Alamo-Heights-Tornatoes

When the tornado struck my home Feb. 19, I was standing in my third-floor bedroom facing the storm, wrestling the wind to latch the sliding-glass door. At the time, it seemed logical.

I thought it was just rain and wind. I never dreamed a tornado would actually tear through the middle of town.

The path of destruction barely missed my condo. Most of my neighbors weren’t so lucky. Some wandered out in the downpour and wreckage, almost shell-shocked, until firefighters hustled them to safety. Others huddled all night in their bathtubs, closets or cars after their roofs flew off and windows blew in. Many were evacuated, their homes deemed unsafe by the city pending repairs that may take months – or longer.

Suddenly, friends who thought their lives were perfectly well-ordered had to sort through ruined belongings and find places to stay. In the face of nature, security is fragile.

Over and over, I heard people say they felt like refugees. In the simplest sense, that was true. We were displaced, seeking refuge from unexpected catastrophe. It was a rude awakening. Most of us never have to experience the terrible moment when we see our homes go up in smoke, or destroyed by fire or wind; when our wants are pared down to a temporary dry bed and a hot meal in a Red Cross shelter with four solid walls and a roof to protect us. In the blink of an eye, everything changes.

My neighbors weren’t homeless for long. Most had family or friends to take them in, and insurance to soften the losses. However, these comforts aren’t readily available for those displaced by other calamities.

Over the years, San Antonio has welcomed throngs — from those fleeing the Mexican Revolution to those escaping Hurricane Katrina’s ravages.

Our community embraces many international refugees, mostly through Catholic Charities, which works with the U.S. Department of State on resettlement. The program helps new arrivals from countries torn by war, famine or disaster get back on their feet.

Thousands of these newcomers are living in San Antonio today, according to Margaret Costantino, executive director of the Center for Refugee Services. The organization assists families after their first few months here, although it is open to all.

“These people have gone through all the background checks. When they arrive, they get help mainly from the resettlement agency, but they often need some help with adapting to customs, education, getting around town and finding jobs,” she told me.

In many cases, the arriving families have members who were skilled workers or professionals in their countries, but need language training or professional guidance to find qualified employment here. District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg and the Texas Workforce Commission are also involved.

“These families are not refugees by choice. They did not want to leave their homes, and leave everything behind,” Costantino said.

After just a little, unexpected taste of feeling like a refugee, I understand such a sentiment more deeply than ever, and I share the strong conviction expressed in January by Austin’s Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.

“Now, more than ever, welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope,” he said.

syerkes@localcommunitynews.com

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