AMHERST — For the first time in the Refugee Resettlement Program overseen by Springfield’s Catholic Charities, a Congolese family of 10 will be calling Amherst home.
The family, a father and his nine children ranging from school age to young adults, are scheduled to arrive by van at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, Tuesday evening, after earlier landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
When they get to Amherst later that night, joined by a caseworker from Catholic Charities and members of a recently established “circle of care” based at Grace Episcopal Church, they will find that their temporary housing, near town center, is ready for them, with beds, clean towels and linens and plenty of food.
“We are excited to have a new and energetic circle from Amherst,” Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities, said in an email.
Buckley-Brawner said the family is coming from Rwanda.
Heidi Frantz-Dale, who co-chairs the circle of care with her husband, Duane Dale, said Monday that the group was created just three and a half weeks ago when the Rev. Thomas Synan announced the opportunity to welcome a family from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We were told there was a family coming, but didn’t expect them all at once,” Frantz-Dale said, observing that she was only informed Thursday morning to be ready. “That’s not very long,” she said.
But she is confident the volunteers will give the refugees a good welcome, stocking the refrigerator and pantry with beans, rice, fruit and vegetables. In addition to the 15 volunteers, another dozen or so people are registered to handle a variety of tasks. Frantz-Dale said her own home includes donated winter coats of all sizes, knit caps, mittens, and scarves that will be provided to the family so they are prepared for the cold weather ahead.
“The wider community has been extraordinarily generous in offering charity,” Frantz-Dale said. For instance, both the First Congregational and South Congregational churches made contributions following their holiday fairs Saturday.
Over the summer, the most recent of 50 refugees settled in Northampton, including two Congolese families, one of whom had been in a refugee camp in Burundi since 2002. Catholic Charities had set a goal of having 51 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Congo and other countries with refugee crises by the end of 2017, but President Trump’s travel ban interfered with that timeline.
Even though the goal for Northampton was met, it wasn’t definite that Amherst would get to be part of the resettlement project.
“Catholic Charities was interested in getting some people on this side of the river,” Frantz-Dale said. “Whichever side of the river finds housing first would get the family, we were told. We really wanted this family.”
While the capacity for refugees has not necessarily been reached in Northampton, Buckley-Brawner said the agency is trying to be careful, respectful and resourceful as it receives and places families in the Pioneer Valley.
Frantz-Dale anticipates one of the major challenges will be language, with most of the family familiar only with the Kinyarwanda language, though the older children may have some English skills they gained before their time in the refugee camp. Catholic Charities has already arranged for the children to be enrolled in the local public schools.
The circle of care volunteers will help the family get accustomed to Western ways of doing things, as well as driving for groceries and doing other errands.
Synan said he is pleased with the response from church members, noting the core of faith is to look out for and care for the most vulnerable in society, welcoming strangers rather than turning them away.
“This is an important ministry, especially in our world today, when there is rising xenophobia, so much anti-immigration rhetoric, and irrational fear of the stranger,” Synan said.
He said he is encouraging the greater Amherst community to join in the “ministry of radical hospitality.”
Frantz-Dale said there is genuine excitement for the arrival of the family.
“These people have managed to get through all the hoops,” she said. “They’ve essentially won a lottery.”
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.