Rochester refugee ministry Mary’s Place helps build new lives - Catholic Courier
Piles of clothing are seen outside a refugee outreach center.

Mary’s Place Outreach offers food, clothing, tutoring, counseling, English classes and more for refugees. (Courier file photo)

Rochester refugee ministry Mary’s Place helps build new lives

Imagine arriving in a new country after spending a decade in a refugee camp, your children growing up in a temporary shelter with rationed food and water. Despite not knowing the language, you have to build a new life for yourself and your family where everything from the weather to grocery shopping to enrolling your children in school becomes a confusing, even frightening experience.

This is the situation facing refugees arriving in Rochester, according to Nick Cook, program director of Mary’s Place Refugee Outreach. After their initial resettlement, the business of living day to day can still be a challenge for refugees, and that where Mary’s Place comes in, Cook said.

Ministry to refugees began by noticing their needs

In 2009, Kathy LaBue noticed refugees from Nepal, Bhutan and Burma walking down Rochester’s Lake Avenue in the winter wearing flip-flops and no coats. She was inspired to make a difference in the lives of refugees from that point on and founded Mary’s Place as a clothing ministry of Rochester’s Cathedral Community, Cook said.

Since then, Mary’s Place, now located in the former Holy Rosary Church on Lexington Avenue, has grown to include many services and programs beyond a clothing closet.

Some programs at Mary’s Place are annual, such as the Holiday Gift Program coming up on Dec. 15. “For refugee children that are signed up, we provide a toy, hat, gloves, scarves, socks and a little gift,” Cook explained.

Another annual program is the backpack program for children offered every August. According to Cook, 413 children were given backpacks full of donated school supplies in 2023, the largest number yet. “It’s a great help to get people on the right foot back to school,” he said.

Food is distributed weekly to those who need it, while hygiene products are given out once a month. Diapers also are given out weekly, but only if and when they have been donated by the community, Cook said.

Cook noted that the need for food has increased since the end of COVID-era expansions of government benefits and cuts in the SNAP program. This year, funds from the Catholic Courier/Catholic Charities Christmas Appeal will be especially helpful to Mary’s Place in providing food vouchers to those in need, he stated.

“We had one family this year with about eight people in the house — six kids and two adults— and the father, the person working in the family, got cancer and cannot work now,” Cook said, noting that the food vouchers are an enormous help to the family.

Language and cultural barriers addressed at Mary’s Place

Cook said that being based in the Edgerton neighborhood where many refugees are settled makes it easy for families to walk to Mary’s Place for assistance.

“I think refugees’ biggest challenge is navigating the systems we have, which are meant to help people, but there are all sorts of things that come up … especially language barriers that make it harder for our clients,” he remarked.

Volunteers help refugees in navigating the Department of Social Services, managing medical appointments and insurance, securing housing, reading mail, making phone calls and assisting with immigration services. Cook said that to do this, interpreting services over the phone are used so that clients can understand in their own languages. Without this support, Cook said that it’s easy for refugees to fall through the cracks.

To help refugees grow more independent, English as a second language classes also are offered throughout the year at Mary’s Place, including summer camps and special programs in partnership with such organizations as OASES and Rochester LACE.

Some refugees need help longer than others, with numbers expected to rise

“A lot of the families that come here have some disabilities or trauma (from a refugee camp or escaping their homes) … some that continue to receive services because they need them,” Cook noted. He added that some of these traumatized individuals struggle with a “sort of learned helplessness, where it takes a little extra to get people to believe they can do something on their own … because they have been living in survival mode for so long.”

Cook said in an email that around 500 refugees arrived in Rochester in 2023, a number that is expected to rise next year.

“A lot of conflicts around the world have sent people on refugee journeys, traveling to new places,” he said.

With two full time and two part time employees, plus 50 regular volunteers and nine interns, Mary’s Place is making a difference in the lives of those refugees in the neighborhood, Cook stated. According to their literature, Mary’s Place has helped refugees from Bhutan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria.

“At Mary’s Place, we reach out, we meet people to where they are. Refugees just need a little extra support to help them succeed in a new place, a new country, a new home,” Cook said.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here to donate to the 2023-24 Catholic Courier/Catholic Charities Christmas Appeal.

Tags: Catholic Charities, Refugees
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