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ORLANDO  |  It is Monday morning, and a small room is packed with refugees, all hoping their wait will be worthwhile.

It is as though they are suspended in time. Much of their future rests on the outcome of their visit to Catholic Charities Comprehensive Refugee Services. Will they be able to apply for asylum or temporary protected status? Will their children get what they need to go to school? Will they be eligible for benefits that will help them get a job and establish a life in Florida?

Breaking the tension is the warm smile of 21-year-old Marie Blanc. She gets it. She’s been there. Those worried, tired, guarded expressions are familiar because she too was a refugee who sought help at Catholic Charities. Her story is one of hope fulfilled.

Blanc’s story begins in 2011, when she fled Haiti to Venezuela at 12. Her family sought to escape insidious corruption, violence and poverty that plagued their homeland. They found refuge in Venezuela for almost seven years until life there mimicked that of Haiti. With rampant kidnappings, shootings and political unrest, her parents felt it was no longer safe. So, in November 2019, at the height of the COVID pandemic, they made the difficult decision to make la travesía — the crossing — by bus and by foot to Mexico with the hope of getting to the United States.

“It was very hard because there were experiences I had not lived before,” Blanc recalled. “It was hard to adapt and accept the reality of the situation. We suffered a lot.”

The crossing, more than 2,000 miles through three countries, was long and arduous. When one of her siblings fell ill, her mother urged the other children to go forward. “I can’t risk everyone getting stuck here,” her mother said.

Thankfully, it did not come to that. They all continued the journey together.

After two months of traveling, the family finally crossed the border into Mexico. Immigration officials sent them to detention centers for two months until they were given lawful status to travel and remain in Mexico.

Released and penniless, an uncle sent money so they could find a place to stay until they could enter the United States. They would wait almost another year. Recalling the dire situation Blanc said, “We often had no money to buy food or clothing. We went hungry and often could not pay our rent. We had no one in Mexico.”

At last, they received documents allowing them to enter the United States legally. Upon arriving via the Texas border, they were interviewed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and detained briefly. Hope remained afloat. They were close now.

It was February 2021, when they arrived in Orlando exhausted, but grateful to stay with a friend. A referral to Catholic Charities Comprehensive Refugee Services led them to its packed waiting room two months later. Maria Diez, of refugee services, became Blanc’s youth mentor coach.

“When I first met with Marie, she was lost and worried about her future,” Diez said. “She needed support with English, school, information about the life in the U.S. educational system, career planning, personal guidance, social-emotional support, and more.”

Marie Blanc (right) with Monica Araujo, CRS program director. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

Diez immediately assisted her in several areas of personal and professional development and Blanc participated in several educational and cultural activities and workshops. Diez also referred Blanc to the adult education program, placed her on a waiting list for legal consultation, and assigned her a mentor. Once Blanc received her English certificate, approval for Temporary Protective Status (TPS) and a work permit, the program helped her and her parents find jobs through the its employment program. Because she speaks three languages and has excellent people skills, Catholic Charities Comprehensive Refugee Services hired Blanc as a receptionist.

“She understands people,” said Monica Araujo, program director, who is impressed by the young woman’s abilities. “This is actually Marie’s first job. She has those skills to understand and try to alleviate and de-escalate situations at age 21.”

Araujo credited Blanc with great strength and sensitivity beyond her years, attributing it to her harrowing experience.

“When (refugees) come through the door, not knowing anything, especially families like this who had a journey…. the (Catholic Charities Comprehensive Refugee Services) program changes lives,” Araujo said. “Holding the hand of a stranger makes a huge difference in her life.”

Blanc, who is planning to take her GED exam soon so she can go to college, offered a long list of ways in which the program has helped her family, from helping her parents find work to enrolling her siblings in school, and from making sure they received vaccinations to providing emotional support.

Blanc can continue to receive benefits toward her studies for another three years, enough to start a career and establish a solid future. In the meantime, she continues paying her blessings forward as the kind, compassionate face that greets those coming to Comprehensive Refugee Services seeking a better life.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, September 29, 2023