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7/13/2017 8:45:00 AM
Refugees line up at St. Vincent's food pantry
SHELVES AT ST. VINCENT'S food pantry with items marked in Arabic and English. (Amy Luke photo)
SHELVES AT ST. VINCENT'S food pantry with items marked in Arabic and English. (Amy Luke photo)

About 30 percent of those who come to the food pantry at St. Vincent de Paul parish in Albany are refugees and immigrants.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, a line forms outside the building well before opening time. "I think it's because they've always had to wait for that humanitarian aid to come, and so they want to make sure they get something," explained Angela Warner, director of social justice ministries.

She tries to assure them that there will be enough food and toiletries for everyone.

On a recent Thursday, Iraqi immigrant "Zamir" (some names have been changed and/or last names withheld for privacy) waited to gather items for himself, his wife and their five children. After leaving Iraq, Zamir's family lived in an apartment in Syria for four and a half years, waiting for placement in a new country, before coming to the Albany Diocese in 2011.

"We are, here, limited financially," he told The Evangelist. "Even [though] we try to find [a] better life, this is difficult because [of] the expense of life; we have big families. Where we come from, it's traditional to have big families."

Zamir has been coming to St. Vincent's food pantry for almost a year. He said he likes that patrons are able to choose their items.

The immigrant proudly shared that his children are doing well in the American educational system: His eldest son is a senior at The University at Albany, studying computer engineering; the second eldest attends Albany High School, where he's enrolled in several AP courses.

Zamir and his family attend Unity Church in Albany. He said they only go to a mosque on feast days, because he wants his children to experience all religions. He doesn't want them to become extremists.

Zamir called most of the Americans he has met "angels." He is grateful for the parish's support and hopes his family can give back for all that America has done for them.

"If I can't do something in return, I think my children will be in a position to help," he added.

On the same day, a woman named Yisse waited with three sons and a daughter for their turn at the food pantry. As her son translated, Yisse told The Evangelist that they came to America in 2014 from the Dominican Republic. She appreciates the pantry and said she loves America.

Tantine, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was also shopping at the pantry. A Ugandan refugee volunteering there translated her words from Swahili.

"I am thankful today because I have good food to eat and to give the children," said Tantine, a mother of six who fled the Congo in the 1990s. She and her husband lived in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania for 21 years, waiting to be resettled in America. The family finally came to the Albany Diocese in October 2016, leaving behind the more than 140,000 individuals who crowd the camp.

Tantine said the food pantry helps her family to eat, since "I was given little food for the food stamps. America is good."

Learning English has been a challenge, though she attends classes. Another challenge, she said, is transportation: Since she doesn't drive or own a car, she sometimes has no way to get to the food pantry. On the day The Evangelist visited, Mrs. Warner assured her that pantry volunteers would help her family get home safely with their food.

Mrs. Warner has experienced some patrons of the food pantry trying to barter for food or getting confused about why they don't receive as much food as a larger family might. Often, she said, the culture of a patron's home country or past oppression affects them today.

Still, St. Vincent's is committed to serving all in need. Many parishioners mentor refugee families and donate to the food pantry.

"This is our ministry to the poor in the community. Our parishioners are incredibly supportive," Mrs. Warner said.

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