OCEANSIDE — Accompanied by their imam, a Syrian refugee family attended Sunday Mass on May 7 at St. Thomas More Church in Oceanside.
It was the family’s first experience of Catholic worship. For all but a handful of parishioners, it was also the parish’s first opportunity to meet the family they have been sponsoring since the beginning of the year.
When Pope Francis encouraged each parish in Europe to take in one of the many families fleeing from the violence of the Syrian civil war, St. Thomas More Parish was listening and decided that it too would accept the pope’s challenge.
About a year ago, the parish reached out to Catholic Charities, asking to be paired with a refugee family in need, and a new subcommittee was formed under the parish’s Social Justice Committee to oversee the project.
Parish leadership had little doubt that the parish, which has a long tradition of social justice and outreach, would be supportive. But even they were surprised by how quickly the community came to embrace the Almustafa family — foreigners with a different language and religion — as one of their own.
About a week after the family arrived in San Diego in late January, members of the parish committee paid a visit to their two-bedroom apartment in El Cajon.
“We were hooked,” said Pastoral Council Chair Lisa Attardo, recalling their first impressions of the family. “They had our hearts from the beginning. … We were just in love with them.”
Husam, the 46-year-old family patriarch, had been an accountant in his native Syria. He and his wife, Douha, a seamstress who specialized in making wedding dresses, fled the Syrian city of Aleppo with their five children: Ahlam, Esraa, Mays, Limar and Mohammad. They made it to San Diego about two and a half years later, after having lived for 18 months in a refugee camp in Turkey.
When they arrived, Attardo said, they were “in need of everything.” The parish quickly rallied to supply them with basic household items, including toiletries, as well as a car seat, a sewing machine, language-learning software and even a soccer ball.
When tragedy struck and the family’s only male child, 17-year-old Mohammad, drowned during a visit to Mission Beach in April, St. Thomas More parishioners also offered their tears, their prayers and — in the case of a small parish delegation — their presence at the boy’s funeral service.
“We lost a family member,” Attardo said, her words indicating just how close the parish feels to the family.
The St. Thomas More community is also tracking down job leads for Husam and seeking to help Douha, who is interested in resuming her work as a seamstress, to sell her wares online.
Sister Maureen Brown, pastoral associate at St. Thomas More, described the Almustafas as “people who really want to provide for themselves, get on their feet and be productive members of our society.”
She recounted an exchange during their first meeting when committee members asked Husam what they could do to help his family and he replied, “You can give me a fish or you can teach me how to fish. I want you to help me become a ‘fisherman’ in this country, so I can take care of my family.”
Oceanside Parish ‘in Love’ with Syrian Refugee Family It Sponsors
Attardo said the hallmarks of the refugee family she has gotten to know include humor and hospitality.
“They laugh a lot,” she said. “You would think someone coming from what they came from would be really traumatized. But … there’s a lot of laughter in that home.”
She added that, despite the paucity of furniture, guests are always given the best seats in the apartment and treated to Turkish coffee or some other beverage carried out to them on a platter.
Nadine Toppozada, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities, told The Southern Cross that her organization works with a lot of refugees who “aren’t as lucky” as the Almustafa family in terms of having the support of a local parish community.
“We work from 8-5, Monday to Friday,” Toppozada said of the Catholic Charities staff, “but the family goes through a lot more, during these hours, after these hours, on the weekends,” than the organization can handle for them.
Whether it’s dealing with the death of a loved one or just typical day-to-day family issues, she said, “That’s the kind of care that comes from a faith-based community … It’s priceless for us as an agency” that a local parish like St. Thomas More is there to provide it.
Though the Almustafa family has benefited from the financial, emotional and spiritual support of St. Thomas More parishioners, the relationship has been far from one-sided.
“I think it’s helping the parish be aware of the refugee situation in the world,” said Father Michael Ratajczak, pastor, who has been gratified by the “phenomenally” generous response of parishioners and their willingness “to build bridges” between their Catholic parish and a Muslim family in need.
He said sponsoring a refugee family has been “a really enriching experience.”
Attardo said parishioners are “always wanting updates,” and the parish bulletin has provided regular reports about the Almustafa family.
“It’s changed us,” she said of her parish’s experience, expressing hope that other parishes might “catch the bug” and follow suit.
It’s a sentiment shared by Father Ratajczak.
“I would hope that many more parishes would step forward and be able to sponsor a refugee family,” the priest said. “I think it just broadens our vision as a parish of what we’re all about, and I think pastors will be very surprised at how generous their people will be.”