Hard Work Pays Off in Starting a New Life in Austin
Change is difficult for everyone, and starting a new life from scratch comes with many challenges. More than 1,000 refugees from over 30 countries do just that in Austin each year – start over after fleeing their home country due to religious or political persecution.
Born and raised in Iraq, Sezar worked as an interpreter for the United States military in his home country. This was a good career until the war began there. Sezar and his family were at risk because of his ties to the United States, and he said they feared for their lives every day. “Whenever I said goodbye to my family each morning on my way to work, I feared it would be the last time,” he said.
Sezar’s wife, Dalya, worked in the legal field and was in the process of getting her Masters degree when the war began. “It was hard to find any job when the war started,” she said. She got a job in media, but this was extremely dangerous as well. “You have to be careful because a lot of the media’s lives were in danger. I had many friends killed because of this.”
Sezar and Dalya were fortunate to remain safe, but opposition groups kidnapped and killed Sezar’s brother. Eventually the U.S. government determined that they needed to flee Iraq before they too were killed. In September 2009, Sezar got the call that his family would have to leave in three days. They had just 72 hours to sell their possessions, say their goodbyes, and gather what they could take with them on the plane. To further complicate things, Dalya was 8 months pregnant.
While Dalya and Sezar’s process was expedited due to their ties to the U.S. government, the majority of refugees wait in refugee camps in neighboring countries for years prior to being resettled. Regardless of their journey, all refugees experience significant challenges transitioning to a new country and culture very different from their own.
“When I arrived in the United States, I told myself that I would be willing to pick up trash for a job if it meant that my family was safe,” said Sezar, thinking about starting life in Austin. He said it was helpful for him to know that other refugees who were doctors and engineers also had to start over working low wage jobs. “I knew I could work hard and move up.”
Dalya and Sezar said they were amazed at all that Caritas helped with in their first months in Austin. “The classes taught us how to use the bus, shop for groceries, and open bank account. They were amazing.” Caritas Community Advocate volunteers also helped with transportation to and from appointments.
Sezar got his first job working at Target, and after several jobs over the past five years, he now has a great career in the oil industry. “Now I am living the dream. I have a good job, my family is safe, and my kids are going to good schools.”
Sezar and Dalya are happy to call Austin home. “People are so friendly here. I like the weather. There is a lot to do for families. I like everything except I-35!” said Sezar. Dalya added, “The diversity makes this city great. Everyone was very friendly to us from the start, and they didn’t look at me like I was different. This is our home now.” They said they miss their family and the food in Iraq, but not living in fear each day.
Looking back on their first months in the United States, they are grateful for all of the support they received to become self-sufficient. “Caritas helps guide people to a better life. They made a huge difference for me and my family. I want to help others because of the help I received,” said Sezar. Dalya said the support they received went beyond just resources. “The people who supported us are like family,” she said. “They truly cared about us and our feelings throughout the whole process.”
To learn about how you can get more involved in supporting refugees in Austin, join us for our Serving the World at 611 Neches Street Open House on Thursday, June 12th from 11:30am-1:00pm. Lunch will be provided. RSVP HERE!
National Volunteer Week
As we recognize National Volunteer Week (April 6-12), we want to say thank you to our volunteers who give of their time and talents to help Caritas of Austin carry out its mission. Last year, volunteers contributed an amazing 36,029 hours of service! Below are stories of Caritas volunteers who support various aspects of our operations. We hope they inspire you to consider new ways of getting involved in our work and mission.
In her five years volunteering at Caritas, Anita has helped with just about everything: assisting staff with clerical work, setting up for special events, attending outreach fairs, helping with Turkey Trot registration, and serving in the Community Kitchen.
“The people that work here are awesome. Everyone is very enthusiastic and loves their work. Caritas gives a sense of caring and support to people who would otherwise not have a place to go. You show respect and dignity to individuals who are otherwise invisible. It’s a learning and growing experience - you will never come to Caritas and be disappointed.”
"I've learned refugees are no different from you or I despite their cultural differences. They all want a better life for themselves. Every person I’ve worked with is so grateful for what little help I can provide. It makes my day."
Cynthia began volunteering 12 years ago after learning about Caritas through her congregation, Emmaus Catholic Church. She volunteers weekly in the Community Kitchen helping prepare and serve lunch to over 300 people daily. When asked what she likes most about volunteering, Cynthia said:
“Being able to give back to my community in some small way. Offering a smile to someone who otherwise may not see one that day. Being genuinely grateful that I can give back.”
“That it's a great way to get involved, with flexibility in scheduling.”
David began volunteering in July 2013 because he liked the breadth of services Caritas provides and the various volunteer opportunities available. David is a Direct Service Volunteer and works with Caritas supportive housing clients and case managers to access needed resources and achieve goals of self-sufficiency.
“My volunteer training and experience have changed the way I think about poverty. I now know everyone has a unique, complex story, and you cannot generalize people."
So, are you ready to get more involved? We need your help! Learn more about our volunteer opportunities HERE.
Giving Thanks at Caritas of Austin
November 27, 2013
This Thanksgiving, our staff wants to personally thank you for your support of Caritas of Austin this year. Please take a moment to watch the video above!
Without you, we would not be able to provide housing, food, education and employment assistance - all of which lead to self-sufficiency - to over 20,000 people each year.
As the cold winter weather has already arrived, it is now more important than ever to help our neighbors move off the streets and into stable housing and to prevent homelessness for hundreds of families who are currently in crisis.
Please donate today to help provide the path to self-sufficiency for the individual and families we serve.
Happy Thanksgiving to you!
Jo Kathryn Quinn, Executive Director
Honoring Our Veterans
November 11, 2013
Veteran’s Day is a time for our country to honor the service and loyalty of all men and women who have served our country. It is also a time to consider how each of us can continue supporting the needs of the veterans living right here in Austin and Travis County.
Caritas of Austin prides itself on continually improving and expanding its services to best meet the needs of our community. Our expanded Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program is just one more example of that. Caritas has received funding through the Veteran’s Administration to end and prevent homelessness for 150 veteran families in Travis County over the next year. It is estimated that more than 300 veterans are currently homeless in Austin. This program is part of a larger national initiative to end all veteran homelessness by 2015.
“As we celebrate Veteran’s Day at Caritas of Austin, we feel fortunate to have the opportunity to honor those who have served our country by helping them find stable housing and employment, and ultimately achieve self-sufficiency,” said Caritas of Austin Executive Director Jo Kathryn Quinn.
The SSVF team at Caritas has already made great progress. In the past two months of the program, Caritas staff members have helped house 22 veteran families. They are currently working with 30 additional families providing supportive services to enable these families to become self-sufficient. “We are seeing the face of homelessness change to a much younger population. For many, it’s due to the economy and lack of affordable housing and living wage jobs,” says Kay Fohn, SSVF Program Manager. “Our primary focus is helping our veterans obtain the most basic need any of us has: shelter. It is unrealistic for us to expect our homeless veterans to become self-sufficient without having safe, permanent and affordable housing.”
One of these veteran families is 28-year-old Phillip and his wife Katie, who had been living in their car for months before getting connected to Caritas of Austin’s services. Now, they are in an apartment of their own, and Phillip and Katie are both employed. Phillip said, “Most people don’t realize how much the small comforts mean until they lose them. Where I am at right now is purely because of the help I got from Caritas. Without them, I’d still be living in a car or probably worse right now.”
Fohn added, “A big part of what we do is give them hope that things will get better. We are there to be their advocates and help them find their voice again. Our veterans served our country when called and we have a responsibility to return that service."
Caritas of Austin needs your help to support these veterans as they transition out of homelessness. There are several ways you can help:
• Make a financial donation to Caritas
• Help connect Caritas of Austin to landlords and property owners who are interested in renting to veterans
• Connect Caritas of Austin to employers interested in employing veterans
Together, we can honor our local veterans most in need of help. Will you join us?
For more information about renting to veterans or helping employ veterans, contact Kay Fohn at 512.646.1287
Housing First... And The Rest Will Follow!
September 16, 2013 by Lori Frasco, Director of Housing Services
The concept of “Housing First” is beautifully simple – it is built on an evidence-based practice that the primary need for people who are experiencing homelessness or at-risk of becoming homeless is HOUSING. By housing, I mean stable, long-term housing. Once this primary and basic need is met, individuals and families can then start to address other issues such as lack of income, substance abuse, mental health, physical conditions, etc. This may seem counterintuitive, but just think for a minute about how difficult it would be to address areas of crisis in your life when you are unsure of where you will sleep at night. Many housing programs and housing providers require the client to be sober for a certain length of time, have income- 2-3 times the rental amount, have NO criminal background, etc. Unfortunately, these policies often prevent people from being stably housed.
Housing First is a philosophy in which Caritas firmly believes, and it is the primary approach we take to serving clients in their goals of stability and self-sufficiency.
The Housing First approach provides housing for people without conditions. Research shows that, for chronically homeless individuals, stable housing is an essential component of successful recovery. The solution to the problem of chronic homelessness is permanent supportive housing, which is housing coupled with supportive services. With appropriate supports, permanent housing can serve as a foundation for rehabilitation, therapy, and improved health.
What's more, it is a cost-effective intervention. Chronically homeless individuals living in permanent supportive housing are far less likely to draw on expensive public services. They are also less likely to end up in homeless shelters, emergency rooms, or jails, none of which are effective interventions for chronic homelessness. Public costs – whether local, state or federal – are therefore reduced. For people at risk of becoming homeless, it is significantly less expensive to provide assistance to ensure stable housing remains intact than trying to help them recover after a period of becoming homeless. Prevention assistance can help communities reduce the size of their homeless population, including the number of people entering the homeless assistance system and the demand for shelter and other programmatic housing beds.
At Caritas of Austin, we see how effective the Housing First approach is every day. For example, we have a client who had been homeless for the past seven years. After we successfully got him into housing, he has begun to address mental health issues and now has a stable income and works in upholstery, his profession prior to falling into homelessness. We also serve hundreds of clients each year that come to us on the brink of eviction. We can help them remain in housing and then provide ongoing case management to ensure long-term success. At the foundation of all of this is the belief that housing is both a necessity and a right. At Caritas, we live by this belief and we are confident it is what makes us so successful in preventing and ending homelessness in Austin.
It is important to note the demand for housing in our community far exceeds our ability to serve those in the most need. Here’s how you can help:
- Support affordable housing expansion including the $65 million bond package on the November ballot. Vote YES! Visit www.keepatxaffordable.org to learn more.
Help Caritas reach more landlords, property managers, and property owners willing to partner with Caritas in overcoming many of the housing barriers our clients face.
A Letter from Caritas' New Board President, John Cyrier
October 9, 2013
First, I want to thank you for your support of Caritas of Austin. It is an honor to serve as President of the Board of Directors for such a remarkable organization, particularly as we prepare to celebrate our 50th anniversary this coming year.
In 2009, I was encouraged to get involved with Caritas through friends, primarily based on my construction experience as Caritas was in the middle of building renovations. After getting to know the organization and leadership, I wanted to do more. In early 2010, I joined the Board of Directors and now have the honor of serving as this year’s President. I learned very quickly why Travis County and the City of Austin has such a great respect for the organization and why Caritas of Austin has become a staple in our community for 50 years. I am amazed of the great impact Caritas has each year on over 20,000 lives with services that are focused on helping people achieve lasting self-sufficiency.
As the Austin area continues to grow at record pace, affordable housing is becoming increasingly scarce. This impacts all populations we serve and puts even more people at risk of experiencing poverty and homelessness. Now more than ever, I ask you to partner with us through your time or resources to help us achieve our mission. With your support, Caritas will continue to make a difference in our community for the next 50 years.