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The Refugee Story, Part 2: Finding Opportunity

Eileen Pace
As Hisham Batar, a former refugee himself, points out--the new arrivals never stop coming.

Almost 10,000 refugees have arrived in San Antonio over the past decade, many of whom might otherwise have died in their home countries or in refugee camps.

Credit Eileen Pace
Rwandan immigrants perform a native dance at the 2013 International Gala for Catholic Charities in October

Although many come without a command of English, or job skills, there are stories of hope among the new arrivals.

The civilian death toll from the Sudanese Civil War was one of the highest since World War II.  The government forced boys into battle, so Hisham Batar fled his home country in 1992.

“I was about 16 years [old] at the time. I escaped from my country. I went to Egypt and from Egypt, I went to India.”

Batar lived in refugee camps for years before he was accepted into the U.S. in 2000. He became first a client of Catholic Charities, and later a caseworker after earning master’s degree from UTSA. He then earned a promotion to director of Catholic Charities' Refugee Program.

Batar’s story is similar to many who have escaped conditions in their home countries.

They refugees keep coming. Batar shows off a floor-to-ceiling chart that outlines the expected dates of arrival as given to Catholic Charities by the State Department. “A family of twelve is coming on the 30th..." he says, pointing out the schedule.

Catholic Charities arranges for housing, medical exams, enrollment in the food stamp program, and job interviews.

“We have the highest employment rate in the whole nation – all over the United States," he says. "We’re the largest program, and we have 98% employment outcomes.”

But Batar adds Catholic Charities’ program is successful not just because it helps with those first jobs, but because it helps refugees become self-sufficient.

Aculturation is a big part of that.

“You’re making more money,” a volunteer tells one of the students at a mock yard sale at the House of Prayer Lutheran Church in northwest San Antonio.

Mary Porter, a volunteer instructor in the church's English-as-a-second-language class, says the yard sale helps new refugees learn the American monetary system.

“These students are basic students. They’ve just arrived in the United States and are just learning English. So they are really experiencing a lot of shock in first coming to the United States,” Porter says. “We try to make them feel comfortable, try to get them to know each other, and try to get them talking because they have to speak English to survive.”

It’s a crash course. The refugees have only six months of government assistance before they must provide their own money for food and shelter, transportation and clothing.

“I can’t imagine myself being able to do that in such a short amount of time,” Porter says.

Next in this series, learn how public schools educate refugee children in San Antonio.