of their neighbors being locked inside a parish church and then burned to death.

She returned to Berkeley in 1982, and on the second anniversary of the assassination of San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero she joined in with representatives of five churches that publicly declared “sanctuary” and solemnly promised to “support, protect and advocate” on behalf of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their governments’ oppression. The five churches were: St. John’s Presbyterian, Holy Spirit,/Newman Hall, Trinity United Methodist, University Lutheran Chapel and St. Mark Episcopal.

They were part of a national sanctuary movement that began helping Central American refugees after the Reagan administration threw its support behind their repressive governments and refused to grant political asylum to most of these refugees, arguing that they were emigrating for economic reasons.

The East Bay Sanctuary Covenant opened its offices at St. John’s, later moving to a larger space in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church, where its headquarters remain today.

Initially EBSC members raised bond to release a few immigrants from jail. Then they began looking into the legal process of political asylum and other issues facing immigrants. “We do high powered advocacy. We do what we are called to do,” Sister Duignan said.

Each year the Sanctuary provides legal services to more than 2,000 refugees and immigrants, including about 100 asylum seekers. Most legal services are free of charge, but clients frequently make donations.

The cases are handled on a pro bono basis by students from several Bay Area law schools including Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley, Hastings, USF and Golden Gate University. Ninety of the students are from Boalt Hall and each student averages 15 hours a week. “They get the credit and the experience,” said Sister Duignan.

Besides the ongoing legal cases, the Sanctuary staff meets with about 50 walks-ins per day. Many of them are Ethiopians, Eritreans, South Asians and South Americans.

In addition to providing services to immigrants and refugees, East Bay Sanctuary is supporting a rural education project in the Milot/Cap Haitien area of Haiti started during the Aristide presidency by the elected Mayor of Milot, Moise Jean Charles.
Under his leadership, the local peasant association and other community groups created nine schools to serve 2,700 children in the remote areas in which families were too poor to send their children to the very few existing schools.

The Sanctuary is collecting funds for teachers’ salaries, school supplies, construction of latrines, and permanent buildings.

It is also sponsoring a $15,000 project to build a small cinder block medical clinic in Quiche, Guatemala, where hundreds of displaced families there are in urgent need of medical care.



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