CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF ATLANTA’S “REFUGEE CAMP IMMERSION PROJECT”: FOSTERING AWARENESS AND INSPIRING SERVICE TO REFUGEES IN GREATER ATLANTA
Across the United States, Catholic Charities resettles thousands of refugees each year. Among other services, it helps new refugee arrivals find housing, employment, and health care, and helps their children enroll in school. Many local chapters of Catholic Charities also work tirelessly to educate their communities about refugees and asylum seekers and build a narrative of compassion and inclusion. To this end, Catholic Charities of Atlanta (CCA) has developed several innovative initiatives that have introduced thousands of Atlantans to the challenges refugees face and have inspired many young people to serve refugees in their communities.
CCA regularly organizes “mock refugee camps” in Atlanta-area schools in order to teach children and teenagers about refugees’ lives as well as the resettlement process. CCA launched this program, the “Refugee Camp Immersion Project” (RCIP), in 2012 with the support of the US Council of Catholic Bishops’ “Parishes Organized to Welcome Refugees” programs and the Nissan Foundation. These mock camps are staffed by CCA employees and volunteers, many of whom are refugees themselves. Walking through simulated refugee camps, students learn who refugees are, where they come from, and about the persecution that led them to flee their homelands. They also learn about the conditions in refugee camps and the process of refugee resettlement, including the experience of arriving in a new country, finding a place to live, and of integrating into US society and becoming an American citizen. In light of the Trump administration’s rhetoric portraying refugees as a security threat, CCA has also begun to walk students through refugee security screening procedures.
The immersion experience lasts a full school day. In addition, CCA staff members visit schools in advance in order to educate students about refugees and pique their interest and awareness prior to visiting the mock refugee camp. During these visits, CCA staff and volunteers highlight the number of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons across the globe, stress the importance of resettlement, and discuss refugee resettlement in the United States and in the Atlanta metro area. They also highlight how schools and students can get involved in Catholic Charities’ work. Several schools also developed week-long modules to teach children about refugees prior to the refugee camp immersion experience. One school also required children to track their water intake in order to raise their awareness of many refugees’ lack of access to drinking water and sanitation.
CCA organizes refugee camp immersion days at one to two elementary and high schools each year. Most, but not all, of these schools are Catholic, and an average of 300 students participate in each mock refugee camp experience. CCA also put on a shorter version of the program for 30,000 people at the 2018 Georgia Eucharistic Congress.
The RCIP has deeply impacted its participants and has inspired many schools and students to support refugees. Rose Maksimowski, the former religion coordinator of Christ the King School, noted that the refugee camp immersion “impacted our students in a very concrete way. They will never forget your RCIP presentation. Several of our teachers commented that this was the most important presentation that we had for students all year.”
Several schools that participated in the project have organized donation drives aimed at helping new refugee arrivals set up their apartments. One school organized a “Chest of Drawers” project where students filled chests of drawers with gifts for refugee children their own age. Another created an education and advocacy course which trained students to advocate on behalf of refugees among other students and within their communities.
Students at the Marist School in Brookhaven, Georgia were so inspired by RCIP that they founded a “Share the Journey” Club dedicated to serving refugees and raising awareness of their struggles. On May 18, 2018, the club organized a Prayer Pilgrimage in which Marist students, teachers, and Catholic Charities staff walked five miles between St. Thomas More Parish in Decatur, Georgia, and Refugee Coffee in Clarkston, Georgia, an area where many refugees have been resettled. Abby Testani, a Marist student, called this event a “way to stand in solidarity with refugees and migrants everywhere.”
CCA publicizes its Refugee Camp Immersion Project at numerous venues across the metro area. It has presented the project at Catholic school principals’ meetings as well as parishes, social justice ministries, and adult formation ministries across North Georgia. It has also circulates flyers at parishes in the community.
In addition to the Refugee Camp Immersion Project, CCA regularly seeks to lift up refugees’ stories. In response to the Trump administration’s January 2017 executive order banning refugee admissions for 120 days, CCA launched a campaign called “120 Stories in 120 Days.” On each of the 120 days of the initial refugee moratorium, CCA published the story of a refugee affected by the ban. This campaign sought to counter the Trump administration’s narrative of fear by teaching the public about refugees’ lives and dreams of a better future for themselves and their children. In total, these stories have been viewed 4,500 times. In addition to this project, Catholic Charities also participated in an interfaith service in Clarkston, Georgia, where refugees shared their personal stories.
CCA also participates in the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies, a group of 17 nonprofits that support refugees in Georgia. The Coalition organizes an annual “New American Celebration” at the Georgia state capitol which lifts up refugees’ stories and empowers them to advocate for their communities. The 2018 celebration took place on February 12 and drew between 300 and 400 participants. It featured testimonies by a Syrian refugee entrepreneur, a refugee from Iraq pursuing higher education in the United States, and an asylee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had just received US citizenship and voted for the first time. At the celebration, CCA staff and volunteers taught refugees how to advocate for themselves and their communities and how to contact legislators. They also discussed bills and policies that affect refugees and their communities.
CCA’s innovative programs have introduced thousands of Atlantans to the plight of refugees and have inspired many to serve refugees in their communities. CCA also works tirelessly to empower refugees and teach them to advocate for their communities. For more information about CCA, contact Frances McBrayer, Senior Director of Refugee Services, at FMcBrayer@catholiccharitiesatlanta.org.