On a Sunday evening in Harlem, Program Coordinator Marianne Scharf meets with three potential new volunteers for the RDJ Refugee Shelter in the rectory of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Other volunteers trickle into the rectory kitchen to prepare lasagna and salad. Every Sunday, dinner is offered to volunteers and shelter guests.
The shelter, which is hosted by St. Mary’s, is the only shelter in New York City exclusively dedicated to asylum-seekers and refugees. Though it has refugee in its name, most guests are actually asylum-seekers. The difference is procedural. As Marianne explains, asylum-seekers, unlike refugees, are not processed abroad, but come to the US and seek protection once here. Asylum-seekers must prove that they are a minority group within their country of origin that are victims of persecution.
After six months, asylum-seekers receive authorization to work. Many cannot afford to pay for housing while they await work authorization, and even once they receive it, they exist in limbo. They are unable to leave the US and they are unable to bring their families over. The process to be granted asylum can take 2-3 years.
The guests come from all over the world. In the past year, 27 guests came from seventeen countries. They come fleering war, disaster, and famine. Some have been victims of torture, abuse, and trafficking. Many of the guests at the RDJ Refugee Shelter arrived in the US only to be held in immigrant detention facilities. Marianne tells the story of an early guest who arrived at the shelter and spoke with the staff.
“He rolled up his sleeves to show his scars,” says Marianne, “and said, ‘This is what happens when you’re gay in my country.’ He asked, ‘Will I be safe here?’”
“Yes,” said one staff member. “You’ll be safe here.”
The RDJ Refugee Shelter provides more than just a safe space to sleep. Eight guests can stay at a time, and guests stay anywhere from a few days to six months. During that time, they’re given holistic case management and are taken to legal appointments, hospital appointments, and mental health services. Many of the men integrate into the parish community of St. Mary’s. Guests have sung in the choir, and chosen to volunteer at St. Mary’s food pantry and thrift shop.
Marianne, who has worked with refugees for fifteen years, talks about the fact there’s more interest in refugee and immigration issues nowadays because of the press attention given to Syrian refugees and President Trump’s executive order to halt all refugees from seven countries. None of the current guests hail from the seven affected countries, and, as asylum-seekers fall in a different legal category from refugees regardless.
“Thanksgiving this year was the first time my family ever asked about my work,” says Marianne. “Yes, there is a refugee crisis in Syria, but there is conflict everywhere. People keep calling me to say they want to help Syrian refugees – which is so important – but there are people coming from everywhere.”
As Marianne finishes up the orientation, a shelter guest shows up for dinner. Arthur, who comes from west Africa, previously worked in business. As he later reveals, he speaks ten languages, and addresses one of the volunteers at the orientation in Mandarin. He speaks fondly of his business trips to China.
When asked about how he likes the shelter, he laughs, “It’s not a four-star hotel, but when I came here for the first time, I had a good sleep, because of the peace of mind.”