Refugees Get Warm Welcome

Posted: May 14, 1989

In 1945, Elena Santora, her brother and parents, refugees from the civil war in Spain, reached Texas. Their flight had taken them through France, Venezuela, Mexico and, finally, to New York, where Elena, then 13, looked about in bewilderment.

"It was a whole new culture, new ways," Santora said last week. "My most vivid recollection was starting school without being able to communicate. There were no ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes back then."

Today, Santora, of Drexel Hill, uses her experiences as an immigrant to help new waves of refugees fleeing other bloody civil wars.

Employed for eight years in the Migration and Refugee Resettlement Department of Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, Santora was named administrator of the office in July.

"We fled Spain. We came as immigrants after living in several countries first," she said. "Each group brings its own experiences, but people still have to learn the language, adjust to the culture.

"In Eastern-bloc socialist and communist countries, the government dictates all that they do," she said. "It's a hard adjustment. The government (here) won't assign you a job."

Operated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the office provides counseling and legal assistance for immigrants and their families. Refugees, those escaping wars, also are aided in starting new lives in the area.

Help ranges from legal representation before immigration boards to the full treatment accorded refugees with no family in America: They are escorted from the airport, apartments are rented and furnished for them, and they are tutored and given job-finding assistance.

"We don't actually get them jobs, but we prepare them for jobs and deal with employers and explain to them what refugees are all about," Santora said.

The office on North 17th Street has a staff of 16 and is one of 150 local affiliates of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the largest refugee-resettlement agency in America.

Operating money is provided through community donations, Catholic Charities, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the State Department.

The office handles an average of 410 cases a year, but Santora expects 478 this year. Most are from Vietnam.

The work is demanding. Caseworkers frequently are called out in the evenings and on weekends. Santora, whose day rarely ends after eight hours, also must find ways to keep service levels up while federal financing for refugee resettlement continues to decrease.

She nevertheless enjoys the work.

"To see people arrive here, needing almost everything, and then to see them a few months later with jobs and homes is so rewarding," she said.

One of the caseworkers is Linh Nguyen, 21, the son of a former interpreter for the U.S. government.

Nguyen decided to leave Vietnam after being denied admission to a university after he graduated from high school. He was caught while trying to escape and was jailed for six months. After being released, he made his way to a Thai refugee camp, where he spent seven months before he won permission to join his uncle in the United States.

After six months at a Philippines processing station, where he was tutored in English and U.S. culture, Nguyen flew to Philadelphia.

That was one year ago. He recently reflected on his first days in America.

"I was happy because I was at last in the United States, but I was also worried and scared about my future because I didn't understand American life," he said. He plans to attend college this summer.

Like Nguyen, Santora said, most refugees resettled with the help of her agency are doing well.

"My philosophy is that if you can't do the job well, then you shouldn't be doing it," Santora said. "We must do everything we can to help them because often we're the only people they have here."

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