Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center hosted a discussion on Tuesday, November 17 entitled, “Refugees and Migrants: Paradoxes in the Age of COVID-19.” The discussion was led by Professor Kristin Heyer of BC’s Theology Department, and featured Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., along with Dr. Alejandro Olayo-Méndez, S.J., and Marjean Perhot, the Divisional Director for Refugee and Immigration Services for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of “normal” life, from lines at stores to remote learning and social distancing. What many often go overlooked is the effect this pandemic has had on persons on the move, especially how it has negatively—and, in some cases positively—affected migrants and refugees around the world.
Cardinal Czerny has spent much of his life advocating for, “vulnerable people on the move,” which led Pope Francis to appoint him Under-Secretary for Migrants and Refugees at the Vatican. His primary role in this position is aiding the Church in best meeting the needs of displaced people, including migrants, refugees, victims of human trafficking, internally displaced peoples, and asylum seekers.
Cardinal Czerny commissioned the sculpture Angels Unawares by Timothy Schmalz, a replica of which can now be found outside O’Neill library. The statue recognizes the significance of migrations across human history, putting faces to the sometimes ignored situation of refugees.
“The word ‘crisis’ tends to paralyze,” Cardinal Czerny explained, “as it’s not something that ordinary people think they can do anything about.”
When refugees’ and migrants’ issues are presented as a human problem, as Cardinal Czerny argued, people tend to, “step up to the plate,” and actually do something to bring about positive change.
Regarding the current pandemic that stretches to every corner of the globe, Cardinal Czerny was quick to point out that some good things have come out of this otherwise difficult time. For example, many nations have closed their detention centers and allowed migrants to be given their own spaces and residences.
Nonetheless, the problems that have been posed by the pandemic are severe, and Cardinal Czerny was adamant in his belief that any response must include considerations for the concerns of the neediest, echoing Pope Francis and the Church’s teachings from the Second Vatican Council.
Dr. Olayo-Méndez related the events of the pandemic to his personal experience working along the U.S./Mexico border. Even before COVID-19, many migrants along the border were disheartened by the slow speed at which people were allowed into the U.S., and the pandemic has only made this issue worse.
“[COVID-19] has pushed people to make decisions to move in even more dangerous and more vulnerable situations, but the long stay of people and lack of resources is putting a strain on the local communities trying to provide a response,” he emphasized.
Many of the organizations that provide aid to migrants are run locally, including faith-based groups and community outreach programs. With most government resources going to combat the pandemic, this is a more daunting task than ever.
Dr. Olayo-Méndez stressed the need for common people to, “find their own peripheries,” and, “be moved to act,” in one’s community to help include marginalized and needy individuals.
Ms. Perhot took the situation of migrants and refugees often described as some far-away issue and related it back to local communities, especially those in and around Boston. Early on, many governments used COVID-19 to bar migrants from seeking asylum, leading many families to remain separated who expected relatives to make the difficult journey to the U.S.
However, many people were still able to enter the U.S., and Catholic Charities had to face many challenges in housing 91% of their expected migrant arrivals during the height of the pandemic, without much of the government infrastructure that would usually help ease the logistical burdens associated with this process. Ms. Perhot explained that though difficult, it was extremely rewarding to help welcome people to their new homes, reunite families, and aid them in learning how to live during the pandemic.
Ms. Perhot and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston stress that there are a number of ways that people can help close to home. Reaching out to individuals facing injustices is a crucial step, along with advocacy on social media. Catholic Charities has also established the Parishes/People Organized to Welcome Immigrants and Refugees (POWIR) Program as a way for individuals to get in touch with and aid immigrants and refugees in the Boston community. Another way to help offered was to join the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice For Immigrants (JFI) Network, along with donating to local organizations aiding migrants and refugees.