Square Group Offers Refugees a Home

Congregation Seeks Central Americans to Live With, Share Experiences

A Harvard Square church group may soon provide a home for Central Americans seeking refuge in the United States from their war-torn native lands.

The congregation of The Old Cambridge Baptist Church on Mass. Ave. is attempting to provide a sanctuary to one or more refugees willing to publicly relate their first-hand experiences in Central America, said Susan Wetherall, a member of the church's Sanctuary Committee. Through its sanctuary efforts, the church group hopes to express its opposition to United States military involvement in Central America, said Jean Chandler, another member of the Sanctuary Committee.

"People are dying because of our Central American policies, yet our government refuses to give the refugee legal sanctuary," Wetherall said.

"Our effort is as much a public statement against this as it is an act of providing comfort, she said, adding "refugees are at a greater risk in taking public sanctuary" than living underground as do most Central American refugees.

Refugees are reluctant to apply for legal political asylum in the United States because it means revealing personal information that could endanger their families at home. Few who apply are actually granted asylum. Wetherall said.

Until recently, authorities in the United States had not arrested Central American aliens seeking refuge with church groups in the United States.

On February 17, however, Border Patrol agents arrested two Salvadorian refugees and two Brownville church members travelling with them along a South Texas Highway.

Members of the Cambridge group learned soon afterward that the arrested refugees had been bound for the Cambridge Sanctuary.

The congregation voted unanimously in January to provide sanctuary for Central American refugees. Since then, the Chicago Religious Task Force, a group with more experience in the sanctuary movement, has been helping to find refugees who would be suited for the situation offered by the Cambridge church.

Wetherall said that the refugees taken in by the church must be willing to live exposed as refugees and be able to speak clearly on Central America.

The Church assumed its sanctuary role temporarily on March 23, when it provided dinner, services, and shelter in the church building to eight Guatemalan refugees. The family was en route to their new home, a Benedictine priory in Weston, Vt.

While they await the arrival of refugees, the church group has prepared facilities, food, and funds. "We also have to be ready emotionally--we are at risk" as well as the refugees, Wetherall said. Harboring an illegal alien is a federal offense punishible by up to five years in prison.

To date, the sanctuary movement, involving 115 churches across the country, has helped over 300 refugees find new homes.

The United States Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 500,000 Central Americans now live illegally in this country.