Showing Their Character And Heart, Viator House Participants Serve Others While Still Awaiting Decisions About Their Futures In Our Nation
It’s getting late in the evening, and the dozen or so guys from Viator House of Hospitality have loaded their fair share of packaged rice into shipping boxes headed somewhere in the developing world where kids are in dire need of food. Working alongside usually 5 to 7 students from St. Viator High School, the atmosphere is diligent but loud with conversation and music, even some dancing.
On other days, Viator House participants could be seen working in a garden growing produce for Catholic Charities, packing lunches for day laborers, helping out at a nursing home, or putting themselves out there as leaders of an interfaith gathering of middle school kids called Peace Camp.
Volunteering is the lifeblood of Viator House. A committed brigade of local volunteers is highly visible at the house, their varied talents helping 22 asylum-seekers from 11 countries succeed in work, school and basic skills for independent living. But volunteering is an important aim for the participants themselves, and it’s an intentional aspect of their development, said Fr. Corey Brost, Viator House executive director.
A key objective for Fr. Corey is “looking for ways to invite these guys to volunteer, because of how character-building it is, and how healing it can be. It is an experience that reminds you viscerally that your life is important.”
“Many of our guys have, through their trauma, been dehumanized or abused. So this is one more experience that hopefully brings some healing and new memories,” he explained. “Also, volunteering together is great because it can continue to build community here in the house.”
In the process, people of good intention get to see the selflessness of young asylum-seekers on a more personal level. (See sidebar)
A Service Partnership With St. Viator High School
The monthly food-packing sessions, through the charity Feed My Starving Children, is an example. At Fr. Corey’s suggestion, Jason Wilhite, campus minister at St. Viator, wrote and distributed a flier along with SVHS student Kyle Wallisch asking for high-schoolers to sign up to work with the Viator House guys at the distribution facility in Schaumburg.
“The primary goal was to engage in side-by-side service and build relationships between the two communities,” Wilhite said. From the students’ standpoint, “this was an opportunity not only to serve someone from another country who may be experiencing food insecurity but to do that alongside someone from another country who may come from a similar community or circumstance.”
The charity informs the volunteers at the start of each session where the shipment is going. Kyle was moved when he learned that Viator House residents wanted to do the work partly because they knew that food was being sent to places akin to where they had grown up. “They know the struggle, and they don’t want others to struggle the way they did,” he said.
Jose, a VHH participant from Guatemala, in particular, has valued his time serving at Feed My Starving Children. I have learned in (Viator House) that helping others is important,” he said. “When I am a volunteer I feel like I am doing something good.”
Service Even The Pandemic Can’t Stop
The advance of coronavirus in early spring halted regularly-scheduled volunteering such as the monthly food distribution sessions, but Viator House participants still have been able to aid others as well as each other in multiple ways.
For example, they helped pack more than 500 lunches for day laborers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Most participants were Muslim but they were joined by a few Christian house participants, Fr. Corey said.
Participants also cultivated a garden outside Viator House that produced vegetables for Catholic Charities to distribute to low-income families. In August, participants Amadou and Angel helped hand out food for 3 hours to 285 cars as they queued up in the parking lot of St. Edna Catholic Church in Arlington Heights. A few days later, participants Rasid and Olajide put their backs into loading a truck with furniture to help a mother of two move to a new home (See sidebar). Participants also have heard the call to help in local nursing homes. And last summer, a participant from Guatemala tutored a 16-year-old migrant from El Salvador who was struggling at Palatine High School.
Service That Builds A More Peaceful World
A few Viator House participants have also served as leaders in a local interfaith program for middle school Muslim, Christians and Jews called Peace Camp.
The children already were getting a sense of Muslim life from leaders such as Fatima Mirza, a Fremd High School senior who helped start Peace Camp a few years ago. The perspectives of Viator House migrants from Muslim areas of Africa, first from Mamadou and then Amadou and Muhammed, taught the camp participants about differences that were news to American Muslims, as well as Christians and Jews, Mirza said.
“Their lives revolved around their religion. Same goes for the Muslims here, but there are completely different practices. We all pray five times a day, but for example in a Muslim country the life revolves around the five prayers,” she related. The conversation about the traditions they practice as well as other cultural aspects of their lives “was good for the other Christians and Jewish participants, because they got to hear not just from an American Muslim but other Muslims around the world.”
And Amadou speaks proudly about participating in the Camp, as well as other service opportunities. “It is about my faith,” he said. “As best you can, you have to help others. Anything you can do, you have to do it for someone else.” In particular, he said his faith also compels him to show kids of different faith traditions “how important being together is.”
Service That Reveals The Gifts Asylum-Seekers Bring To Our Nation
The heartfelt motivation and purpose displayed in the service Viator House participants perform is vital to get out to a broader public because of what it says about the gifts they bring to American society, Fr. Corey said. “The important thing for people to know is that young men coming here for asylum are coming to contribute to our nation and they are already contributing and making our country stronger and serving people who are vulnerable – even while they wait for decisions in their legal proceedings.”
Counter to some stereotypes about asylum seekers, “They aren’t sitting, waiting, saying, ‘Well, if they let me stay here, then I’ll help people,’ ” he said. “Instead they are saying, ‘This is who I am. I’m someone who wants to help others. I’m someone who wants to contribute to the common good.’ ”