Aboard a late-night flight out of Los Angeles were two big families from Afghanistan, winging their way to a new life in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The "first family" of five refugees from Burma had spent many years in a refugee camp before being able to come to Oakland. No one spoke English.
The Afghan family, by contrast, is headed by an English-speaking parent who worked as a translator for the U.S. government. The family of 10 includes two parents, and two adult children as well as six minor children.
The opportunity to sponsor a family arriving in early November required a quick decision by the parish, and a leader for the volunteer effort.
"I thought about it, I prayed about it, and I decided I could do this," said Gabriel, who is leading the volunteer effort for the second family. "Having someone in the family that can translate is key to having this much more smoothly run," she said.
Gabriel had met the family's U.S. sponsor during a Catholic Charities picnic for refugee families at the end of the summer. Housing was also pending, with plans for a hotel until housing could be secured.
The immediate hurdle was how to transport 10 people. Medical and dental appointments needed to be made, as well as visits to social services.
The parish is still involved in the journey of the Burmese family. The father now works at a company that makes covers for swimming pools; the mother attends English as a Second Language classes daily, while their toddler goes to a Head Start program. The parish volunteers keep in touch with the older children's school. "The children have come a long way in understanding the language," Gabriel said.
"My heart goes out to them," Gabriel said. "They're eager, and so appreciative."
The first family the Alameda deanery sponsored, facing fewer hurdles because of their proficiency with English language, has remained close to their sponsors. When the Alameda group went to the airport to greet the new family, some members of the first family accompanied the welcoming party.
The mother and father, and their five children —ages 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 — went from the airport to a home in San Leandro, which Anna Rossi, who leads the Alameda deanery's refugee resettlement effort, bought to use as transitional housing.
The first family the Alamedans sponsored lived in the home. When they moved, the sponsors gave them the furnishings. The household was replenished with donations. "Everything from the potato peeler to the beds and TV," Rossi said. The house was stocked with food for a week.
After arrival, the family could be assured of the volunteers' continued presence. "We stay in close contact with the family on a daily basis," she said. The children cannot begin school without medical examinations and vaccinations.
The first week's schedule was packed with visits to social services; medical examinations required for admission to school; shopping; and the park, "so the kids can run around," Rossi said.
Finding a job for the father, who has a bachelor's degree in political science and who worked as an interpreter, is a high priority. A car has been donated, but first up is getting a driver's license. "We have a couple of volunteers who have become experts at teaching driving," Rossi said.
"People have been just remarkable," Rossi said of the volunteers who are making the families at home. About 65 volunteers are involved in the effort. Seven task groups have blossomed to 18 task groups.
"The gift we get is so much bigger than what we give to the refugee family," she said. "Our goal is to accompany them. It's hard to walk away once you do it," she said.
Parishes interested in sponsoring a refugee family may contact Jude Stephens at Catholic Charities of the East Bay at 510-439-4269 or email@example.com.
"In these political times, we all need to take action," Rossi said. "You can't sit back and listen to what's happening to immigrants without taking action."
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