Local refugees thank Michiana residents for the warm welcome

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU)- Local refugees paid thanks to Michiana on Sunday for helping their transition to the United States to be as smooth as possible.

They held a special event Sunday afternoon where several of them took turns sharing their stories of how helpful and supportive the community has been to them.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also thanked them for their roles in the community.

Mayor Buttigieg said, "Recognize that you are surrounded by a community that is glad that you are here, that recognizes the value that you bring, that regards you as not only people that we would like to be supportive of and provide help to, but also people from whom we need much."

The event was a time of gratefulness and thanks for having a community so willing to accept them with open arms.

Recounting the tale of the journey to America brought tears to Jas Brechtl's eyes. She has been in the States for nearly 20 years and today still gets chocked up recounting the tale.

Brechtl is from Banja Luka, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the 90's her family decided to escape from the ethnic tensions that were building with the breakup of Communist states. They had to prove they didn't owe any money to get an exit pass that was good for one month.

"The list was so big that you couldn't escape in a month," Brechtl said. "So you have to do it over and over again, so we did it three times and we finally got over to Croatia."

Once they made it to Croatia they had that one month to decide where to go next. She said they chose Germany because her aunt lived there, but they had to go to the embassy to get visas.

"You would not imagine how many people were there," Brechtl said. "And when I asked [them] how long they said the day before. So it was December and snow and you stand all day and night and you can't even leave to go to the restroom because you lose that spot."

Eventually they did get the visas and stayed in Germany for six years. By that point people were saying it was safe to go back home, but she didn't want to do that. Instead, Brechtl and her daughter were able to get sponsored to come to the U.S.

"There was a big group of people that welcomed us at the airport," she said. "It was 11 o'clock at night when we came and they had banners and welcome [signs] so right then we felt a difference. We felt hope."

A group from St. Joseph Parish in South Bend sponsored them. They took care of doctor appointments and helping her 12-year-old daughter get settled in school. Brechtl says they wanted her to succeed on her own, but they were there to help whenever it was necessary.

"[They weren't] holding your hand and saying now you're here and we will always do things for you, but we're here for the six months and we're going to help you be on your own," she said. "And boy, did they help."

They came to America in 1998. Brechtl wants her story to bring hope to other people trying to escape from their countries.

"Like anything else it's going to be tough," she said. "It's going to be up and down. You're going to lose hope, but just know that you're not alone. You have this great community that's going to help you."

Right now there isn't a specific group that works directly with refugees. Many churches in the area sponsor people who want to come to the the U.S.

The United Religious Community of St. Joe County is doing an assessment of the area to see if we meet all the criteria to support a program to backbone the refugee process. Their hope is to have one in the next year or two.