“We used to do this with flour back in Africa,” the wiry girl squatting in the sandbox says. She feeds scoops of sand through a small plastic mill, her brown eyes fixed on the apparatus. Without looking up from her work, she tells me about her life in Zambia.
Nadine is a refugee: a person who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are 10.4 million refugees in the world. Of the more than 60,000 refugees who come to the United States every year, approximately 1 percent —about 600 to 800 people—settle in Rochester. Most refugees arrive in their new homes on Saturdays. They are placed in a house, told information by a caseworker, and sometimes given a few staple grocery items. On Monday morning, if they are lucky, the newly arrived are brought by more established refugees to Mary’s Place Refugee Outreach Center.
Since its establishment in January 2009, Mary’s Place has become invaluable to Rochester’s refugee population. It provides a plethora of resources: food, English lessons, tutoring, tuition assistance, caseworkers, Green Card and citizenship services — the list goes on. Moreover, it offers a sense of community to those who are so far from their own.
“Part of our tagline is that we’re a family, but we really are,” Rochester AmeriCorps VISTA fellow Amanda Gilbert says. “We’re always looking out for each other.”
Mary’s Place is housed in the former sanctuary of Holy Rosary Church in the Maplewood neighborhood. The pews have been cleared away; the space has been divided into sections. Signs and drawings adorn the partitions. Tables surround a television that is almost always set to the Disney Channel. Lessons from the day’s earlier English class (attended daily by about 80 people) are scribbled on the white boards. Well-worn toys litter the floor of the play area, haphazardly discarded as the kids enter and leave the building.
As I write my name on the volunteer log near the entrance, I am approached by a group of girls. Like dinner party hostesses welcoming a latecomer, they grab my hand and begin filling me in on their latest news (Deavion is doing cheerleading; Akon is selling magazines for a fundraiser). It’s a beautiful sunny day. They want to go outside, but they must first ask permission from “Miss Kathy.”
“Miss Kathy” is Kathy LaBue, a youthful 73-year-old with short, snowy hair, round glasses, and a generous smile. LaBue is the driving force behind Mary’s Place, serving as both director and co-founder. She works from a little before noon until well past 7 p.m. all five days that Mary’s Place is open each week. As we stand outside the front steps of the church, LaBue explains to me that Mary’s Place is the brainchild of a committee of six people from Sacred Heart Cathedral who wanted to give back to the community.
“We noticed the Burmese refugees walking up and down Dewey Avenue wearing flip-flops and wrapped in sheets in the middle of winter,” LaBue says. “We opened to give them boots and coats that we collected from our friends.”
Word about the organization spread to neighboring congregations, and support grew. When a need arose for blankets, Mary’s Place began distributing blankets. When it was noticed that the children of the refugees were hungry, they began giving out food. From there, the aid expanded to English lessons then Green Card assistance. The organization quickly outgrew its initial space (three small rooms in the adjacent building), eventually occupying the entire building before moving to its current sanctuary in February 2013.
“No one expected it to grow the way it did,” LaBue says. “There was no expectation of the need.”
Mary’s Place focuses on guiding the 300-500 families it now assists annually on the path to self-sufficiency. This path is longer for some than others. For example, some of the refugees, particularly from Burma, spend decades in the notorious refugee camps. They arrive in the United States without what many would consider basic skills. Mary’s Place immediately begins teaching them how to flush a toilet, close a door, or work a thermostat. After learning these skills, they move to mastering English and becoming legal residents. Within two years, a majority of the adults are employed.
From her perch in the sandbox, Nadine tells me that sometimes she went to school in Zambia, but oftentimes she didn’t. Instead of pencils and paper, she used sticks and dirt. She traces her finger in the sand to demonstrate. Substandard or a nonexistent education in their home countries is the norm for many of the youth at Mary’s Place. Many do not know any English when they arrive in the United States. Mary’s Place works to teach them basic English and place them in schools as quickly as possible. The students can seek homework help after school from retired teachers and local high school and university students. This corps of volunteers return day after day and week after week for years.
“I love being able to seeing how the children develop and the opportunities they get to have through Mary’s Place,” junior and volunteer Rachel Niu says before 16-year-old South Sudanese refugee Awal tackles her in a bear hug.
This summer, with a wide, full-toothed grin, Nadine told me she would be going to seventh grade at Bishop Kearney, a Catholic middle and high school. She joins 10 other Mary’s Place students who are enrolled at private institutions. At least 20 former students are attending college.
“A couple years ago, we had the graduating class of 18, and they all went to college,” LaBue says. She beams and repeats, as if to herself, “And they all went to college.”
There are obstacles among the achievements, the foremost of which is fundraising.
“I would like to be able to do more,” LaBue says. “But we can’t spend money that we don’t have.”
It now costs $16,000 a year to run Mary’s Place; at its founding, it cost $9,000. The Cathedral Community pays the rent on the building. Foodlink, a local hunger relief center, donates 1,000-2,000 pounds of fresh food. The remaining cost (including the children’s private school tuition) is funded entirely by donations. Mary’s Place is staffed almost entirely by volunteers. There is a constant need for not only more money, but more hands and hearts. Then there are the struggles that refugees face in transitioning to their new lives.
“It’s not like once they get here [to the U.S.] their problems are solved,” part-time employee and former volunteer Cara Breslin says. “They just get a whole new set of problems on top of their old problems.”
A father and son were mugged at a bus stop and their green cards were stolen — it costs $450 to replace each one. A man got bedbugs after picking up a mattress from the side of the road.
“I was talking with a refugee who was struggling with a lot of paperwork for benefits and stuff, and he said to me that coming to the U.S. was a second war,” Breslin says. “The first war in Burma was the land mines and the soldiers and stuff like that, and the second is the language barriers and the prejudices.”
Despite these hurdles, Mary’s Place persists. Its triumphs go beyond the amount of resources it offers, the number of students it gets into college, the quantity of adults it teaches English. Perhaps its most valuable impact is in the unquantifiable influence it has made in the lives of the people who have been involved with it. Many of the refugees, especially those who have been coming for the past four years, have made some of their closest relationships at Mary’s Place. The kids have started school, learned to cook, and grown up.
“My favorite part is just hanging out with friends and helping out with kids,” Awal says. Others nod in agreement.
Outside, the kids are playing tag. Screams and laughter fill the air. Six-year-old Jackie from Zambia and Hafashimana, 10, of Tanzania run over to me. I ask if they like Mary’s Place and they both enthusiastically nod. I ask if they like the United States.
“Home was nice because we got to eat outside and it was hot,” Hafashimana says, “but here is nice too because there aren’t killings.”
She flashes me a smile before running off to rejoin the game. I shake my head and recall something that Breslin had said earlier.
“You’re going to end up learning a lot more from the people here than what you’re going to be able to give them,” she says. “And that is completely OK.”
Hansler is a member of the class of 2015.