ALLOUEZ — Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay had many reasons to celebrate World Refugee Day this year — 127 to be exact.
That is the number of Afghan refugees the agency helped resettle in the Green Bay area during the past year. On June 20, World Refugee Day, Catholic Charities’ leaders used the opportunity to welcome Afghan refugees to their new community and to thank all the organizations and businesses that helped make their resettlement possible.
During a World Refugee Day Celebration and Community Partner Appreciation Picnic held at Resurrection Church, Karmen Lemke, Catholic Charities director, welcomed many of the refugee families as well as community and government agency representatives who played a role in resettling Afghan refugees.
“To be honest, we did not fully understand what we were being asked to do or what we were saying ‘yes’ to,” Lemke said in her opening remarks. “But I could tell you we would never change the direction we were going. This was a wonderful experience and we’re so glad that we can look back and say what we’ve accomplished today because of all of you.”
Approximately 150 people attended the celebration, which included a supper, remarks from Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich and a letter of gratitude from an Afghan refugee read by Tara DeGrave, Catholic Charities associate director/child and family services manager.
World Refugee Day is an international day designated by the United Nations to honor refugees around the globe. The observance has been celebrated locally in past years by Catholic Charities, but this year’s event — just months after a whirlwind of activity to resettle Afghan refugees, beginning in September 2021 — was a more poignant celebration.
“Today, as a result of us saying ‘yes’ together as a community, I’m proud to say that we have welcomed 127 individuals and family members, many of them who are here tonight, to the Green Bay area,” Lemke told guests. “So, first and foremost, I want to take a moment to acknowledge and welcome our newest neighbors and celebrate their arrival here.”
In his address, Mayor Genrich offered thanks to the Catholic Charities team for “everything they’ve done to roll out the red carpet for our refugees.”
“The mission that Catholic Charities is living is something I’ve been exposed to all of my life, as somebody who is baptized and confirmed Catholic,” he said. “Welcoming the stranger is really an important part of Catholic teaching. The importance of hospitality is the cornerstone of all great religions and all great cultures and something I believe very strongly in and something that we are trying to live in the city of Green Bay.”
He concluded his remarks by reading and presenting an official proclamation from the City of Green Bay to Lemke.
“Whereas in this year, Catholic Charities is celebrating the 127 Afghans who were resettled in the Green Bay community through the Afghan placement and assistance program over the past year, we wish to honor their courage, sacrifice and resilience as they’ve begun to build new lives in Green Bay. We are grateful for their presence in our community,” Mayor Genrich said. “Now, therefore, I, Eric Genrich, mayor of the City of Green Bay, do hereby proclaim June 20, 2022, as World Refugee Day.”
DeGrave read a letter written by Arash Sultani, an Afghan refugee who is now employed by Catholic Charities as an immigration counselor.
“I joined the Diocese of Green Bay last month to help Afghan refugees with their immigration process,” Sultani wrote. “Me and my family are among those who arrived in Green Bay September of last year. The journey wasn’t easy … but the fear of dealing with some illogical beings … made me and my family want to try hard and make it. Here we are today, seeing and thanking the possibility.”
While the challenges of escaping violence in his native country were great, Sultani wrote, the welcome he and his family has received has made it all worthwhile.
“Green Bay is beautiful and hospitable, but all the new looked a little bit overwhelming at first,” he wrote. “But I believe it was all worth it and will always be because right now we are away from war. We also feel secure economically and can build and plan our hopes for the future — something that has not been possible throughout all of these years in Afghanistan.”
Sultani wrote that his “most notable accomplishment” in Green Bay has been helping other refugees.
“I sincerely want to thank the warm and welcoming people of Green Bay, who not only accepted us and helped us, but smiled while doing it,” he said. “I must mention that we did this all together with the help of our power of friendship. It was there before everything else. We were not left behind and this is what you expect of a friend. We held on to our promise of friendship and had each other’s back at a hard time. I believe nothing is more valuable than wanting to help and Green Bay did truly want to do that.”
Sultani also thanked the Catholic Charities team “for the trust that they put in me to become a hand of help for all those who are starting their lives in Green Bay.”
Lemke concluded her remarks by recognizing 34 community organizations and businesses that helped resettle Afghan refugees. She presented each of them with a plaque that thanked them “for extraordinary efforts to provide for the needs of our Afghan neighbors.”