Amid a contentious national debate over immigration and travel bans, a Champaign-Urbana group has quietly taken up the religious mission to "welcome the stranger."
C-U Friends and Allies of Immigrants and Refugees, a coalition of 27 religious congregations of all faiths and 13 other groups, has started taking in refugee families from Africa and the Middle East.
The first family, from the Congo, arrived last fall. The group has since hosted another and is now preparing for an Iraqi family of five due next month.
According to the United Nations, the world’s refugee population topped 65 million by the end of 2015, surpassing even World War II numbers. Searing images of Syrians desperately crossing the Mediterranean or penned up in European refugee camps prompted worldwide concern.
Cuza and other organizers were moved by a letter to the editor written by the Rev. Steve Shoemaker in November 2015, months before he died of cancer, responding to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s announcement that Illinois would temporarily stop taking Syrian refugees following the Paris terror attacks. Shoemaker urged other churches to join his Presbyterian church in Philo in offering to host Syrian refugees.
"(W)e know they are most likely Muslims, fleeing for their lives from a violent cult that claims they have all the truth and can harm anyone they want," his letter said. "We Christians, like most Muslims, oppose violent extremists, and believe love can overcome fear."
Cuza, who never had the chance to meet Shoemaker, called it "the right moment and the right words."
"He really was the catalyst. He motivated the whole group," Cuza said.
C-U FAIR organizers first met with World Relief, one of nine agencies approved by the State Department to accept refugees into the United States. They learned that those organizations could work only with communities within 100 miles of their headquarters in Chicago, St. Louis or Indianapolis, Cuza said.
But Catholic Charities, which had helped resettle Vietnamese refugees here back in the 1970s and 1980s, told the C-U group that it could take refugees who had already been in the United States for a year or more, Cuza said.
The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops had been hoping to set up a refugee program in central Illinois, where housing is cheaper than Chicago and jobs are plentiful, he said. Champaign-Urbana is considered a "welcoming community," he said, with a strong international population, a refugee assistance center and plenty of translators.
In September, the bishops agreed to set up a site in Champaign, and in October the group took in its first family, a mother and three teenage daughters from the Congo who had been living in Chicago. They were only here for a few months before they reunited with other family members in Michigan in January, he said.
Another family arrived on Dec. 1 from the Congo, and C-U FAIR learned last week that a family of five from Iraq would be here by mid-April.
"The community is very supportive," said Cuza.
The work is personal for Cuza, whose family had to leave Cuba in 1952 after the dictator Fulgencio Batista took power. They moved to New York, where he was the only Spanish-speaking student at his school in a German and Italian neighborhood.
"My father and family went through all the discrimination against new arrivals," he said.
To protect their security, he wouldn’t provide many details about the refugee families in Champaign-Urbana.
But the current Congolese family includes a couple expecting their first baby any day and a male adult relative. Their English is improving, and the two men already have found jobs. They’re preparing to move into their own apartment, after living with another local Congolese family since they arrived. C-U FAIR plans a housewarming and hopes to provide a crib and other baby supplies.
The group helps refugees adjust to a new culture, a new educational system and a new economy.
For some, it’s a huge transition.
The first Congolese family lived in a U.N. refugee camp in Rwanda for 19 years. The parents had fled a war zone in Congo, and their children grew up in the refugee camp, Cuza said. There’s a school there, but no real work, and residents are dependent on the camp for clothes and food.
Volunteers here teach the refugees everything from how to shop in discount stores — a daunting task compared to their home village or the camp — to how to use the bus system. Volunteers ride with them at first, then send them out on their own with a note reading, "I am lost, please call (contact names)," just in case.
The ultimate goal, Cuza said, is for the refugees to become financially independent, for their own self-worth.
That may take a year or two, but the group helps them enroll in English classes right away, get jobs within a couple of months (even if they’re temporary) and find affordable housing. One church member rented a two-bedroom duplex to the first Congolese family at a deeply discounted rate.
"That’s a big step in being integrated into the community, not being dependent on just charity," Cuza said.
Last month, C-U FAIR was supposed to bring in two Syrian women who are now in Lebanon, the 77-year-old mother and 45-year-old sister of a Syrian engineer who works in Champaign-Urbana, Cuza said. The mother has serious back trouble and doesn’t have access to good medical care, he said.
Their visas were approved on Feb. 8 but then were put on hold because of the government’s new travel ban, which barred Syrian refugees, he said.
"It’s a sad effect of politics that are just based on fear," Cuza said.
Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, email@example.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Luis Cuza stands Monday in the sanctuary of St. Patrick's Church, Urbana, one of 25 area religious congregations helping sponsor refugee families. Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette