Encountering Mercy: Welcoming the Stranger
“Encountering Mercy” is a series that explores the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the people whose lives exemplify them. The first is “Welcome the Stranger” and features profiles of refugees living in the Diocese of Camden, bringing to light their stories of suffering and resilience and their contributions to their new communities.
Seven years after he first stepped off a plane in Philadelphia and was greeted at the gates by Catholic Charities staff who would guide him and his family through the process of establishing a new life in the United States, Moustafa Aldouri now stands on the other side of the gate.
A refugee from Iraq, today Aldouri is a case manager with Catholic Charities’ Refugee and Immigration Services program. He specializes in helping the refugees Catholic Charities assists find employment and housing in their first months in their new country.
When fellow Arabic-speaking refugees arrive at the airport, he often goes to meet them, welcoming them in their native language and bringing the exhausted travelers to a furnished apartment where a hot meal is waiting.
“Every time I look at my clients I see myself, seven years ago. I know how they feel because I’ve been through it, step by step,” Aldouri says. “I tell them, ‘Work so hard, because there is an opportunity waiting for you.’”
The road to this point has not been easy, Aldouri says. Like all refugees, he and his family did not choose to leave their home country. In the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, crime and instability intensified in the family’s home city of Baghdad. In 2006, just short of his 16th birthday, Aldouri was kidnapped on his way to school. He was tortured for several days before his release on ransom.
The family fled to then-safe Syria, where an Iraqi citizen cannot legally work. They applied for refugee status through the United Nations while Aldouri’s father spent most of his life’s savings to support the family. After two and a half years of waiting and screening, they finally boarded a plane to the U.S.
The first months in the U.S. were difficult ones for his family, Aldouri says. He was 18 years old when he arrived and no one in his family spoke English. He started high school with his younger sister, and his father and older sister went to work at Walmart. Without a car, they had no choice but to take a two-hour public transportation route to work or walk the four and a half miles. For Aldouri’s father, who had been a successful self-employed airplane and car mechanic in Iraq, the transition was particularly painful.
In the days following their arrival, Catholic Charities helped them find housing and financial assistance while they got on their feet. The agency provides case management, English as a Second Language classes, transportation to doctors’ visits, cultural orientation, and help finding employment.
In spite of the language difficulties, Aldouri graduated from high school in the U.S. little less than a year after arriving. He took every job he could find to support the family, even starting up his own small business selling electronics at a flea market.
“Before I graduated high school, I went looking for a job, even with my limited English,” Aldouri said. “I worked very hard to prove that I could make it.”
“The drive of a refugee family — and Moustafa in particular — to provide for the family as a whole is a pillar to why they’re so successful,” said Patrick Barry, director of Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities. “It’s a heart-warming experience to see the progress of hard work, ambition and the pursuit of the American dream in such a short period of time.”
About two years after arriving, Aldouri started as a part-time case worker aide at Catholic Charities, assisting other Iraqi refugees as an interpreter and bringing them to appointments. In 2012, four years after arriving in the U.S., he started working for the Refugee Resettlement program full-time.
Today, Aldouri owns a house where he lives with his parents and younger sister. He is working toward his real estate degree and is nearly finished his associate’s degree.
“Several years ago Pope Francis asked us to see the rays of hope in the eyes of refugees. Moustafa is a ray of hope,” said Kevin Hickey, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden. “He embodies all that we Americans know about immigrants: their desire for a better life, the desire to learn our language and customs, and the recognition of their own responsibility to build up and contribute to their new country.”
Family remains central to Aldouri’s life. He says that what they have been through together has further strengthened their bond. He will continue to support them, he says, and, as he advises the refugees he assists, remain open to the opportunities of life in the U.S.
“In a place where there’s peace, I can do something with my life.”
Moustafa Aldouri will form part of a panel of refugees who will give a presentation on their experiences and the resettlement process at Christ Our Light Parish in Cherry Hill on Thursday, Jan. 28. For event details, Visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/Mercy.
The mercy of embracing refugees
On Dec. 22, 2015, the New Jersey Catholic Conference of Bishops released a statement calling for courage and renewed commitment in the New Year to embracing the call as a nation to welcome the stranger. Bishop Dennis Sullivan of the Diocese of Camden is among the signers of the statement.
“Welcoming strangers can be risky and inconvenient, and our national leaders always must act with regard for the safety and wellbeing of the citizens of this great land. But safe and convenient lives are not the narrow gate to which Jesus calls us. Jesus calls us to go beyond our comfort zone, and when we do, he always will provide for us. Recall when his Apostles were caught in a storm at sea: they feared for their lives. As the Apostles were filled with fear, Jesus approached their boat and said ‘Be not afraid.’ And he calmed the sea.
“Today, many see the world swirling in a storm far worse than the storm the Apostles faced on the Sea of Galilee. So, how can we Be not afraid? Just a short while ago in Kenya, Pope Francis told us the way:
“‘…we see ever more clearly the need for inter-religious understanding, friendship and collaboration in defending the God-given dignity of individuals and peoples, and their right to live in freedom and happiness … the God whom we seek to serve is a God of peace. His holy Name must never be used to justify hatred and violence … we must be peacemakers who invite others to live in peace, harmony and mutual respect!’ Pope Francis, November 2015
“By calling us to live in peace, harmony and mutual respect, Pope Francis challenges us to move from feel good thoughts to real action — action that has the potential to show our nation how to welcome strangers, while still protecting our families and communities.”