Campus Theologian Offers Comfort and Aid to Refugees in Pennsylvania

When it comes to immigration, Dr. Helen Wolf, executive director of the University of Scranton’s Office of Campus Ministries, a nationally recognized Catholic and Jesuit university, looks to the example of Pope Francis.

In September 2015, shortly after she took on the position, “He called on Catholics and individuals of good conscience to do what we can to help refugees who are risking death to escape violence and extreme poverty,” says Wolf, who holds a PhD. It was a message that came after the devastating image of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy shocked the world.

To put the pope’s request into action, the Rev. Kevin Quinn, the university’s president at that time, formed the Refugee Solidarity Initiative, which hosts a variety of education programs, advocacy events, and prayer activities for faculty, students, and clergy. Wolf, who has chaired the initiative since January 2016, says that its mission is rooted in Biblical teachings. “There are several teachings from the church that are very focused on how we need to treat each other as human beings. And the very first teaching is the foundational one: The dignity of the human person,” she says.

We are called to look into the face of the refugee not as a Syrian or Muslim, but to see the face of Christ in that stranger.

Inspired by this mission, university students decided that they wanted to take an even more hands-on approach, so in 2017 they formed a Sunday morning tutoring program for refugee children. “In working with these kids,” Dr. Wolf says, “our students see that they are just trying to make it like everyone else — to not just get by, but to flourish.”

The desire to welcome the stranger is a teaching of the Catholic Church. “All of us in the Catholic Church see this as a moral issue,” she says. “We are called to look into the face of the refugee not as a Syrian or Muslim, but to see the face of Christ in that stranger, because that is what Jesus taught us when he lived on earth.”

This resonates with Wolf all the more because her own parents were Slovenian refugees who were forced from their homeland during World War II. “They were told to leave with whatever they could carry. They came here after scraping what money they could to come here and find a better way of life,” she says.

She sees that same perseverance in the refugee families she meets. One student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who recently received a college scholarship, was traumatized after seeing his mother murdered in their home country. He now works full-time in addition to his studies to support his younger brother and father. “He is a hard-working individual, and he knows that education is the key to his future,” Wolf says, noting that he has already founded a non-profit organization to assist other Congolese refugees.

While faith leaders like Wolf focus on the moral case for taking in refugees, there is also a very practical one. Refugees have entrepreneurship and homeownership rates that far exceed those of other immigrants; many rust-belt cities like Scranton have credited these new Americans with reinvigorating their local economies and commercial main streets. In the Scranton metro area, immigrants and refugees are nearly 60 percent more likely to become entrepreneurs than the U.S.-born population. From 2000 to 2015, the number of foreign-born entrepreneurs there grew by more than 110 percent, while the number of U.S.-born entrepreneurs fell, by 2.9 percent.

For these reasons, Wolf would like to see immigration reform that increases the number of refugees admitted into the United States to admit more refugees, especially given the decision by the current administration to reduce the maximum number of refugees granted safe haven in the United States from 100,000 to 50,000. Wolf and her colleagues, and students at the University of Scranton will continue to welcome immigrants and refugees to enrich the Scranton community.

“There are an abundance of places in this tremendously large, bountiful country where people can start anew and only add to the beauty of this country,” she says. “This country was made by refugees and immigrants. To be fearful of something that is so much a part of our history is to go against every core of what it means to be an American, and it definitely goes against what it means to be a person of faith.”

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