A Heart for Helping Refugees

John Klink, the president of the International Catholic Migration Commission, has devoted much of his life to helping the Church address international humanitarian needs.

John Klink, president of the International Catholic Migration Commission
John Klink, president of the International Catholic Migration Commission (photo: Courtesy of EWTN)

John Klink is the president of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), which is a humanitarian organization that seeks to serve and protect “uprooted people — refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants — regardless of faith, ethnicity, race or nationality,” according to its website.

Klink has a long history of service to the Church and to disadvantaged people around the world that includes 11 years as an executive with Catholic Relief Services in Morocco, Italy, Yemen, New York, Thailand and Haiti. He also has served as a diplomat representing the Holy See at numerous U.N. negotiations, including key discussions. such as the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. He is currently a consultor with the Pontifical Council of the Family.

He recently spoke with Jeanette De Melo, the Register’s editor in chief, about the International Catholic Migration Commission and its efforts thus far.


To begin, tell us about your work on the commission.

Well, in order to understand where we have gone, it is very useful to understand where we have come from. We were founded by Pius XII in 1951 in order to deal with the particular refugee crisis [then].

There were hundreds of thousands of refugees who had come into Rome, a lot from Germany and other countries, and the pope was very anxious to deal with them, in the aftermath of World War II. And so he opened all of these churches, all of the basilicas, and even Castel Gandolfo, to house the refugees. And he even gave his papal bed as a birthing bed at Castle Gandolfo for the refugee women, which I think is a beautiful witness of the opening of the Church’s heart to people on the move. And that, in turn, is based on the theological imperative that we find in the Holy Family itself, becoming a refugee family within days and weeks of Christ’s birth.

Pope Pius published an apostolic constitution called Exsul Familia Nazarethana (The Exiled Family of Nazareth) in 1952. In that, he talks about the basis for the Church’s theological interest in migrants and refugees, and he also mentions founding us, so we are officially in a papal document.

Interestingly, it was Paul VI [then-Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini], who was [Pope Pius XII’s] secretary of state, who was the real impetus for this, because he had a very strong interest in the poor and refugees; and as you know, he was just recently beatified, so that is a very wonderful history.


What have you been focusing on over these last eight years as president of the International Catholic Migration Commission?

During this time, because of the political upheaval, particularly in the Middle East, we have had a strong concentration in the Middle East, in terms of taking care of and accompanying the refugees who have been emanating, first from Iraq. And ICMC has accompanied over half of the Iraqi refugees who have come to the United States.

What I mean by accompanying is that, on that side of the [Atlantic], we are the hands and face of Christ for these people. We prepare them, we make sure they are who they say they are and that they really do have a well-founded, clear persecution; and we prepare them to be diligent and productive citizens when they arrive in the United States. We give them language training and skills training and a variety of very helpful and productive training sessions.

Once they get over here, they are given over to the care of Migration and Refugee Services, which is part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and so it really is a hand-and-glove kind of operation, where the Church can show its universality.


What is the work of ICMC in those countries, like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, that are still receiving refugees?

First of all, it is remarkable to me how little the media actually covers the dire need that has developed over the last years. People are simply not aware of what is happening.

In Syria, which was a country of approximately 24 million people before the civil unrest began, 6.5 million within Syria are displaced, that is, they are homeless, and then almost 5 million are outside of Syria. Literally half of the country is homeless.

One of the members of my board is Patriarch Gregorios III, who is the patriarch of all of the Melkite-Greek Catholics and the head of the Catholic bishops' conference of Syria. I said, “Your Beatitude, what can we do? Because this is something that really needs to be known, and the only way we can really help these people is to get them back in their country and get their lives back.”

So I told him, “Why don’t you come over the United States and have a tour of a pilgrimage of peace?” He did that in April and May of this year, and EWTN was very good in helping to get the news out, to let his voice be heard. He met with a lot of government officials and also with the U.N. officials during his trip.


How long does the refugee-resettlement process take?

What we do is what we have done altogether over the last 62 years: We have processed over 1 million refugees to come to this country, and the process depends on how much information you can get and how quickly you can get it; but, usually, the process is at least a year for a refugee to be documented. It can be much longer than that.

Think of the circumstance, for instance, of Iraqi refugees who came to Syria and were being given refuge in Syria, and, suddenly, the Syrian war broke out. Those refugees have to decide whether they are going to try to stick it out in Syria. In this country, we keep hearing about going to the back of the line; in that case, they would have to go to the back of the line and start all over again. I mean, for a normal human being, it is really just too much to contemplate how devastating all of that must be to their psyches.


These refugees have been displaced from very ordinary lives in their home countries. Do you have any stories that you can share with us of the successes with resettling?

Well, of those who have managed to resettle, they generally find a very welcoming population to greet them. Often, they are able to immediately go into the families of their own extended families or close friends. Many of them from Iraq went to the Detroit area or around the San Diego area. Those are the two places in particular where that group of refugees has managed to find considerable success.

I am following up now with some of the refugees who have come over in the last years to get their eyewitness stories and to hear how it was once they got over here and what sort of experiences they have had. But from what we have heard, people who have come over have really landed on their feet and hit the ground running, and largely because of the fact that they were pretty well prepared for their new life in the United States.


What should people know about the situation of migrants in the world today? We do hear some of what is happening in Iraq and Syria, but are there things we should have a greater understanding of?

I think the greatest challenge is to understand how desperate the plight is. There are over 230 million migrants around the world, so it is the equivalent of a huge country constantly on the move; and when I say constantly on the move, those people may have developed a life in a particular country and are fairly stable, but, for many, there is not a lot protection involved for them.

I think that the main message to go out to people is that: First, we need to pray for these refugees, that they can go back to their homes, because prayer is essential in all of our work. Secondly, try to be as supportive as possible to organizations like ICMC and really make a commitment to help out every month, so that the people we are trying to help out can really find a hand. There are, as I mentioned, almost 5 million [Syrian] refugees [outside of Syria]. That is impossible for anybody to deal with.

If you think of inviting your relatives over for Christmas and they all stay for six years, you are going to run out of food. The people in neighboring countries have been extraordinarily generous in giving. In Jordan, for instance, now the fourth-largest city is a tent city, and that is the degree of hospitality that they are offering.


What will you do now that your time as president of ICMC has ended?

I hope to continue to assist ICMC here in the United States. I am currently also the president of ICMC Inc., which is the 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the United States, and I am very interested in helping to fundraise.


You are interested in making young people especially aware of the work of ICMC. How do you vie for their attention and get them to realize what is going on in the world today?

I think the answer is: The message has to come from young people to young people. They can look at an old fogey like myself and say, “That was then,” but I think what they really need to do is become knowledgeable about what the issues are and then to translate that into a challenge for their friends.

In 2011, they had a thing called Kony 2012, and my daughter came home with a bracelet that said "Kony 2012," and I asked, “What is that?” And she said, “Well, it is something very interesting. It is against child soldiers.” And I thought maybe it was the high school or a local thing, and I got on the Internet, and in one day [the Kony 2012 effort] had had 95 million hits, which is remarkable by any standard.

What that told me is there is a remarkable pent-up interest on the part of young people to get involved. Church organizations are the ticket for these young people to get involved and to say, “Okay, let’s take up this cause; let’s help young people in these other countries, so that they can know that we care, that we understand their hurt; so, therefore, we can make a change.”

We developed a website called ICanMakeaChange.org. So people interested can look at ICMC.net or ICanMakeaChange.org to figure out how best to get involved and to really express their hearts with those people of the same age who don’t have the same opportunities that they do.


If young people did contact you. what would they be doing?

What I want to challenge the young people to do is figure out how to best network among themselves and to get the message out, particularly people who are very adept at websites and who know how to create waves on the Internet. What better way to evangelize than to help people and to touch them as Christ would through the Internet.

I find young people so much more inventive then I am. I would really like for them to tell me the best way to get the message out.


Is there anything else you would like to add as we close?

I would just ask for the continued prayers, in particular for the victims of ISIS and the situation in the Middle East; and also for the trafficking victims: to really reach out and get involved.