Providing Shelter for Refugees

Safe haven for refugee families

Here is a story about people who do less judging and more helping.

Happy holidays to all.

Mary House, founded by Sharon and Bill Murphy in Washington, DC, provides new beginnings for refugees to the United States.

Life in war-torn Bosnia got mighty difficult for Zorica Omazic and her small family -- she is a Serb, her husband is Muslim -- so they became refugees and fled their homeland for America, allegedly the land of opportunity. But a run-down, roach-infested apartment in their new nation’s capital city was not part of their American Dream.

Omazic heard through contacts about Mary House, which provides shelter and support for immigrant families new to Washington, and "it was like a new beginning for us," Omazic said.

Sharon Murphy and her husband, Bill, have been providing housing for the homeless and needy since 1981, when they started Mary House to serve immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala. The name comes from her husband’s Catholic background. "The bottom line with the story of Jesus’ birth is that the innkeeper knew he didn’t have any place to put this couple, but he found space (in a stable)," Murphy said. "And I said, ‘What a symbolic story.’ We live in a culture and a time where we invest a lot in explaining why we don’t respond, rather than really digging deep and figuring out that there’s always a way to respond."

Mary House’s Bosnian Refugee Resettlement Program began when Murphy returned in July 1995 from a peace mission to Bosnia with a dream to provide safe haven and trauma assistance for immigrating refugee families.

All referrals come from community-based organizations in Washington that serve refugees.

The system at Mary House is to provide families a safe place to sort out their needs and then offer help where possible, Murphy said. These needs may include assistance in employment, medical care, day care and school.

"The issues for the families we serve are not any different than for other families at risk; it’s just that because they’re refugee families they have even greater obstacles," she said.

Language was a major early obstacle, said Omazic, who now speaks fluent English. Mary House helped in ways that their original resettlement program did not. "We finally got some help," she said. "If you have problems with Medicaid [a government assistance program], we didn’t have any help from our sponsor; we were just given a piece of paper with the address and time of our appointment and that’s it. Everywhere we had to go, we went alone, with no translator."

The Omazic family is one of about 35 now housed in 10 buildings scattered in neighborhoods throughout Washington DC. "Most of the places we buy are already apartment buildings that need to be fixed up or duplexes or row houses," Murphy said. Their properties blend into the neighborhood; indeed, there is no sign proclaiming "Mary House" or anything to indicate that these buildings are anything but homes, which is a sign of respect for all concerned. "From the moment someone comes into Mary House, they have the right to a space called home and the neighbors have a right to their homes also, and we’re trying to make sure we do that," she said.

Tenants pay rent way under the market price. Single mothers pay $250 monthly; couples pay $350; and large families pay $450. If rent is paid on time, then $50 of their rent goes into a savings account established for them. If rent is not paid on time, Mary House gets that $50. "It establishes a savings account and a rental history, so when a family leaves Mary House after two years, they’ve got an actual savings account in a bank and a rental history to be able to go into the open market with," Murphy said.

They also leave with the kind of information to make their transition to American life much easier, through support services like tutoring, mentoring, a library program, a home ownership program and Street Law, a curriculum developed by a non-profit legal education group to help people understand their legal rights.

Funding such programs is possible through thrifty use of private donations and private foundations. The Mary House budget for 1999 is $361,000, with just 3 per cent going for administrative costs. There are no salaried staff.

Families may stay at Mary House for up to two years, which most opt for, Murphy said. If they’re actively saving to buy their own home, they may stay a third year. Last year four families moved out of Mary House into home ownership and eight currently are planning such a move.

Omazic also wants that for her family. "I hope that next year we’ll be ready to find our own place," she said, noting that this is their second year in Mary House. "I think that after two years we’ll leave Mary House, and leave a space for another family."


This story comes from American News Service and was distributed by Share International.

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