Volunteers help refugees transition, find family support
By Effie Caldarola

.- In Anchorage, Catholic Social Services is committed to living out the Gospel mandate, in which Jesus called his followers to welcome the stranger. This is a blessing for people like the Kafley family, who fled the terrors of ethnic cleansing in their homeland of Bhutan in the Eastern Himalayas.

"The government of Bhutan was trying to rid Bhutan of people of Nepalese origin," explained Patrick Pillai, who mentors the Kafleys through a CSS program. "People were fleeing the country, but Nepal did not want to accept them all because it would sanction the persecution."

As the official refugee resettlement agency for Alaska, CSS is commissioned to receive people who can no longer live in their own country due to political or religious persecution, war, famine, ethnic cleansing and a host of other woes. If Alaska has been chosen as their destination from among those sent by the United Nations to the U.S., CSS does the work of acclimating them to their new homeland. Fortunately there are many volunteers, including Patrick and Vani Pillai, the Kafleys’ mentors.

The Kafley family, and thousands of others, were put in United Nations-sponsored refugee camps in Nepal. Of their four children, all but the oldest son were born in the camp, where they awaited their fate.

After 19 years in the camp, cooking over a fire and living in a makeshift bamboo house, the Kafleys have been given the chance to make a new home in Alaska.

"The oldest son, Prakash, came to Alaska first," said Pillai. "To show how uncertain were their lives, the family packed him up with a metal can in case he would need it to draw drinking water in his new home, just like they had to do in the camp."

"Other than the plane, Prakash had never worn a seat belt. He’d never used a stove or a refrigerator," said Pillai. "I remember when I first showed him how to use the toaster, we both laughed when he jumped as the bread shot up."

When Pillai visited Prakash in his Mountain View apartment, he discovered the young man was afraid to step outside, and had no idea what street signs were. Pillai took him on a long ride around the municipality, map in hand.

Eventually, the rest of the family caught up with Prakash, and the Pillais took them on their first supermarket foray.

"They couldn’t believe there was so much food available," said Pillai. Food had been rationed in the camp, and there was very little meat. The Kafleys were thrilled with the varieties of vegetables.

The Pillais helped them with banking, taught them how to keep their food receipts and budget. They helped them get a debit card and guided them in how to pay their rent.

Karen Ferguson, state refugee coordinator and the program director of CSS’ refugee assistance program, said a mentor is "like an ambassador to life in America and Alaska."

Around six to 12 mentor families may be active at any one time. Last year, CSS welcomed 85 refugees directly from their countries of origin. They came from the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia. This year refugees have included those from Bhutan and Cuba.

As important as mentoring is, Patrick Pillai said it’s also important to know "when to step back to foster independence."

The Kafleys are currently settled into an apartment on Old Seward Highway and preparing for employment. A large percentage of new arrivals find employment within the first year. Pillai said many employers "marvel at the work ethic" of the resettled refugees.

Patrick Pillai felt compelled to volunteer because, although he was never a refugee, he is an immigrant who came to the U.S. from South Africa. Today, he works in administration and his wife is a high school teacher. Their twin daughters are seniors in high school.

"I felt it was time to pay back," said Pillai. And he thought mentoring was a way to help his teenage daughters see the world’s needs up close.

"CSS is a great organization to work with. When you do something like this, it intensifies what a great country this is. If countries like Australia, the U.S. and others didn’t take these people in, they’d be in camps forever."

Printed with permission from CatholicAnchor.org

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