Fostering an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor is a Special Calling

A story from Cheryl Moeller

Thousands of American families want to foster unaccompanied refugee children living in undesirable and often life-threatening conditions. That number continues to grow as news about the alarming conditions inside refugee camps are exposed.

For refugee minors, the State Department identifies children overseas who are eligible for resettlement in the U.S., but do not have a parent or a relative available and committed to providing for their long-term care. Upon arrival in the U.S., these refugee children are placed into the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program and receive refugee foster care services and benefits.

Before the Center for Disease Control’s virus order took effect in late March that suspended the legal protections for refugees in effort to prevent coronavirus outbreaks, the Office of Refugee Resettlement program received more than 70 unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) on any given day. Source: Department of Health and Human Services data Get the data. UNICEF calls the current child refugee crisis the worst since World War II.

As Americans become more aware of these children’s plight, and with no adults officially responsible for their care, large numbers of people are stepping up to say that they are willing to provide foster care to these children.

If you are one of the many people who sees fostering a refugee child as a chance to help make a real difference in the current humanitarian crisis, don’t start getting the spare room ready just yet! The reality of fostering a URM is quite complex and there are a few things the American family must first consider.

Welcoming the most vulnerable

“As a foster parent, the goal is to provide a safe and caring environment,” said Cheryl Moeller, a Supervisor on Catholic Family Center’s Children, Youth and Family team, who works with domestic families who are at risk of foster care placement for their children. “You must understand that many URMs are driven away from their homes, families and countries of origin by violence and deprivation. They endure a long and dangerous journey before reaching our nation’s border.”

Cheryl’s involvement with foster care children in CFC’s unaccompanied refugee minor program, coupled with learning the stories of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” inspired Cheryl to become a foster parent herself. Since 2002, 13 children and teenagers, from Haiti, Sudan, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cameroon and Honduras, have benefitted from Cheryl responding to the call to serve as a URM foster care parent.

“Initially, you feel like there is an overwhelming number of things to deal with — from filling out a large amount of paperwork and adjusting to having a new family member in your home, to navigating the language barrier and possibly difficult behavior,” Cheryl added. “You are welcoming a child into your home, most often a teenager when fostering URMs, who is most likely traumatized by separation from family (sometimes due to death or war, some have parents and others are true orphans), survivors’ guilt, pressures from the family who are back in their homeland, etc.”

What unaccompanied refugee minors need most

I. Emotional support is critical

II. Help in adjusting to the American culture shock and adapting to western life — understanding how to communicate with each other via the language barrier, traditional style of clothing differences, customs such as the role of the mother & father and female & male within the family and country of origin

III. Food — research food and eating rituals, share the American way in regards to table manners (note that not all country’s use utensils when eating), an outing to the local ethnic food store upon arrival can be a way to show your appreciation of your foster child’s culture.

IV. Reach out to people within the same ethic group of your foster child to join you for the initial introduction.

House rules

Cheryl’s family

Each URM foster parent is required to maintain visibility and know the exact location of each foster child. This can become a challenge as the child enrolls in the local school, desires more freedom, which is typical of a child as they mature and feel secure in their surroundings.

To add accountability around the house, Cheryl suggests offering a $10 weekly allowance for certain chores with the opportunity to earn more.

A place to call home

Abraham was 3 year’s old when he was forced to flee his Sudanese village when a violent genocide threatened his family’s lives. He remembers his biological mother’s last words to him, “run!” And he did… He didn’t stop, taking extreme measures to stay alive, such as drinking his own urine for hydration and bathing in rivers filled with alligators. He witnessed friends doing the same and being eaten by alligators!

At age 9, is when Abraham first stepped foot into Cheryl’s house in Rochester, New York, USA…. his new home; their home. Today, he is married to his Sudanese wife, for whom he went to great lengths to bring here, and looks forward to raising their own children in a life so happy and safe, so unlike his own.

Cheryl reflects upon her years as a foster care mother and shares her insights on what it takes to be a successful parent to an URM.

I. Provide a supportive family environment at home where your URM foster child feels welcome and safe and loved!

II. Show curiosity and respect towards your foster child’s culture and traditions

III. Don’t force any American practices or beliefs

IV. It’s more of mentoring role; then, it is 24-hours of constant worrying

“Earning my Master’s degree in Social Work made me become aware of what exactly white privilege is,” said Cheryl. “When I have a person of color living in my home, I make it a point to discuss the reality of racism in our country. The reality is that it is going to be a factor at some point in life and I want to do my part in making sure my foster child(ren) is aware of any potential dangers in certain situations. Remember, many refugees are scared and are seeking asylum from living under extremely corrupt law enforcement. It’s important to discuss what racism looks like today in the USA for a person of color.”

It takes a special calling

What has been uncovered in Cheryl’s story is that it takes a special person to be a foster parent to an unaccompanied refugee minor. It’s a calling within the heart by choosing the refugee minor population, and a different calling for those drawn to domestic and international foster care.

Cheryl added, “You can’t enter into URM foster care looking to gain praise and accolades. It has to be a calling from the heart. You have to have a home and your love that you are willing to share with some of the most vulnerable children on this planet.

More about CFC’s Foster Care program for unaccompanied refugee minors

With the over 80 million plus refugees worldwide, only a small percentage will be allowed entry into the U.S. this year. Those refugees fortunate enough to be chosen for resettlement in the U.S. must undergo a rigorous screening process. After numerous interviews, medical exams (including Covid-19), background checks and cultural orientations, they may finally be deemed ready to travel to the U.S. and are assigned to a Refugee Sponsoring Agency such as CFC.

If you are interested in learning more about refugee foster parenting, please contact the CFC’s Foster Care program for unaccompanied refugee minors.



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