Now on Sturdy Ground, Young Immigrants Can Dream

By John Morrissey, A Viator House Volunteer  

A long oval table off the kitchen of the Viator House of Hospitality, bolted to the floor, is a focal point for the cascade of support that Viator House delivers daily to nearly two dozen young men seeking asylum in the U.S.

On Monday through Thursday nights during the school year, volunteer tutors can be seen alongside house residents, helping them with their studies leading to graduation from Chicago-area high schools, or English classes in Arlington Heights. The men fend for themselves in the kitchen cooking meals–for some, a new experience–before sitting down to eat at the table. Other instructional or supervisory activities play out there.

The men are immersed in an environment of safety, blessed routine, and above all, opportunity. Instead of being in federal detention awaiting a decision on whether they will be granted permanent asylum, they are making each day count in the America they risked all to reach.

And a few who have won asylum now can begin to build their lives on a solid foundation.

Like the bolted community table, they are on stable ground, which is very much the haven that Br. Michael Gosch, CSV, had in mind when the Clerics of St. Viator, at his urging, founded the house 18 months ago.

“We do this because each young person deserves this,” Br. Gosch, now co-director said. “We do this because caring for young people is why the Viatorians were founded.”

And what’s really important “is the whole idea of surrounding these guys with opportunities for intellectual, spiritual, physical and emotional health, growth and healing,” added Fr. Corey Brost, CSV, co-director.

The need for healing is easy to understand when listening to their motivations for taking this step, as well as the travails they underwent just to get this far. “All of them have fled for their lives,” Fr. Corey related. “Their families thought they would be killed if they stayed at home.”

In one country in Africa, one of the young men was being threatened by extremists. They had already killed his father. His mother, after selling land to raise cash, put him on a bus to a different African country where he could fly to South America. The extremists stopped the bus several times along the way. People suspected of siding with the government were pulled off.

The hazards continued once in South America. It included more than a week’s walk through an ominous jungle called the Darien Gap that leads from Colombia into Panama. Along the way he saw a father in his immigrant group lose his child in a swift-moving river.

After more than a month of hiking through Central America and Mexico–paying a new guide at each border to take him to the next–he finally presented himself at the U.S. border seeking asylum, after which he was placed into the juvenile immigrant detention system operated by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. As he turned 18, he was ineligible to be in that type of custody and would have been transferred to an adult detention facility, typically a jail.

“This young man, if not for Viator House, would have gone to a (metro Chicago) collar-county jail in detention,” Fr. Corey emphasized. “But at Viator House he’s going to school.”

All young men taking up residence at Viator House have a case manager, and together they set goals and periodically monitor their progress, either going to school or finding and working at a job–or both. Already three have obtained a high school diploma and will start taking college courses in the fall. Several more are on track to graduate high school in a year. In all, more than half of them are enrolled in school.

In addition, spiritual needs are attended to by fostering an interfaith environment that supports their faith lives, whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian or other tradition. Viator House offers transportation to church or mosque, an important priority “because that has been, for many of them, the only thing that has helped them through,” Fr. Corey explained.

Some have farther to go to lift themselves up to the level of opportunity Viator House provides. One resident grew up trying to survive by washing cars in an African city instead of going to school. “There’s no one in the house smarter than him,” Fr. Corey said. “But he’s had no formal education.” By learning English, he will be prepared to go to school here and eventually graduate from high school.

Not that it’s any easier for the others as they heal from their hazardous past and await their asylum requests. “In the midst of all this uncertainty that they live with, and all the tough things they’ve gone through, the ability to focus and graduate high school is remarkable,” said Br. Gosch.

But it’s only because of the stable, supportive environment and the individual relationships that not only tutor them on subjects but also offer emotional support and encouragement.

That immigrant from Africa who survived extremist killers and the Darien Gap, for one, has connected with several tutors who have not only helped him succeed at high school but, according to Fr. Corey “have showed him that his life is valuable and that he is a gift to the United States.”