December 17, 2021

Coming to America

Catholic Charities helps Afghan refugees adjust to life in camp, resettle in homes

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson visits with Team Rubicon members supporting Operation Allies Welcome at Camp Atterbury on Nov. 4. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers activities and programs for Afghan guests to boost morale as they await resettlement at Camp Atterbury. This initiative provides essential support at secure locations outside of Afghanistan. The Department of Defense, through U.S. Northern Command, and in support of the Department of Homeland Security, is providing transportation, temporary housing, medical screening and general support for at least 50,000 Afghan evacuees at suitable facilities in permanent or temporary structures as quickly as possible. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Trinity Carter/14th Public Affairs Detachment)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson visits with Team Rubicon members supporting Operation Allies Welcome at Camp Atterbury on Nov. 4. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers activities and programs for Afghan guests to boost morale as they await resettlement at Camp Atterbury. This initiative provides essential support at secure locations outside of Afghanistan. The Department of Defense, through U.S. Northern Command, and in support of the Department of Homeland Security, is providing transportation, temporary housing, medical screening and general support for at least 50,000 Afghan evacuees at suitable facilities in permanent or temporary structures as quickly as possible. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Trinity Carter/14th Public Affairs Detachment)

By John Shaughnessy

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson remembers it as a moment filled with sweetness and joy.

The moment occurred at Camp Atterbury in Johnson County, the place where thousands of refugees from Afghanistan have lived since they fled their country after the United States withdrew all its military troops from their homeland on Aug. 30.

As the archbishop toured the camp on Nov. 4 and viewed the efforts to create a welcoming, temporary home for the refugees at the Indiana National Guard facility, he was touched by a moment when he was greeted with a loud “hello!” from about 40 refugee children who also wanted to shake his hand.

“Interacting with them was certainly a highlight of the visit,” the archbishop recalls. “Although their English was very limited, their smiles and sense of joy were quite inspiring.”

Archbishop Thompson was also impressed by the combined efforts of people from the local and national government—plus military units and religious and charitable organizations—to help make the transition to America as comfortable as possible for the Afghan refugees.

(Related: Catholic Charities seeking donations to help Afghan refugees resettle)

“It is well organized and very humane,” the archbishop says about the camp. “I was impressed with how everyone at the camp referred to the Afghan people as guests.

“They spoke of the transformation that has taken place from the first arrivals until our visit, and how much interaction was taking place among various groups of peoples. They were certainly trying to provide as much safety, care and respect as possible. At one point, they had over 7,000 guests. The number was just more than 5,000 at the time of our visit, as they were working toward resettlement for as many as possible.”

In all, the U.S. Department of Defense, in support of the Department of Homeland Security, is “providing transportation, temporary housing, medical screening and general support for at least 50,000 Afghan evacuees” that have been placed in facilities across the United States, according to government officials.

The efforts to help the refugees at Camp Atterbury—and to resettle them into homes across the country—have involved the staffs at Catholic Charities Indianapolis and Migration Refugee Services, a department of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

About 70 Afghan refugees have already been resettled in the Indiana communities of Indianapolis, Lafayette and Muncie, according to David Bethuram, executive director of Catholic Charities in the archdiocese.

“The first group that is being resettled are Afghans who have U.S. ties,” says Bethuram, who joined Archbishop Thompson on the Nov. 4 tour. “They have been placed near, or with, relatives and friends who are already resettled in that community. The refugees that Catholic Charities Indianapolis will be placing are not all from Camp Atterbury. They will be resettling here from any of the camps across the country.”

Catholic Charities Indianapolis and the USCCB’s Migration Refugee Services have been involved with the efforts at Camp Atterbury since the refugees started arriving there in early September. National government officials asked the two Catholic-based staffs to lead a program focused on the “morale, welfare and recreation” of the refugees.

“We have organized educational and recreational opportunities, such as soccer and basketball, as well as providing supplies and materials for individual activities, including puzzles, coloring books, crayons, hula hoops and yarn and crochet needles,” Bethuram says.

The educational and recreational activities are all part of an overall effort to help the refugees deal with the stress and anxiety of leaving their homeland to begin a new life in a different country.

“Catholic Charities Indianapolis has worked very closely with an art therapy organization that we brought to the camp to work with adults and children in dealing with their stress and trauma that they experienced prior to coming to the U.S.,” Bethuram says.

National government officials have also asked Catholic Charities and Migration Refugee Services to lead a plan that involves training lawyers to help the Afghans with legal and cultural challenges as they transition to life in the United States.

Bethuram says he has been impressed by the dedication of the USCCB workers and volunteers at the camp, noting how they are “deeply invested” in helping the Afghans feel welcomed and safe.

In response, the refugees are “so eager to learn and assimilate in our culture,” he says.

“The Afghan guests have been very receptive to our outreach to help them with their stay in the camp and their preparation to learning more about what will happen when they leave the camp to resettle in their new home and community.

“The children are amazing. They seem so excited to be here and learn more about their future homes, where they’ll live, what the weather is like, etc. The women are very creative and have many skills that will be welcomed in their new homes. The men are excited to work, learn English and support their families.”

About 40% of the Afghans at Camp Atterbury are under the age of 14, he notes. About 42% of the refugees are female.

After meeting some of the refugees and talking with officials at the camp, Archbishop Thompson says he repeatedly heard positive comments about “the witness and efforts of Catholic Charities’ involvement.”

His tour of the camp also reaffirmed how he believes the archdiocese and Catholics in central and southern Indiana should respond to the presence of the Afghan refugees here.

“Even prior to the visit, I was keeping the Afghans and everyone involved at Camp Atterbury in prayer,” the archbishop says.  “However, having that personal contact helps to have some faces and a deeper sense of connectedness with those being lifted up in prayer.

“We must always pray and care for the poor, refugees and the most vulnerable in our midst. Where else do we encounter the person of Jesus Christ in human relationships?” †

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