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‘A light of hope’: For 25 years, nonprofit has supported women seeking asylum

Since the founding of Sarah’s … an Oasis for Women in the 1990s, it has served more than 600 women from more than 70 nations.

An image from Sarah's last in-person "Welcome Home" fundraiser
An image from Sarah's last in-person "Welcome Home" fundraiser. Left to right: Latanya Harvey (former resident and speaker at 2019 event), her son, Marfa Malcolm (former resident and Latanya's mother), Grace Olaniyan (former resident), Cheryl Behrent (director of Sarah's and CSJ Consociate), and Annie Steeves (Cheryl's daughter and Sarah's volunteer).
Courtesy of Sarah’s … an Oasis for Women

On a quiet street in St. Paul, a group of as many as 30 women from all over the world live together in one building. The women have wildly different histories, but they all have one thing in common: Survivors of deep trauma, they came to this place to heal — and to learn to live independently in a new country.

A former convent for members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the building is now known as Sarah’s … an Oasis for Women. First established in the mid-1990s as a temporary shelter for survivors of domestic violence, Sarah’s soon transitioned into a residence for female asylum seekers. Since its founding, the program has served more than 600 women from more than 70 nations. On June 9, the organization will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a virtual celebration, which will stand in for Sarah’s traditional annual fundraising breakfast.

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Residents are usually referred to the program by refugee service agencies, including The Advocates for Human Rights, International Institute of Minnesota and the Center for Victims of Torture. They are provided with their own private room, food and cooking facilities, as well as community and connections to the social service agencies that will help them reunite with their families and build an independent life.

Cheryl Behrent
Cheryl Behrent
Cheryl Behrent, director of Sarah’s … an Oasis for Women, said that the home’s residents all struggle with the mental health impacts of their past lives. She explained that the women’s paths to the shelter include significant layers of trauma. One focus of residents’ time at Sarah’s is embarking on what may be a lifelong process of healing.

“The women here are survivors,” Behrent said. “They’ve experienced torture, trafficking, war, gender violence and exploitation in their home countries. When they leave their countries, they lose their connection to their families. They lose any resources and their sense of identity. They come into a new country where they have difficulties navigating systems, language, culture. They experience more trauma from that.”

Staff at Sarah’s take a trauma-informed approach to their work with residents, Behrent said. While they are not trained in psychotherapy, they are aware of residents’ difficult histories. They take an active-listening approach to their interactions, meaning that all conversations, even those that take place late at night, could potentially lead to emotional healing.

“We have schedules so that we are there at all times of day and evening when residents might be awake,” Behrent said. “All staff are active listeners. When things are happening in the women’s home country like a war or a pandemic, any time a resident wants to talk, a staff person is there to listen and say, ‘Do you want help? There are ways I can help you connect to services or fill out paperwork or support you so you learn how to do it.’”

Sarah Brenes
Sarah Brenes
Sarah Brenes, director of refugee and immigrant programs for The Advocates for Human Rights, has referred many women to Sarah’s. “It is one of our first options for female clients who are isolated and struggle to find supportive housing,” she said. “Sarah’s offers a place to stay and a supportive community for women to keep a light of hope for their future while they walk through difficult times.”

She added that because most of her agency’s clients have “experienced trauma and even state-sponsored torture,” their time spent at Sarah’s, with its “strong female presence, support and collaboration, as well as being surrounded by others who may be struggling with their own histories of trauma, can be helpful in the healing process.”

Sarah’s small staff of five consider themselves more supporters than providers, Behrent said. “Our work is not so much to provide the mental health services, but we’re actively connecting and triaging to the services that are already out there. We’re not social workers. We’re helping residents to stay connected to the outside world, to connect with the professionals that can provide the services they need.”

Alondra Rojas-Duarte
Alondra Rojas-Duarte
Supported independence is the overarching goal at Sarah’s, said Household Coordinator Alondra Rojas-Duarte. Because they’ve lived such tumultuous lives, the women in the program often feel unmoored for years. By helping them find independence, Sarah’s is assisting residents as they build a strong foundation for their future.

“The way I like to think about it is we provide some of the tools,” Rojas-Duarte said. “They take on the individual responsibility, just like any of us would in our own space, and they just grow from there.”

Miriam Hauser is a social worker at the Center for Victims of Torture and a member of the Director’s Advisory Group at Sarah’s. Over the years, she’s referred many of her clients for housing at the nonprofit. She said that Sarah’s focus on helping women gain the skills necessary to build an independent life is key.

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Miriam Hauser
Miriam Hauser
“Almost all of the women I’ve referred to Sarah’s come from situations in their own countries where they have worked to provide for themselves and their families,” she said. “Many were leaders in their communities, and then when they come here they are in a situation where they have to look to others for housing, transportation and food.”

Hauser said that building autonomy in their new country is essential for these women. Their time at Sarah’s helps them reach that goal: “It is a safe and secure base where they can work toward building toward an independent life.”

Time to heal

When Sarah’s was created, the idea was that the women who visited would only be there for a relatively short time.

“Sarah’s was never intended to be a long-term place,” Behrent said. At the beginning, she explained, the sisters were “thinking of the women as their guests. Some sisters still lived in the convent at the time. So the first women only lived with them for a few months.”

But, as the organization focused its attention on serving asylees, it became clear to staff and founders that their guests needed to stay longer.

“Survivors of torture need time,” Behrent said. Beyond needing time to heal from deep emotional wounds, the women, who largely come from developing nations, also need time to build the skills required for independent living in the United States: “They need time to develop a work history and a housing history and a credit history. They also need to find permanent housing and work on bringing their families to the U.S. It is a much longer process than it was for the women that we originally served.”

The typical length of stay at Sarah’s is now three years, Behrent said. “We initially start with a goal of a year and a half, but things like establishing rental and credit history and getting immigration status approved so they can work can take much longer.”

Sarah’s usually isn’t the women’s first home in the United States. Finding a path to citizenship can take a confoundingly long time, Behrent explained, and at first asylees usually stay with distant family members or with volunteers from local branches of their religious communities. Clients’ connection to Sarah’s typically begins when a provider at a refugee resettlement agency identifies their need for extra support and housing assistance.

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“It’s been my experience at Sarah’s that women come here not on the first day they come to the U.S., but two or three years later,” Behrent said.

Because Sarah’s provides a safe and stable place for women to live, Hauser said that she and others in refugee assistance think of the nonprofit as an invaluable resource.

“Housing is one of the biggest things asylum seekers struggle with. They are so often denied housing because of their immigration status, and because of that they can end up in exploitative host situations. At Sarah’s, they have a safe home where they can take the time they need.”

Though they are not trained mental health workers, Sarah’s staff are familiar with the needs of women who have experienced deep trauma. They know about resources that can help women regain their footing.

“We’re helping them to connect with the resources they need in order to heal from the initial trauma and rebuild the things they’ve lost,” Behrent said. “We have a service model that’s based on us making connections to every kind of resource that can provide assistance to our residents, whether it is education or family reunification or legal services or transportation.”

There is also a focus on rebuilding connections. Because they often have had to quickly flee their home countries, many of the residents at Sarah’s have lost touch with their family members and friends. This is another deep source of trauma. Though they often were successful professionals in their home countries, many Sarah’s residents still need help to build comfort with technology. Sarah’s staff teaches them how to navigate social media and other tools so that they can communicate with their loved ones.

“We help them call home and make connections using technology like WhatsApp and Zoom,” Behrent said.

Often this is the first time the women have spoken with or seen their family members in months or even years — so these long-distance reunions can be emotional, Behrent said: “Most of the women here are mothers. Their children are in other countries and they haven’t been able to reunite with them yet. These conversations are essential to their hope and survival.”

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Need still high

Despite the Trump administration’s work to reduce the number of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States, Behrent said that Sarah’s has continued to see a steady flow of women entering the program.

“Our service partners said the need continued to be high because people have come into the country before the administration and are still struggling to find housing and escape multiple layers of trauma and abuse they suffered while trying to leave a country where it wasn’t safe to be a woman,” she said.

When COVID-19 hit Minnesota, staff at Sarah’s were forced to limit the number of new residents they welcomed into the home.

“We’re usually always full,” Behrent said. “But during the pandemic, we kept our numbers low. After someone moved out we haven’t brought someone new into the community. We decided to wait until it felt safer to bring in new residents.”

Limiting the number of women in the house felt frustrating for staff, Behrent said, but now that the pandemic appears to be fading, the house is seeing more activity: “We are inviting in new residents again now to fill some openings. It’s a hopeful sign.”

Making women feel welcome includes encouraging them to make food that reminds them of their home culture. Pre-pandemic, staff would purchase the unique ingredients residents needed to cook their own food, Rojas-Duarte said; for more than a year now, they’ve been relying on deliveries.

Vaccinations and a loosening of government restrictions means that staff and residents can now return to the store to purchase residents’ preferred ingredients.

“We’re able to go back and get all the grocery needs that we need for the women,” Rojas-Duarte said. “The women all come from different cultures and backgrounds. We ask what their food priority needs are and what are some of the foods, fruits and vegetables that they need to be able to succeed and not have to worry about food. It’s an important part of what we do here.”

Over the years, staff members like Rojas-Duarte have played a key role in helping to make Sarah’s a welcoming, supportive place, Behrent said. Though the women who live there may share a common aspect of their history, they are all individuals with different personalities and needs. Keeping residents happy while keeping the program running smoothly takes commitment, patience and hard work.

“The staff is essential,” Behrent said. “We’re always helping the residents to live well in community together and helping them know how to manage interpersonal conflicts that are inevitable living with as many as 30 other roommates.”

Despite the inevitable conflicts, most of the time Sarah’s runs smoothly, with women from all over the world living together in harmony and supporting each other in their work toward healing and independence.

“Sarah’s is all about opportunity and possibility,” she said. “That is behind everything we do.”

Brenes said she’s seen opportunity and possibility personified in many of the women that she’s referred to Sarah’s.

Women, Brenes said, “start at Sarah’s with the weight of the world on their shoulders, worrying about their future and the safety of their family.” But their time in the former convent changes them: “They often leave with their head up, ready to join the broader community with new confidence, goals and hope for the future.”