Shifting Needs -- Catholic Charities Alters Focus to Hispanic Aid

Article excerpt

Hassan Osman packed up his desk in the refugee department at Catholic Charities of West Tennessee, walked up a single flight of stairs to the immigration department and then unpacked, bringing the organization's 40-year history of resettling refugees to a close in under two hours.

Since August, the charity responsible for helping some 7,000 people find new homes in Memphis after fleeing violence, persecution and catastrophe around the world has turned its focus instead to the needs of the swelling Hispanic community in West Tennessee.

I think clearly there was a need identified by the pastors of so many of the Catholic parishes that the Hispanic community was in fact growing and had needs that just weren't being met, said Mike Allen, president of Catholic Charities of West Tennessee.

The decision to shift resources from refugee resettlement toward offering other immigration assistance was made last year, Allen said, but it wasn't until August that the organization officially closed up shop.

Since then, the task of helping transition the roughly 300 refugees that arrive in Memphis each year has been taken up by Catholic Charities of Nashville whose staff moved into the office space vacated by Osman and his colleagues and World Relief, which is also based in Nashville but has opened a small outpost in Memphis.

It was a relatively seamless transition, Allen said. To our clients, it may almost be invisible.

Although Allen hopes to eventually bring on at least two other full-time immigration case workers within the year, Osman is currently the only one and much of his job thus far has entailed reaching out to the Hispanic community to get the word out about Catholic Charities' new, low-cost immigration assistance.

Trusting officials can be a big concern for immigrants whether they are documented or undocumented, Allen said. Particularly in the Hispanic community, so many are already Christian to begin with that there's an element of trust that already exists.

Although the U.S. Census puts Shelby County's Hispanic population at just under 55,000, Ivette Baldizon, who serves as the Hispanic affairs assistant for County Mayor Mark Luttrell, said the numbers have been growing steadily over the past several years and that 150,000 would be a more accurate figure.

There is a huge need for the kind of services that Catholic Charities is offering, Baldizon said.

They are doing a great thing in trying to accommodate a community that's not being served at all, Baldizon said. …