By Jennifer McClain
Reports about the forced separation of immigrant parents and children have been dominating the news in recent months. However, activists, like the Reverend Isaac Seelam, have been advocates for immigrants and asylum seekers for many years.
Seelam is the Community Outreach Advocate for Refugee Immigration Ministry in Malden as well as the Congregational Coordinator between the Refugee Ministry and the Baptist Churches of Massachusetts. He has a master’s degrees in both theology and sacred theology. He has been with the Refugee Immigration Ministry since 2012. The organization has been active in Malden since 1986. The office in Malden serves asylum seekers from the Middlesex detention centers.
I sat down for an interview with Rev. Seelam after attending a presentation by the Refugee Immigration Ministry at First Parish as part of the church’s Sunday Service.
Q: How did Refugee Immigration Ministry get its start?
A: Spiritual caregiving was the beginning origins and still the emphasis of the Refugee Immigration Ministry (RIM) but in this work RIM realized that detainees seeking asylum could not be released without an address while finishing the process of attaining asylum. We are now serving at least 50 people a month including families. Legal services are usually the link to getting referrals for clients needing help. RIM is trusted by immigration officers at detention centers (as we have been) helping clients since 1986 successfully leave the centers.
Q: Why did RIM choose interfaith collaboration?
A: Everyone of faith trained to meet with clients in the detention centers must adhere to a non-proselytizing mission. Nobody should be converting anybody. Our clients are coming from all over the world, all religions and cultural backgrounds. The persons we are serving is not necessarily of the faith background of the person they are meeting but they realize they can choose who they can be comfortable with because I think one of the first casualties is trust when one is running for their life. We feel they will be able to sustain their core integrity if they can hold on to their faith. Everyone is trained not to proselytize because we need them most importantly to relate to the asylum seekers.
Q: How does the resettlement program work?
A: The resettlement program is based on clusters of different faith organizations working together. One example of a cluster is Newton/Brookline; that cluster includes five congregations: one Episcopal, two Baptist and two Jewish congregations. This cluster does their own fundraising for housing, food, transportation, and job training for the asylum seeker. Until an asylum seeker can find a job and pay their own bills, the cluster will cover all of their living expenses.
A: From the office in Malden, we give case management and network with legal services and medical organizations. Case management is (from) the social workers based in the Malden office who have continual contact with the clients in their host homes. We have free ESL classes also in Malden. These are staffed fully by volunteers some who were former clients. This allows the client to give back to the organization when they are able.
Q: How are funds raised to sustain these programs?
A: All fundraising events are interfaith and are not on any faith holidays. We want to respect that. Events include a walk, interfaith concert, and an interfaith dinner that appeals to all backgrounds. Fundraising is community based and not dependent on government funding.
Q: How are the cluster-based host families prepared for an asylum seeker?
A: Extensive training is required for host families due to the vulnerability of the client base. We want to make sure we don’t increase the stress of our clients by ensuring good training of host families. We are joining these religious based resources to help a common cause of helping those who need it who are coming to our borders. I tell people why are we going on missions when we have people here from those same countries at our borders needing our help. Host families are sustained with the help of the cluster fundraising. [Note: Asylum seekers can not work in the country they are seeking asylum in until they are granted refugee status.]
Q: Can you tell us about who some of your current clients are? And why they are seeking asylum?
A: Now we are mostly serving people from Africa and Latin America. Some of the issues for current asylum seekers are gender identity and sexual orientation-based violence from places like Uganda and throughout Africa. They don’t have the right to exist, according to the government. Another current issue has been albinism. People want to sacrifice albinos and cut them up. Their lives mean that little. People from places like Rwanda and Ethiopia are escaping ethnic violence that is still going on and others are escaping political persecution.
Q: How successful is your model for asylum seekers?
A: We right now have a 100% success rate. We work with clients who are already stable and at the end of their legal cases. One of the reasons for this is we don’t want congregations and host families to feel deterred by clients losing asylum and then having to send them back to either the detention centers or the countries they immigrated from. We try to make it successful for everyone and right now it’s working.