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Iowa City Catholic Worker House helps refugee families

Catholic Worker House provides housing, legal aid to immigrants seeking asylum

Volunteers and activists from Catholic Worker House and Citizens for Community Improvement fill a conference room at Congressman Dave Loebsack's office waiting for a call with a staffer in Iowa City to deliver a letter regarding the immigration detention centers on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Volunteers and activists from Catholic Worker House and Citizens for Community Improvement fill a conference room at Congressman Dave Loebsack's office waiting for a call with a staffer in Iowa City to deliver a letter regarding the immigration detention centers on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — For Diego de Jesus Ayestas Romero, going from Honduras to the United States came at a high cost.

His daughter, Carla Maria, died in the family’s first attempt in November as part of the migrant caravan. The second attempt with his wife and 1 1/2-year old son took almost two months before entering the U.S. on July 7.

Since Thursday, Ayestas Romero and his family have been in Iowa City while they go through the process of seeking asylum. It’s part of the Iowa City Catholic Worker House’s effort to support refugees seeking asylum in the United States.

“It’s a great help because for us, we don’t have family (in the United States) to help us like others,” Ayestas Romero said in Spanish. “They’ve helped with all of our needs very well.”

The Catholic Worker House has raised $20,512 as of Monday afternoon to provide housing and legal assistance to families of refugees. Ten-thousand of those dollars came from a grant earlier this year from a group of Franciscan Sisters. The rest has been crowdfunded through Fundrazr with an average donation of $116.80. One anonymous donor gave $5,000 two weeks ago, per the Fundrazr website. Other donors give $20.

Mark Petterson, a volunteer at Catholic Worker House, said 100 percent of the donations will go “to the greatest need” because there is no paid staff and no overhead costs. His official title, like the rest of the volunteers, is community member.

After the arrival of Ayestas Romero’s family, the Catholic Worker House now houses 10 refugees. Other families are from Honduras and El Salvador.

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Sixty-two percent of the Honduran population live below the poverty line, and 29 percent of El Salvador live below the poverty line. The U.S. State Department also has issued a Level Three travel advisory for Honduras because of the risk of crime, recommending travelers to change plans. The advisory tells people to “exercise caution” using cellphones in public areas or inside stopped cars and avoid walking or driving at night.

“The (10) folks who are my friends and who are living in the Catholic Worker House right now did not leave their homes because they wanted to,” Petterson said.

Petterson said the exact process of releasing refugees varies, but the Catholic Worker House’s agreement to house them is vital to their release from detention centers across the southern border.

Ayestas Romero spent 15 hours in an immigration detention facility in Texas. He described the quality of the facility he was in as very good and different from the ones seen in a lot of media reports.

The Catholic Worker House also helps the refugees through the complications of the legal system for asylum-seekers.

“The immigration system did not make it cheap to apply for asylum, which is a disgrace,” Petterson said. “It’s also not very simple and not very short. It takes a long time.”

Petterson has been “very involved” with the Catholic Worker House since December and “somewhat involved” for the past year. He described the crisis as a spiritual and moral imperative. His work varies from making contact with potential donors to trying to fit air conditioners into windows.

But Catholic Worker House is not the only group taking action on the immigration crisis. The Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project raises money to pay bail for detained refugees.

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“We bond people out of detention to protest and resist unfair policies, to keep families together and to mitigate the damage of our immigration enforcement system does to the health and strength of Iowa communities,” the website says.

Petterson said the support for Catholic Worker House and Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project shows what it means to be “a community that welcomes the stranger.”

“It’s not just being Iowa nice and saying, ‘Welcome stranger,’” Petterson said. “And it’s not just sharing a meal, and it’s not just giving a bed.”

He believes the outreach makes a statement about how people in Iowa City feel about the Trump administration’s policies.

“What we’re hearing from national leaders (is) that we’re going to build walls and keep people out,” Petterson said. “The Eastern Iowa community is saying, ‘No, actually we want to build bridges, and we want to invite people in and invite people to our city and invite people to our state rather than putting people in concentration camps.”

Along with housing refugees, the Iowa City Catholic Worker House also has protested local legislators’ actions. On Tuesday, a group of about 30 people visited Rep. Dave Loebsack’s office with hopes that Loebsack “repents” with them and works to “close the camps, abolish ICE, end the deportations and detentions and stop the violence,” as stated in a letter read to the congressman’s staff. Signs said, “Immigrants deserve justice, not ICE.”

Even after raising the $20,512, Petterson said there’s still plenty of demand for the Catholic Worker House’s resources.

Patterson said the Catholic Worker House is having to get creative with space for refugees. If more families like Ayestas Romero ask for help, Petterson said the Catholic Worker House won’t be saying no because of a lack of space.

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“The needs are there,” Petterson said. “We’re not going to turn people away for lack of space.”

l Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

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