Asylum Seekers Ministry Update -- 12 July 2018
Earlier this week, I took my boys down to Wilmington to visit with the Baceanus. It had been months since the last time I brought the family along on a visit, and Sam and Charlie were excited to spend some time with their friends. Gusti and Suraj have always been so sweet and kind to my boys. They are like big brothers, teaching them soccer tricks, joking around while playing video games, wrestling on the floor like puppies.
When we get to the house, the front door is wide open. It is a hot, sunny day, and the Baceanus are doing their best to keep the air moving inside. They have a window unit air conditioner in the living room, but they try to use it sparingly to keep the electric bill down.
Gusti greets us at the door with a big smile. He asks my boys if they want to play FIFA World Cup on the Playstation. Without cable TV or a computer, the video game console has been a lifeline for Gusti and Suraj, a perfect escape from the stresses of their experience. Soon all four boys are deep into the match, and every so often the house erupts with an exultant cry that needs no translation: “GOOOAAAAAAAL!”
Mirabela is in the kitchen, preparing lunch. When you are a guest in her home, you are also a guest at her table. No matter how spare her own pantry, she sends no one away hungry. Today she is cooking fried chicken and sausage (she makes the links herself), mashed potatoes, eggs, and a salad with tomatoes and feta cheese. I offer to help—she knows that I am the primary cook in my house—but as always, she refuses. Her teasing smile tells me, cook to cook, that I should know better. Small kitchens do not need two cooks.
While she makes everything ready, Marin takes me to their backyard to show me his tomato plants. Last summer Marin told me how much he enjoys gardening. He is very proud of his tomato plants, and I realize that this is something he couldn’t do last year, in the house they used to live in. There, the backyard had no soil to speak of, and the garbage that piled up there from multiple families made it an unsavory place to grow food. This is another blessing, dear supporters, that your generosity has made possible: the gift of a garden.
Before lunch, Marin and I go over some papers together. First, the gas and electric bill which he paid the week before. It was low this month, only $137. I remind him to expect a higher bill next month, especially with the recent heat wave. We also look at the quarterly water bill, which is due toward the end of July. This is a big one, just over $300. Marin tells me about an upcoming day labor job, doing some cleaning and yard work at someone’s home. He thinks there should be 2 or 3 days of work to do, enough to pay the water bill.
When Marin received his Employment Authorization card from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it was a big victory. But the process of finding a job hasn’t been easy. One limiting factor is his schedule: because ISAP, the federal program that monitors immigrants awaiting their hearings, does random home visits on Tuesdays, regular Monday-Friday jobs are out of the question for now. Another is his inability to get a driver’s license. Yet another is the presence of his immigration-issued GPS ankle monitor, which effectively scares off some prospective employers. One of the things I give to Marin during our visit is more copies of my letter of reference, so that he has a document that he can give businesses to help get his foot in the door. Most of us don’t look for work by pounding the pavement anymore, but this is what Marin is doing. His English isn’t perfect, but he knows how to read “Help Wanted.”
Another thing that I give to the Baceanus during our visit is additional copies of their Notice to Appear (NTA) document, along with a reminder that any time they leave the house they should carry a copy of this with them. The NTA is a document from the immigration court listing the names of those whose cases are in process and the next immigration hearing date. Every time you appear before the immigration court, until your case is decided, you receive a new NTA. It is important for immigrants to carry this document at all times, because it is the only proof that you are legally allowed to be here and not “undocumented.” Without this document, a routine traffic stop could very easily turn into detainment.
Soon Mirabela calls us away from the serious stuff and invites us to sit down at the table, which is spread with good things. The smell is delicious. As I sit down, I notice a new picture on the dining room wall. It’s a picture of horses, Marin’s favorite animal. Below the horses there is a quote: “Lord, be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning . . .” It’s from the Bible, Isaiah 33:2. The rest of the verse, not on the picture, says “. . . our salvation in time of distress.”
As Mirabela begins serving the boys, Sam and Charlie are proud to say what they have been practicing, “multumesc.” It means thank you. Then Charlie tucks into his fried chicken as though he hasn’t eaten all day. Marin keeps offering him other kinds of food, but Charlie is a picky eater and shyly declines. Mirabela knows this about Charlie, and she reminds Marin (in Romanian, though I can understand) that Charlie is just like their son Suraj, who also has particular tastes. We have a good laugh together when Mirabela observes, astutely, that Sam is like Gusti, and Charlie like Suraj. It is one of those holy moments—they often seem to happen when we are breaking bread together—when we become aware of a kinship that has nothing to do with nation or language or race.
During lunch, Mirabela’s little nephew sits on her lap. They are watching him for the day. He has met me before, but it’s been a while, and he’s feeling shy. In between bites of mashed potato, he ducks away and hides himself behind her back, then peers over her shoulder at me with a sly smile.
We start talk about the World Cup, and Gustavo lights up. Gusti is an avid soccer fan, and he happily brings us up to speed on the best matches, the strongest teams. He has a neighbor with cable and a shared affinity for soccer, so he’s been able to watch most of the matches. He gives us his take on why Portugal lost (Ronaldo is his hero) and shares his disappointment and surprise that Brazil didn’t fare better. He believes that France is the team to beat. Suraj is not so sure. We’ll see, he says.
After lunch, after the boys have all gone back to their game, we have one more thing to discuss: the rent. It’s due August 1, and for the first time since the lease began I’m not sure if we’ll have enough to cover it. I’ve been preparing them for this for a few months, so it’s no surprise when I remind them about it. But I know that it stresses them out, especially since Marin hasn’t yet been able to find regular work. The perfect prayer for this moment stands on the wall above our heads: “Lord, be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning, our salvation in time of distress.”
It is a beautiful day, and before we leave we decide to take a walk together to a park. On the way we pass some kids running a lemonade stand—not the kind of thing you saw in the Baceanu’s old neighborhood. The park encompasses the Cool Spring Reservoir, which has become a thriving habitat for red-winged blackbirds, dragonflies, and butterflies. We walk to the terrace that crosses the pond and relax there, watching the fish. The kids are delighted not only by the majestic fountain at the center of the pond, but by the smaller, motion-activated fish-head fountains coming out of the terrace wall. Charlie sticks his whole head underneath, and then Marin and Mirabela’s little nephew does the same. We talk about the names of fish, birds, flowers. It’s a peaceful place.
Back at the house, we say goodbye for now. I try to say, “God bless you,” in Romanian. You would think I’d have it down by now, but once again I fumble the words. Earlier, I had them in hysterics over my ill-fated attempts to pronounce the three-letter Romanian word for “hair.” Now they smile again, knowing exactly what I am trying to say. “Dumnezeu sa te binecuvanteze.”
There are miles to go, yes, but the path is strewn with blessings. It is hard to overstate this. Your gifts, dear supporters, have been truly life-changing for the Baceanus. They often tell me that they do not have the words to express their gratitude for everything that we have done for them. Your love has brought them so far in such a short time, and now it gives them hope during a hard time. Thank you for everything that you have done.
With love and gratitude,
Asylum Seekers Ministry Update - May 24, 2018
It has been almost exactly one year since I first met the Baceanu family begging for food outside of my local grocery store. At the time, I had no idea that it would be the beginning of a journey—and the start of a friendship. My work as a pastor often puts me in the position to help others, but it is unusual for this work to extend beyond a momentary encounter with a person in need. Most people I never see again, and I can only pray that their future will be blessed.
Little did I realize that this time the Spirit of God would weave our futures together. I know that kind of statement may sound corny to some of my nonreligious friends and supporters, and I can’t really explain it to you in rational terms. I feel in my heart that this was never just a chance meeting. In the book of Jeremiah, we read, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This verse has taken on new meaning for me. Instead of passively waiting for God’s plan to unfold from above, I believe we are meant to become instruments of God’s blessing for one another. Scary as it sounds, God’s plan for our welfare may have a lot to do with our willingness to give our lives over to love.
Or, as Teresa of Avila put it:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
At the same time, I am learning, sometimes painfully, that we cannot accomplish everything we wish by our own power. We can love, but we cannot always solve problems. We can advocate, but we cannot always break chains. We can bless, but we cannot save. There are times when I wish that God had sent the Baceanus a stronger ally. Someone richer. Someone with more power, more connections, more time, more resources. But this is the inner voice of frustration and weariness that comes on hard days. When I bring my thoughts into the light of what we have accomplished together over the past year, I am filled with inexpressible gratitude and joy. Because the truth is that God did send someone stronger than me: a whole wide community of caring people, generous souls, loving hearts who have reached out to embrace this family and welcome them in a spirit of grace.
I am so thankful for the people of my congregation, for friends and neighbors and social media supporters, for the local churches in the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference and beyond, who have banded together in love to help give the Baceanu family a future of hope. Your generosity has brought them to a much safer and more stable place—quite literally, the new rental home that we moved them into last November has made an amazing difference in their lives, not only in terms of physical safety but also in terms of emotional well-being.
I am thrilled to tell you that we are only $3,300 away from reaching our mission goal of $18,500. Reaching this goal means providing full rental support to the Baceanu family for the entirety of their one-year lease, which began in November of 2017. I hope that you will help me to spread the word, and I thank you from the depths of my heart for being a part of this beautiful community of welcome.
Supporters can make a secure online donation through GoFundMe, or send a check marked for “Asylum Seekers” to St. Paul’s UCC, 101 Worthington Road, Exton PA 19341.
Asylum Seekers Ministry Update - March 19, 2018
At the start of a new season, I write with an update on our efforts to help the Baceanu family build a better life in America. The new year has brought successes and struggles. First, the good news. Marin has finally received his work permit from USCIS, making him eligible for regular employment, a vital step toward gaining self-sufficiency. He is actively searching for a job in cleaning, service, or manual labor, and if anyone in Delaware or Southeastern PA knows of a job opportunity, he would be most grateful for the referral. Because he is still ineligible for a driver’s license (an ongoing problem for many immigrants), he is hoping to find something in or close to Wilmington.
At the end of 2017, the Baceanu family had their calendar hearing at the Philadelphia Immigration Court. Their merits hearing is now set for late September 2018, at which time their lawyers will have the opportunity to present the case for asylum. Knowing that the Baceanus would therefore be in America at least until the end of 2018, I sent an appeal to the churches of the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, asking for their help in raising an additional $8,800 in order to provide the Baceanus with housing support for the duration of their one-year lease. I am pleased to report that already in this first quarter of the year we have already received $2,880 in response to this appeal, amounting to one-third of our goal. We are deeply grateful for the many people who have responded so generously and lovingly.
One of the struggles that the Baceanus face is the increasingly burdensome requirements of ISAP, the agency that oversees immigrant supervision on behalf of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). We had hoped that ISAP would de-escalate Marin and Mirabela’s supervision rules when Marin’s work permit was issued, so that at least his GPS anklet would be removed. Instead, they not only refused to remove Marin’s GPS, but they are now talking about making Mirabela wear a GPS unit as well. All of this for a family that has never missed a scheduled check-in! And to add to the trouble, ISAP has also told the Baceanus that they must stay home on Tuesdays, because ISAP reserves the right to make a surprise home visit any given Tuesday. For all practical purposes, this amounts to a one-day house arrest each week, making it difficult for Marin to accept a normal Monday-Friday job. To add insult to injury, the lack of transparency at ISAP, which is operated by a private sub-contractor, makes it hard if not impossible to make an appeal or to advocate on someone’s behalf.
Other struggles relate to the challenge of securing medical and dental care when you are a non-citizen with few financial resources. I have been very grateful for the help of a physician in Delaware, a friend of my sister-in-law, who advised me about health care services in Wilmington. He helped us to find a local family practice in one of the public hospitals in Wilmington, very near to the Baceanu’s home, so that the whole family can be enrolled in the Christiana Care charity care program and gain access to a family doctor. Emergency needs are still tricky, though. Recently Marin, along with a friend of his, was suffering from a bad toothache. The pain was severe enough that it was affecting his eating. I called around to numerous charity dental clinics, but most of them were scheduling two or three months in the future. We were fortunate to find Community Volunteers in Medicine in West Chester, who agreed to see both Marin and his friend on short notice. It was a good thing, because both men required treatment for infection and the extraction of a tooth. I cannot say enough about the kindness and compassion of the people at C.V.I.M.
It is humbling to think of all the people and programs who have helped to offer care and support along this journey. I thank you, dear supporters, for being a friend to the Baceanu family in their time of need. As we continue to work toward our goal of providing one year of housing support, please help me spread the word and share the love. Thank you, one and all!
Asylum Seekers Ministry Update – November 3, 2017
I am delighted to report that the Baceanus have moved into their new home! They signed their lease and received the keys on Wednesday, and on Thursday we brought a U-Haul truck filled with donations like beds, dining and living room furniture, kitchen supplies, dressers, and other household necessities. The house is in a good neighborhood, in an area of Wilmington that is revitalizing. It has been recently renovated, and while there are still a couple of things to be done the property manager has been very helpful in making the house ready by the start of the month.
Partway through the housing search, the Litas decided to set out on their own so that they would not have to stay in the old house any longer. Marin tells me that his brother’s family has moved in with a friend, closer, I presume, to the place in New Jersey where Ion and Elena have cleaning work. For the most part, the Litas have been self-supporting, thanks to their access to work. While the Baceanus originally wanted to live with the Litas, they were eager to jump at this single-family rental unit. The boys especially are happy to have their own bedrooms. And with proper beds!
We found this house with the help of Mirabela’s cousin, who rents from the same owner. Because of this good relationship with someone else in the family, the owner was willing to rent to the Baceanus without the usual financial requirements. Not only that, but when we met together with the owner and the property manager, we were blessed with an unexpected and beautiful gesture of generosity. The owner, having heard about the church’s work with the Baceanus, handed us a check for $500, saying that he wanted to do his part. He told Marin and Mirabela to use it for whatever they needed to get settled in their new home, saying “enjoy!”
The new home is a little more expensive than we had hoped. We had been looking for under $1,000 a month, and the new house is just over $1,000. But we made this decision because life in their old house had become unbearable. Not only because of the poor state of the house (insects, dilapidation, etc.) but because of the violence of the neighborhood, where shootings are routine and the drug trade is a constant threat to life. I’ll give two examples. The first is from a couple of months ago, when an intoxicated man approached the house and demanded that he be allowed to kiss and touch some of the girls and women living there. (This is the event that led to the move of the other families who had been living there). When they said no and withdrew inside the house, the man banged on the door and threatened to come back with a gun and kill everyone.
The second example happened this Wednesday. This was the day that we were meeting with the property manager and the owner of the new house. When I went to the old house to pick up the Baceanus, I saw that there was a large black trash bag outside their house, right at the bottom of their stairs. They didn’t know where it came from. It was there when they woke up in the morning. The bag was untied, so they looked inside. It contained a large, dead dog. They were very upset: Was it a threat? They were afraid to call the police, so they called their landlord, who said that he would take care of it. But when we returned from our meeting, the bag was still there. It was unseasonably warm, and the smell was already bad enough that we couldn’t sit on the front porch to talk. I called the police and learned that somebody (the landlord?) had reported it, but the dispatcher asked me, “But they didn’t put the bag there?” I tried to stay calm as I explained that no, in fact they were afraid and upset about it. Within the hour, a sanitation truck came to take it away.
Needless to say, the Baceanus are so happy to be in their new home. They wish to express their thanks to everyone who has helped them to come this far. I would like to add my own thanks. It gives me great joy to think of all of the people who have opened their arms so generously and lovingly to receive this family.
Now that housing has been secured, I begin the second phase of my fundraising efforts. Starting today I have adjusted the campaign goal to reflect the total cost of their lease for the year. My intent, following the model of refugee resettlement, is to provide the Baceanus with one year of housing support while their asylum case is in process—starting with the beginning of this one-year lease. This means raising an additional $8,800. If any of our current campaign supporters are in a position to make another gift, it would be greatly appreciated. For my part, I am working on a fundraising mailing to the churches of the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference of the UCC, of which my congregation is a member. I hope that you will help me spread the word so that the Baceanus can have the chance to not just survive but thrive in this new chapter of their lives.
Asylum Seekers Ministry Update — September 22, 2017
At the time of my last update, we had just learned that the Baceanus had been placed in pro bono representation. Since then, the family has had three meetings with the new lawyers. It is not an exaggeration to say that their experience with the pro bono lawyers has been one of the best things to happen to them in America so far. The lawyers’ evident compassion and competence has given the Baceanus a measure of confidence and hope that they did not have before. At one point during the first meeting at the law office, Mirabela gave me a wink—a signal that spoke volumes about her happiness and lightness of heart. It gave me joy to see such playfulness, because more often I see her overburdened by the stress of their situation. After the meeting, she told me, “These lawyers very good. I like very much.”
I am also happy to report that we have found a sympathetic Romanian translator to help with communication between the Baceanus and their lawyers. This was no small thing. A couple months ago I thought I had found a translator, but my hopes were dashed when she told me, at the very beginning of our phone conversation, that “I do not mean to sound prejudiced, but these people have very little credibility.” In some respects, her words about the Roma were a textbook example of the kind of discrimination that the Baceanus and Litas are trying to escape. But at the same time, she told me stories about her childhood in Romania, and the sadness she felt seeing poor Roma children desperate for a scrap of bread. Listening to her, I was struck by the complexities of the human heart. She was not an ideal ally, that much was clear. But neither was she an insensitive monster. Just a human being, a mixture of love and fear, like the rest of us.
Since that time, I hadn’t made any progress in the search for a translator. When the lawyers contacted us, asking if we could meet within the week, I started to panic, not knowing how I could find a (free and unbiased) translator on such short notice. My brother and sister-in-law came to the rescue, putting me in touch with a Romanian friend of theirs, an accomplished musician and professor. Despite the fact that this gentleman was on vacation with his family when he received my email, he made the time to talk with me about the situation. He told me that he had seen the GoFundMe campaign and would like to help, though his schedule was very busy. This was the day before our first meeting with the lawyers. The next day, our new translator was in the room with us, via speakerphone, introducing himself to Marin and Mirabela, and helping the lawyers to review the details of the asylum application with them.
A few weeks ago, Ion’s van died. It had been acting up for a few days, losing power, sputtering out with no warning. I found a reputable garage in Wilmington to take a look at the engine. The owner called me the next day to tell me the bad news. They had taken off the engine cap to inspect the sixth, misfiring cylinder. What they found was a mess. Not just in the cylinder, but around the engine, where some of the bolts were missing and things seemed to be generally out of order. He advised me that this would require a total engine rebuild or an entirely new engine, both of which would cost far more than the car was worth. I thanked him for his work and asked if I could give him my credit card number to pay for the cost of labor (his mechanics spent about an hour and a half on it). He responded that he would write it up as a no-charge. So here’s a shout-out to Bradley’s Auto Center on E. 41st Street in Wilmington for their helpfulness, honesty, and kindness!
The broken car was a big problem for both families. Unlike Marin, Ion has access to some work, a cleaning gig in New Jersey. (And his van is not only his transportation but also his housing when he’s working in New Jersey.) Without wheels, his ability to provide anything for his family and his brother’s family would be seriously jeopardized. Fortunately, in just a few days Ion found an old Ford Econoline for sale. With all the cash he could scramble together, he was still $300 short. Thanks to the GoFundMe campaign, we could cover the gap and get Ion back on the road. The van isn’t much to look at, but it gets the job done. And it’s big enough to sleep in.
A couple weeks ago, most of the families moved out of the house that the Baceanus and Litas have been staying in. They found a nicer house in a safer neighborhood, leaving three families (including the Baceanus and Litas) alone in the old house. This has given our housing search a heightened sense of urgency, not only because of the ever-present safety issues but also because of the increased share of the rent that will be due come October. The biggest challenge that remains in terms of housing is finding a landlord who is willing to be flexible about terms and conditions. We have already met with a couple of landlords who fit the bill, but in both cases there were other factors that gave us pause. Onward!
Thank you for all your prayers, and for your generous gifts in support of this work.
Asylum Seekers Ministry Update — August 9, 2017
A few days ago we received some very good news. The attorney at HIAS told us that two attorneys in Wilmington, Delaware, have agreed to represent the Baceanu family. This successful referral is exciting for two reasons. First, it means that the Baceanus will have a fighting chance when they present their asylum case to the immigration court. Second, it says something about the confidence that the referring attorney has in the strength of their case. In June, when we met with her, she had cautioned me not to get my hopes up too high. She wanted me to know that she is only willing to refer cases that have a chance of winning. So this news is cause for celebration. We expect to have an initial interview with the new attorneys sometime in the next two weeks, and now we need to ensure that we have a reliable Romanian translator to help with these conversations. (I have some leads, but if you have any tips, dear supporters, please let me know!)
Two Sundays ago Mirabela was unable to come to church with the rest of the family. Marin told me that she was at home taking care of her nephews, because her sister-in-law was in the hospital. I had met this family on a previous visit to Wilmington, and this news concerned me because I knew that Mirabela’s sister-in-law was five months pregnant. So that week I made a hospital visit to check on the family, and when I arrived they were anxious and distraught because they did not fully understand the diagnosis and treatment plan that the medical staff had proposed. They feared that she was not receiving the proper treatment, and asked me if I knew of a better hospital. Knowing that clear communication between medical professionals and patients’ families can be challenging even when everyone speaks English, I suggested that before doing anything else we should talk to the staff to seek understanding.
Then I learned that there was another reason for their heightened anxiety. Earlier in the day, in a good-faith attempt to communicate clearly, the hospital used a telephone translation service to find a Romanian translator. The phone conversation did not go well. At one point, when Mirabela’s brother tried to ask a question of the doctor, the translator told him, “Be quiet, Gypsy, big people are talking.”
To their credit, the hospital immediately recognized the problem and a complaint was filed with the translation service. By the time I got there, the hospital staff had already arranged for a live translator to come from Philadelphia the following day. But now the family need some peace of mind, so we decided to ask for an impromptu meeting with the doctor. The nurse helped us to arrange the meeting, and about 20 minutes later we were sitting with the physician. I spoke with her in English; a cousin, the best English speaker in the family, clarified and translated what I told him; and Mirabela’s brother was put at ease. The doctor was wonderfully patient and kind, and she stayed with us until it was clear that everyone’s questions were answered. After she left, we joined hands around the bedside and prayed for healing, strength, grace.
Mirabela’s sister-in-law is home now and feeling much better. Thanks be to God.
We are now looking for a 3BR apartment in Wilmington so that the Baceanus and Litas can move out of their present house. I had originally been thinking that it would be a goal to get them out of Wilmington entirely, but now that they have been connected with food services there (not to mention their new lawyers) it makes more sense for them to relocate to a different neighborhood rather than a different town. It isn’t easy to find housing that matches our criteria. They need a month-to-month lease. They need a landlord who will accept tenants without proof of employment, pay stubs, and the like. They need something under $1,000 a month. One of our challenges, besides finding a good place, is drawing up an accurate budget. The housing move may need to wait until Marin, Ion, and Mirabela can find some kind of relatively consistent work. Or until the fundraising reaches a point where we can make larger outlays without compromising our ability to provide longer-term support.
A couple weeks ago I got a text from one of our church members, telling me that her daughter had found an accordion for Gustavo. Her whole family chipped in to buy it, and a few days later I had the pleasure of presenting this generous gift to a very happy teenager. His smile lit up the room, and a few minutes later his music had us dancing. He said that he’ll need to practice—he’s used to a 32-bass accordion, and this is a 100-bass accordion. But you wouldn’t know it to hear him play. Rondo alla Turca, anyone?
Thank you, all our dear supporters, for your kindness and compassion!
Asylum Seekers Ministry Update — July 28, 2017
We had some good news on the legal front this week.
When the Baceanu family first came to America, they heard about a Romanian immigration lawyer in New York City who would offer inexpensive representation. They paid her a few hundred dollars to file an asylum application, but she contacted them a few weeks ago to tell them that she required nearly $1,500 in order to continue representing them. Not having the money, they did not know where to turn. Until, that is, the folks at Church World Service in Lancaster kindly referred us to HIAS Pennsylvania.
HIAS stands for “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.” With their predecessor organization, the Association for Jewish Immigrants, HIAS has been working since 1882 to welcome the stranger by providing services to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in America. Their mission is guided by the Mosaic law outlined in Leviticus 19:33-34 “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt . . .”
When I spoke to the Executive Director at HIAS a few weeks ago, I was surprised and delighted when she swiftly put me in touch with one of their attorneys to investigate the possibility of placing the family with pro bono representation. We had our first meeting with the HIAS attorney about a month ago. The HIAS office is in downtown Philadelphia, on an upper floor of the Jewish Federation Building. We were welcomed warmly by the office staff while we waited for our meeting. The office was crowded in a cozy way, with boxes and books stacked everywhere. We shared the waiting area with two translators, one who spoke French and another who spoke Arabic. (A reminder of one the hurdles that we are trying to overcome: finding a Romanian translator who is not prejudiced against Roma.) The administrative assistant was working the phones, switching back and forth from English to Spanish. In this environment, I felt shamefully monolingual, my smattering of French, barely learned German, and preaching-prep Greek being tremendously irrelevant to my current enterprise.
The meeting with the attorney went well enough, but there was one major problem. The attorney in NYC was not cooperating. When I called the old attorney on the Baceanu’s behalf, she told me they would send the file, but she only sent a copy of one paper, the “Notice to Appear” for the family’s master immigration hearing. Marin also tried calling the attorney, but she (untruthfully) told him that they were not allowed to release his file to him. So we prepared a letter to the old lawyer and said a little prayer. It was essential that we receive this file. Until we did, we would not even know if the old lawyer had filed the asylum application as promised.
Which brings me to the good news. This week I received an email from the attorney at HIAS, telling me that the NYC lawyer had finally sent the complete file. There is still a long, uncertain road ahead. For one thing, the asylum application was not well done, and contains very little specific information. This means that whoever represents the Baceanus will need to do a lot of work (research, interviews, etc.) in order to put together a strong case. And unless there is enough information to support a strong case, we are unlikely to find a pro bono attorney who will take it on. But now we will take a moment to celebrate this little victory. We are grateful for anything, however small, that gives this family a chance.
Last week I reached out to Lutheran Community Services (LCS) of Wilmington after reading about their food pantries online. LCS operates a food pantry out of their headquarters, the CHOICE Pantry, and they also partner with St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Wilmington to offer a second pantry with different hours during the week, including a twice-monthly fresh produce distribution.
The program director got right back to me and said that they would be happy to help the Baceanus and Litas. I was thrilled by this news, knowing that in order to devote more funds to better their housing situation we would need to start spending less money on food support.
So a couple days ago, on Wednesday afternoon, we go to the CHOICE Pantry at LCS headquarters. We arrive just after the pantry opens, shortly after 1:00, but there is already a long line. We are the last ones on the list, number 43. Every 15 minutes or so, a member of the pantry staff steps outside to call the next five people in line. Behind the building is a thriving vegetable garden. Next to the garden is a picnic table, a perfect place to sit and wait. I gather that food insecurity involves a lot of waiting.
When we go inside, we are greeted warmly by the pantry staff. One staff member helps us complete the registration form, and then they give Mirabela (who will do the shopping) a shopping list. At the top it says, “Family of Four.” It is divided into categories, such as GRAINS, PROTEINS, SOUPS, FRUITS, VEGETABLES. For each category, it tells you how much you may take. It looks like this:
Choose 2 from the following:
2 cans of tuna / salmon / ham
1 bag of beans
2 cans of beans
1 jar of peanut butter
1 bag of nuts . . .
A pantry staff member helps us all along the way, even bagging the food as we go along. I can’t say enough about the kindness and thoughtfulness of the staff. Even though, being the last ones in line, we are well past the hour when the pantry is supposed to close, they are patient and good-humored. And generous, offering a chicken roaster that is technically over the weight limit for a family of 4. Just when we’re done shopping, a new donation arrives which includes some fabulously large cans of sauerkraut and mushrooms. I’m talking BIG cans. And it just so happens that sauerkraut and mushrooms are two Romanian pantry essentials. The staff gives Mirabela one of each, without worrying about the food limit. They are a beautiful bunch of people. It gives me confidence that Mirabela will feel comfortable going there herself in the future, despite the language barrier. She now knows that she has friends there. And while it doesn’t solve all their food problems, it gets them just a little bit closer to a less stressful future.
As the end of the month approaches, the rent is coming due. Marin worked for a few hours this past week, doing some general labor for his landlord at another property, but most of the money he made that day went to buy a new car battery. I will use money from the fund to pay the balance of their rent this month. Once again, I wish to express my profound gratitude to the many supporters who enable us to support these families and show them loving care during their time of hardship. My heart is filled with thanksgiving for each one of you.
Asylum Seekers Ministry Update — July 19, 2017
Last week, after taking Marin to MetroPCS to pay $33 for his monthly phone bill, I went back to the house and found Suraj and his cousin Fabio sitting around, uncomfortably hot and bored out of their minds. I asked them if they had ever been to the pool. They said no, they didn’t know how much it cost. When I told them that the pool was free, they got very excited—but they didn’t quite believe me. Until I got the phone number for the closest pool (only a few blocks away) and confirmed that yes, anyone could swim for free, no ID needed. (Wilmington has its problems, but at least it has a good network of public pools and spray parks.)
We drove over to check it out and found a lively, beautiful city pool. Just a week earlier it had been visited by former Vice President Joseph Biden, who used to lifeguard there, and in whose honor it was being renamed. I took the boys to the entrance, showed them how to sign in, and they were all smiles.
Now they have new swim trunks and something refreshing to do on hot summer afternoons.
Besides swim trunks and phone bills, your generosity has helped to give the Baceanus and Litas more stability with food and other needs—like formula and bottles for the baby, a trip to the barbershop for the boys, much-needed cleaning supplies for the house, a Wawa card. This week I have been in conversation with Lutheran Community Services in Wilmington, and I am happy to report that they have agreed to accept the Baceanus and Litas as participants in their food program. We will go next week to sign them up, and I expect that this will enable us to devote more campaign funds to housing.
The Baceanus have been our guests for Sunday lunch the past couple of weeks. Sometimes it’s hard to communicate, and we end up laughing with each other at the silly gestures that we use in the attempt. (Google Translate is awesome, but sometimes you get tired of typing things out for each other.) But music is a universal language. After lunch, my daughter Annie got out her Beatles songbook and asked me to get out my guitar. She chose Hey Jude, and we let it fly. Na, na, na, na-na-na-naaaa, na-na-na-naaaa, HEY JUDE! Annie and I were singing at the top of our lungs, Suraj was drumming along on the bongos, and everybody was grooving. It was a special moment. Here’s a photo that we took of our families that same day.
Thank you all for your generous support!
Asylum Seekers Ministry Update — July 7, 2017
A Trip to Target
A few days ago, over lunch, we asked Mirabela how they were sleeping. Not well, she said. She gestured toward her face as though holding a handkerchief. Very hot, she said. Always doing this, she said, mopping the remembered sweat from her brow. I asked if they have a good fan. A fan, I said, pretending that my finger was a rotating fan blade. They didn’t. So after lunch we went to Target. We bought a quality oscillating floor fan. MIrabela and Suraj also chose some new sheet sets, pillows, and towels.
Walking toward the store, before we went inside, Mirabela stopped and told me that she often would not be allowed to go into a nice department store like this in Romania. Store security would see from the way she was dressed that she was Roma and turn her away. Other times, she said, she would be out shopping and people would openly point at her, saying loudly, mockingly, “Ooooh, Gypsy!” Now she wore an expression of wonder as we breezed into Target just like everybody else.
I had never before imagined the Lionville Target as a special place. But that day it was the embodiment of the kind of acceptance and freedom that brought the Baceanus and Litas to America.
A Trip to ISAP
Early this week, in the evening, Marin gets a call from ISAP informing him that there was a problem with his GPS ankle bracelet. He is ordered to report to the ISAP office in Philadelphia first thing in the morning.
ISAP stands for “Intensive Supervision Appearance Program.” ISAP is a program of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, but it is operated by a private company, BI Incorporated. The ISAP office in Philadelphia is on the seventh floor of a judicial building that houses the Adult Probation and Parole Department of the Philadelphia Criminal Justice System. Entering the building, we are greeted by multiple police officers and security personnel who instruct us to empty everything from your pockets and remove our belts before walking through the metal detector. The atmosphere is dark, dingy, and unfriendly. Looking up in the lobby, I half expect to see dementors patrolling overhead.
Arriving at the ISAP office, we are greeted by an old poster that says “Welcome” in about ten different languages. It is a small room with about 25 chairs, and when we arrive, nearly every one of them is filled. The anxiety in the room is palpable. One wall is covered with a world map. Another wall features a poster of the liberty bell. There is a small bookshelf holding outdated regional rail schedules and a bevy pamphlets about AA, STDs, and other assorted acronyms. A television monitor plays a slide show about the surveillance options “offered” by ISAP. A poster of the United States shows the locations of various ISAP offices across the country. The poster promises, “We will are happy that you have been selected for our program. We will treat you with dignity and respect. We want you to be successful.” There is an Orwellian creepiness about this office that I struggle to convey in words.
Marin hands his card to the secretary and waits to be called. He was just here last week for his regular check-in. Going into that check-in, he had been hoping that it would finally be the day when his duty officer removed his GPS device. “Maybe next time,” the officer told him last time. But again last week the officer said, “Maybe next time.”
Now they call Marin’s name and take him back into one of the inner offices. He is there for about an hour. When he emerges, he is wearing a new GPS device. And an expression of intense disappointment. He looks so tired.
This week, we will send a letter to ICE and ISAP formally requesting the removal of Marin’s GPS device. It’s called a “Request for De-Escalation.” We may not succeed, but we’re going to do everything we can to redress this indignity. Until then, Marin has to plug himself into an outlet every morning to charge his GPS for the day. If the batteries run out of juice, it’ll be another call from ISAP, and another wearying trip to the city of brotherly love.