Generosity of spirit at Romero House

By 
  • February 19, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Picture a flower shop window dressed with an array of plants underneath a yellow canopy overhang that reads, “The Centre.” This is how Sarah Villiger describes what to look for to people who are visiting Toronto’s Romero House for the first time.

The inside is just as brightly coloured, with yellow walls and green trim, as the outside would suggest.

It’s a place of welcome to those who are unwelcome in their native countries, mainly refugee claimants who are fleeing political persecution.

“I knew nothing about the immigration system before I came to Romero House,” said Villiger, 24, a recent education graduate from the University of Alberta.

Villiger is one of seven interns who is volunteering at Romero House from September to July. They range in age from 21 to 30, including a German and a Hungarian who’ve come from abroad for the internship program.

The interns do almost all of the immigration settlement work during their 40-hour work week at The Centre.

Their work is more of a lifestyle modelled after Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was martyred for his outspoken defense of the poor in his country. He practised acompanamiento, which encourages people to live together as good neighbours.

“When we leave the office, work doesn’t end, but it’s not work, you are just building relationships,” said Villiger.

Romero House owns apartments above and behind The Centre and several houses in the vicinity that currently provide homes for 11 refugee families. Each intern lives with one or two families so they can build relationships with them.

The Cahuenas family of four moved into one of the Romero Houses a couple months ago.

“It is difficult to begin again a new life,” said Jenny Cahuenas, wife and mother of two.

The family left Colombia six years ago for New York City after the guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia threatened her husband, a computer engineer with the Colombian government, after he refused to access and change tax information.

The family had to leave its home in the United States again because Cahuenas was discovered working illegally.

Cahuenas told most of her story in broken English with Villiger on hand to translate the rest from Spanish to English.

“Our biggest job is being a companion to people who come to Romero House,” said Villiger, who practises her Spanish with the two Mexican families she lives with.

“It’s just about hanging out with people, playing cards, decorating the Christmas tree together, things you would do with family.”

The interns also help with practical things like accompanying clients to doctor appointments or helping them job search. For this they receive free room and board and a small monthly stipend of $165.

“We rely on the generosity of spirit,” said Romero House co-founder Mary Jo Leddy, who lives at Romero House with the interns and refugees. Relying less on corporate and government funding allows the community more autonomy, she added.

“The residents are always impressed that these young people would give up a year or two of work for doing something for almost nothing for their sake,” said Leddy. “For the residents it says somebody thinks I’m important and this work is worthwhile.”

Villiger, of Beaver Lodge, Alta., found out about Romero House through an ad at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta while she was studying for her education degree. Villiger taught for a year at a Catholic high school in Alberta before coming to Romero House.

“I lived in a Catholic bubble for most of my life,” said Villiger, who after graduating from a Catholic high school spent a year as a missionary with the National Evangelization Team.

“It’s interesting to hear preconceptions about the Catholic faith or try to break my own preconceptions about other faiths.”

Except for Villiger, who is Catholic, interns are from various Christian denominations.

“The community has very strong Catholic roots, almost all the founders were Catholic, but we are very open for the intern program to include people from other Christian traditions,” said Leddy.

The program encourages relationship building with the refugees as well as among the interns. Each morning the group starts its day by praying the Office of the Hours together. Meals are eaten together and the group gets together for a community night on Wednesday. And once a month they are to attend a Catholic Mass.

Since working at Romero House Villiger has realized just how much she enjoys learning about what’s going on in other parts of the world. Before her internship experience Villiger imagined herself working abroad, but now she’s comfortable staying a bit closer to home.

“I wanted to work abroad, but I’ve realized if you are in a place where you know the culture, language and legal system you can be more effective.”

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