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Two parishes join hands in act of mercy for refugee family

July 13, 2017
Christina Gray

St. Denis Parish in Menlo Park and St. Leo the Great Parish in Oakland have little in common except the faith of their members and the Azimi family, Afghan refugees they worked together over the past six months to resettle into a new life in the East Bay.

Affluent, suburban St. Denis (and sister parish Our Lady of the Wayside in Portola Valley) in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, teamed up by chance this spring with the ethnically diverse St. Leo in the Oakland diocese, members of which met the young family of four at the airport when they arrived almost unannounced late one cold November night last year wearing only the light clothing they took out of their refugee camp.

St. Leo Parish responded to Bishop Michael C. Barber’s call to Oakland diocese parishes in 2016 to co-sponsor a refugee family with the Catholic Charities of the East Bay Refugee Resettlement Program, according to St. Leo parish council vice president Donna Schmitt.

Catholic Charities of the East Bay has been welcoming refugees vetted by the United States and providing for their needs with a six-month goal of self-sufficiency for more than 40 years, according to its website.

Catholic Charities put up the newly arrived family in a hotel for a few days, according to Schmidt. A family from Corpus Christi Parish in Piedmont gave them a renovated portion of their home for a month until an appropriate apartment was found in San Leandro.

St. Leo parishioners signed up to provide the family’s practical needs, such as housewares, baby clothing and even a car while collections raised about $14,000 – impressive but about half as much as Catholic Charities estimated the family would need to resettle.

Three months later as the plight of refugees became an ever-hotter subject of national debate, longtime St. Denis parishioner Marge Destaebler, 85, went to the parish outreach committee with a Lenten outreach idea inspired by Pope Francis.

“Our pope said that every parish in Rome should sponsor a refugee family,” said Destaebler. “Why can’t we do that here?”

The response from pastor Father Paul O’Dell and the parish was overwhelmingly positive.

Destaebler called Catholic Charities of San Francisco and soon found that the high cost of housing in San Francisco made refugee resettlement unworkable.

She was connected to Sister Elizabeth Lang, director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities of the East Bay who told her about St. Leo Parish, which was unable to provide complete funding for the family for the six-month duration.

She spoke with Catholic Charities Steve Mullin, also who she said was “happy to find a parish would fill the gap between what the St. Leo community could provide and what was needed.”

Schmitt came out to both St. Denis and to Our Lady of the Wayside to speak to parishioners at all the Masses and a photo of the family and their story was included in the bulletin. The parish set a goal of $20,000 and exceeded it.

The father, a former driver for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, now has two jobs, including one as a driver for Lyft, and works seven days a week.

“The family is self-sufficient at this point,” said Schmitt, who personally took the family on long errands to sign up for Medi-Cal, to get a driver’s license and other necessities.

“I think it’s going to be very exciting going forward,” said St. Denis parishioner Mary Chan, who hinted at the promise of continuing to partner with the Oakland parish. “As long as St. Leo does the heavy lifting, we’ll be the rich uncle on the other side.”

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