As a long standing agnostic with more than a little atheistic leanings, it was difficult to reconcile working with Catholic Charities, not in particular to Catholicism, but in general to religion. But with the increasing pressure put on refugees and the organizations that serve them, it became imperative to swallow my pride and at least look into it. I was pleasantly surprised. The people at Catholic Charities are committed to helping those in need of refuge above and beyond any direct religious agenda. In fact, as a volunteer you are asked to sign a form stating that you will not proselytize to any refuges, and that religious conversation is largely discouraged.
Enter Shelley Dewig. Dewig is the Capacity and Outreach coordinator for the organization in Louisville and she has a lot to say. On April 20th, Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services is hosting a Stand with Refugees benefit, which is meant in their own words as a “night of international cuisine, local art, and live music as we celebrate the contributions of refugees in the Louisville community.” If you’re interested in participating in the event, go here or here for more contact info.
We caught up to Dewig to ask about her work with refugees, the rigors of the process, and her favorite TV!
Never Nervous: If you don’t mind, tell us what you do at Catholic Charities. What is your job title in specific and how did you get involved?
Shelley Dewig: I am the capacity and outreach coordinator, and I am responsible for ensuring that all of our departments work as efficiently as possible through volunteers and monetary/in kind donations. To that end, I organize events/fundraisers, and engage in advocacy work for the agency. I began working with refugees as an Americorps VISTA in 2007 for a refugee resettlement agency, and I fell in love with the work. I left it for many years and then began working at Catholic Charities as the Cuban Haitian case manager in 2014 and have been here since!
NN: How can anyone else get involved if they’re interested?
SD: There are so many ways! They can volunteer in any capacity they would like. We have many committed volunteers and we have those who can only help once in a while. We have opportunities for those who want to work with people or for those who want to help behind the scenes. I invite them to come to our special events like the Stand with Refugees benefit night on April 20 at the Tim Faulkner gallery to learn more about what we do. And of course, all are invited to learn about all of our programs at our volunteer orientation the first Wed of every month at 5:30pm at 2911 South Fourth Street, our main office (next one is April 5).
NN: Is Catholic Charities a partisan organization? Do you have to be Catholic to participate? Is there any underlying agenda pushed in helping others? Are people of different or no faith welcome to contribute?
SD: Catholic Charities is a non-profit organization whose goal is to ensure self-sufficiency for refugees fleeing persecution and war. Most of our staff members and nearly all of our clients are neither Christian nor Catholic. In fact, we have a very strict “No Proselytization” policy that we must adhere to for all staff and volunteers. Faith can be a motivating factor for some who volunteer or work with refugees, but it is often a traumatizing subject for our clients. This is why we take the extra step to make sure the community understands that while we are very grateful and humbled to be part of the Archdiocese of Louisville and to be a Catholic social service agency, under no circumstances is the topic of faith ever approached when providing services to our clients.
“We have a very strict ‘No Proselytization’ policy that we must adhere to for all staff and volunteers. Faith can be a motivating factor for some who volunteer or work with refugees, but it is often a traumatizing subject for our clients.”
NN: Can you identify what is meant by the term “refugee” versus an “immigrant?” Is there an appreciable difference in the process to come to the United States between the two?
SD: There is definitely a difference. Refugees as defined by the UN are people who have fled persecution and/or violence due to their race, ethnicity, political opinion and/or religion. Immigrants are people who have been able to choose to leave their country of origin to pursue educational, employment or tourism options and usually come temporarily. Refugees are people who cannot leave their resettled country (like the US) until they are American citizens. Refugees go through a much stricter screening process than immigrants as well.
NN: How would you describe the pre-existing (i.e. pre-Trump administration) immigration practices? Were they [rigorous] and diligent?
SD: The security vetting process for refugees is the strictest process the US has for any of its immigrant populations. The process starts with interviews completed by agencies within the UN High Commission for Refugees who ensure that all information presented is accurate through a system of checks. Our clients must repeat very harrowing tales of their struggles numerous times and include specific dates, locations and names as they prove that they qualify for refugee status. If they are from the Middle East, they receive an iris scan which is entered in databases to be sure they have no known links to terrorism. The Dept. of State, Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center all perform their own sets of background checks. The USCIS does fingerprints of all refugees entering the country. All refugees receive a medical screening to ensure they have no communicable diseases. Finally they receive cultural orientations and one last set of checks from the Transportation Security Agency and the Customs and Border Patrol before entering the US.
NN: In what ways could the system, current or previous, bear improvement?
SD: I think the system was/is incredibly efficient and safeguards against any chance of those with terrorism aspirations from entering our country.
NN: What kind of difficulties do newly emigrated refugees face when moving to the United States? What about in specific to Louisville?
SD: Transportation and language are among the biggest difficulties. In Louisville specifically, the TARC system, while very beneficial, is not as comprehensive as it could be to get our clients to where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time. Clients find out very quickly to get to work on time and to even have the possibility of better, more high paying jobs that they will need a car. In addition, most of our clients come with limited English. They fortunately learn the language remarkably quickly, but the language barrier can prevent them from moving up in their jobs or buying a home, etc. We work very hard to ensure our clients receive a good foundation of knowledge in both regards.
NN: What can you tell us about Stand with Refugees night? What should we expect from the event? How is any money raised used to help new refugees?
SD: This is the kick off to our Stand with Refugees fundraising campaign that we created as a response to the national refugee program cuts. It will be on Thurs. April 20 from 6:00-10:00pm at the Tim Faulkner gallery on Portland Ave. It will feature local musicians, internationally themed food from Vietnam Kitchen, Chick’N and Mi, Farm to Fork and Common Table, raffle prizes, refugee art for sale, an exhibition of refugee portraits and a cultural immersion experience. We will have different refugee groups represented who will be dancing, singing, making jewelry, etc. and will educate the guests about their home cultures.
NN: How often do you all host events? What are the stresses/logistical concerns that goes into putting on a good fundraiser?
SD: We typically host a sizeable event every 1-2 months whether that is our World Refugee Day celebration, Thanksgiving dinner or our agency wide fundraiser Celebration for Spirit and Success. Timing is perhaps the biggest logistical piece that must be worked out as one needs time to plan an event, see it to fruition, and complete the follow up while looking to the next event. It’s not an easy piece to juggle!
NN: If you could communicate any one thing to the community, global or local, what would it be and why?
“Louisville has literally grown, because of our refugee resettlement agencies, and we are better for it.”
SD: Refugees are your doctors, lawyers, neighbors, brothers and sisters. Refugees are exactly like you and me and deserve a chance to work and live in this community. Louisville has literally grown, because of our refugee resettlement agencies, and we are better for it.
NN: What are some of your biggest take aways dealing with incoming refugee families? What have you learned and how has it shaped you? What do you hope other people take away from dealing with the refugee community?
SD: This is a very tough but at the same time, an easy question. I have worked with refugees in different ways for many years in my adult life. I have never met people who are more resilient than refugees. I never knew what the human spirit was capable of until, for instance, I met an Iraqi man who was still jovial and could make jokes, but who had lost everything from his home to his family. I never knew the horrors that war and conflict could inflict on humans and how senseless it all is until I met refugees. Most of all, however, I want people to know that “refugee” is a just a word that we use to label people who have experienced unimaginable tragedy, but they are still just that: people. Like I said, they are teachers, bartenders, actors and singers. They are us.
NN: Outside of that, what do you do for fun? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drunk anything worth mentioning lately?
SD: I have a 9 month old son, so basically I just watch him for hours on end, and he is definitely more entertaining than most TV shows or movies I could name ;D Besides him though, I am a bit behind on the times, but I just finished Stranger Things on Netflix not too long ago. One of the best shows I have seen for sure!
NN: What are your top three favorite albums and why?
SD: As my jazz/classical/funk loving husband would attest to and probably lament, my musical taste is pretty simple and more pop focused. My top 3 albums would probably be any of Coldplay’s (A Rush of Blood to the Head and X&Y specifically), Regina Spektor’s Far, and Ingrid Michaelson’s Be OK. They all help me reminisce about my college days that were filled with emotion, looking to the future and big plans! Ha!