Helping refugees start a new life

Monday, April 17, 2017 - Updated: 10:00 am
By Jennifer Monahan Correspondent

Part 2 of a series.

Last week’s article highlighted the plight of Christians in Syria. This week, we take a look at a local group that is working to bring Syrian refugees to safety.

Ananias Mission is a nonprofit organization that assists Syrian refugees, founded by Ed Wethli. A parishioner at SS. John and Paul Parish in Franklin Park/Marshall Township and owner of Kiva Han Coffee Co., he began an accidental career in refugee advocacy when he answered a call for help from a man he knew remotely through work.

Because of his coffee company, Wethli does business with a number of companies in the Middle East. In July 2014, he received a call from a Syrian colleague in an untenable situation. The man was working in the Middle East, but in danger of being deported back to Syria.

Wethli’s acquaintance had an American travel visa and the means to bring his family of four to the United States, but no obvious course of action once he arrived. In a striking witness to the Gospel call of welcoming the stranger (Matthew 25:43), Wethli invited the man and his family to stay with him until they got settled.

Wethli’s Syrian colleague and his family made it to the United States in December 2014. Wethli put them up in his home for a month, helped them find doctors, schools and employment, and hired an immigration attorney to assist the family with securing refugee status in the United States.

“My mom was hiding in the hallway …”

Although the Syrian family was safe in the Pittsburgh area, their extended family was reporting terrifying conditions in Syria. One nephew was pulled off a bus by Islamic State militants and beheaded when he refused to renounce his Christian faith. A cousin was shot in the back.

When Wethli’s Syrian friend looked upset one day, Wethli asked him why.

“He told me, ‘My mom was hiding in the hallway last night because snipers were shooting into her apartment,’” he said.

While Wethli was sympathetic, he saw no way to help. His perspective changed in September 2015 when Wethli saw the devastating photo of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy washed up on the beach. Overcome with a sense of urgency, Wethli called his Syrian friend and said he would help — even though at the time he had no idea how.

Within a few days, Wethli pulled together a group of friends he thought might be willing to assist, explained the situation and asked for their support. One couple who attended the gathering suggested Wethli get in touch with their niece, Jennifer Allison. Allison, an attorney who specializes in litigation, was not sure that she could be of any help with immigration law but agreed to aid in fund-raising.

Between them, Wethli, Allison and a few friends raised about $15,000 to help the Syrian family’s relatives who were trapped in Syria. After that, news of their work grew. Wethli and Allison started connecting with strangers and speaking at churches to raise the remaining $100,000 needed.

“People had faith in us,” Allison said of the fund-raising efforts. “Today we can show people we have a great model for getting the funding to parishes to support resettling efforts for Syrian refugees. At the beginning, though, it was a leap of faith.”

While Wethli and Allison continued raising money, they also had to figure out where to place the 23 members of the extended family who were still facing daily persecution and violence. Wethli learned that private organizations in Canada, such as churches, can sponsor refugee families. The organization must commit to provide housing, find employment, and feed and clothe the individual or family for a year. The organization also must demonstrate it can supply the $30,000 Canadian (about $22,000 in U.S. dollars) it would cost to bring a refugee family into the country.

The Canadian connection

By December 2015, Wethli and Allison had visited Quebec and had a plan in place to bring some of the Syrian refugees into Canada. They ran into significant red tape when they tried to wire money to the Canadian churches.

It became clear to Wethli and Allison that this particular plan was not going to work. With bad news continuing to flow from Syria, Wethli and Allison tried to figure out a Plan B. They did a Google search for the closest Canadian city to Pittsburgh and landed on Fort Erie. Wethli started calling Catholic churches in the Fort Erie area near Buffalo, New York.

In the Diocese of St. Catharines in Ontario, Margaret Jong picked up the phone. Wethli described the encounter as a moment of grace. Parishes in Jong’s diocese had been looking for a way to help Syrian refugees. They had willing sponsors, but lacked funding. Wethli explained that he had funding, but lacked a place for the refugees to go.

Within a week, Wethli and Allison traveled to Canada and the new plan was set in motion. Four Catholic parishes in the Diocese of St. Catharines would sponsor five family units — one parish took responsibility for two families. All 23 members of the extended family would receive sponsorship from the diocese. Wethli and Allison provided $150,000 Canadian ($115,000 U.S.).

Escaping the conflict

Getting out of Syria was complicated, Allison said. The Geneva Convention established specific definitions for an individual to be considered a refugee. One of those requirements, she said, is that people must be living outside of their home country. Before the applications for refugee relief could be filed in Canada, the entire extended family had to relocate to Lebanon.

Once they knew they had a safe destination, the family was able to escape to Lebanon, be officially declared refugees and travel to Canada.

Allison and Wethli were on hand to greet one of the families when they arrived at the airport in Canada. She said the experience was a blend of relief and joy.

“It was just surreal,” Allison said. “We had spent over a year working, praying and waiting for them to come, and they had become like family to us. To meet them in person and to know that they were finally safe was incredible.”

What comes next?

Ananias Mission was organized in 2016 to formalize the efforts Wethli started in 2014. The partnership between Ananias Mission and the Diocese of St. Catharines has been highly effective.

“It’s a good model,” Allison said of the refugee sponsorship through Canadian churches. “These families have hundreds of people looking out for them. The parishioners … help with finding schools, driving, medical care and learning English.”

To date, Ananias Mission has raised $250,000. That money supported 23 Syrian refugees in their resettlement. It also assists a church in Lebanon that provides food for Syrian refugees living in the area. Wethli and Allison visited the church in 2016, and hope to continue supporting its efforts.

They both would like to bring another 20 families to Canada this year. The Diocese of St. Catharines has parishes ready and willing to take responsibility for more Syrian refugees. The only roadblock right now is money. To find out more about Ananias Mission or to make a donation, check out http://ananiasmission.org/.

Next week: What parishes in southwestern Pennsylvania are doing to support Syrian refugees, and how you can help.

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