Catholic Charities Hearing Puts Face on Poverty: Meeting Sets Agency's Social Policy Lobbying Priorities for 2004
Moran, Tim, National Catholic Reporter
Martin Malook Dek showed poise and quiet confidence. They were no doubt the same qualities that had helped the young Sudanese man survive in a Kenyan refugee camp.
"What I will talk of is what I experienced in my life, and how life was terrible during that time," he calmly said to the Social Policy Committee of Catholic Charities USA gathered in a downtown Detroit hotel ballroom, far from Third World chaos and conflict.
Dek outlined a situation so desperate that fellow refugees ran after him as he left, crying and asking what they could do to join him. Life in refugee camps is "very serious," he said.
"You can stay two, three days without food. You drink dirty water There is no hope. You feel like dying."
His testimony brought an expectant, focused hush to the 75 or more audience members gathered for the legislative hearing. They pushed their attention forward like toddlers being told a gripping story. But Dek's refugee story was only one among many earnest pleas for social policy focus in the year to come.
Olivia Faries, program manager for the Richmond, Va.-based Commonwealth Catholic Charities, said that although government approval came for up to 50,000 refugees to enter the United States this year; paperwork and approval backlogs mean that no more than about 25,000 will be able to enter. She called on board members to lobby for a boost in the limit to 70,000 for 2004 with the hope that more approvals would be made.
"They are languishing; some are dying," she said of refugees waiting for the chance to travel here, and of undocumented immigrants willing to take any risk to enter the United States.
There was no question that the status of refugees and concern over international human trafficking had an impact on the panel--but so did other issues, including hunger and homelessness, rural health care, psychiatric intervention for children abandoned by society and ill-fitted for foster care, and issues of aging and services to support people in economically marginal, end-of-life situations.
"I'm sure from what we heard today, some of our Level I priorities are going to be different from last year," said Joseph Duffy, who chaired the hearing Sept. 13.
The legislative hearing is the first and major step in gathering information for the Catholic Charities policy board meeting in November, said Sharon Daly, vice president of social policy for the organization. Information from the hearing is used to set the agenda of social policy issues that will be lobbied to government officials in the 2004 calendar year. Duffy explained that, following board consideration of the testimony and other input, legislative priorities ranging from Level 1 through Level 3 will be set for the many issues--all with an emphasis on the dignity of individuals, the need for the church to speak authoritatively for the interests of the poor, and with a realistic goal of knowing what can be done in the short term to impact long-term decisions.
One of the 2003 priorities, for example, was a push to avoid reauthorization of the 1996 legislation that created the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. …