FranzisCa, to be less alone

Reception for women in difficulty and their children. Cooperation between Franciscan nuns and diocesan Caritas

The range of practical solutions and welcome to women in need is a challenge that the Austrian Church has included in the priorities of her pastoral and social action. The problem of single women, poor, marginalized, victims of abuse, or with young children became acute with the large influx of refugees who arrived to Austria in recent years, mostly from war zones in the Middle East. Many women with broken families, traumatized witnesses arriving in refugee camps are then assigned to the intervention of assistance and reception centers. In Graz, Styria, “FranzisCa Project” combines welcome with spiritual and material assistance, as well as existential support to the women hosted in the reception centres. Massimo Lavena for SIR Europe interviewed Sister Sonja Dolesch, provincial of the Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception, who have designed and now run this project. The FranzisCa project combines your Franciscan spirituality with Caritas organization. What are your goals and how do you manage the reception of women in difficulty? “Since the foundation of the order, the Franciscans nuns of the Immaculate Conception ‘Scholastic Sisters in Graz’, have been involved in providing education, support and assistance to girls and women. For over a century we have been running schools and recognized childcare (homes and kindergartens) structures in Graz and in other centers of the Land. We reflected on how to carry out our primary task today: also in our epoch there are women and children in need. In the quest to ‘modernize’ our mission, the Caritas of the Diocese of Graz-Seckau turned to us asking for help because of the lack of space for women and children in two of its facilities. This request seemed to us the will of the Holy Spirit. We provided a building until then used as a guesthouse for our students and we renovated it in order to adequately accommodate women and children. The restructuring works began last autumn”. The Church and the local communities in Austria stand as an example in the reception and integration of refugees in the new reality. What are the problems faced by single women who fled from their homelands, some of whom with small children? “Usually, a woman does not flee alone with her children, but she travels with her husband. Many families are divided along the way because those who are slow are left behind and, it does not matter if that person is a member of the family. The concern for other family members and the difficulty of keeping in touch are a big burden. In addition, women on the run are often victims of violence, therefore they find it hard to trust other people and suffer for a long time, even after the flight, both physically and psychologically, because of their experience, which makes integration even harder. Women from cultures in which the man is the one to lead the family are not accustomed to take responsibility for themselves and for their children”. How does the FranzisCa project plan to extend its field of action and the interaction with the dioceses of Graz-Seckau? “The FranzisCa project envisages the restructuring and conversion of an existing building. It will then host two institutions located in different sites until today. These are the ‘Elisabeth Home’, emergency shelter for women and children, and the hostel for women – which will be called ‘Clare Home’ – in which women refugees with children will find a place to live and the assistance they need. We are in contact and collaborate with the diocese of Graz-Seckau on many fronts. The diocesan Caritas Graz-Seckau is our competent partner in this field of activity that is new for us, has a lot of experience and competence in assisting these people who are suffering”. In the Year of consecrated Life your pastoral action gained new thrust following the example of Saint Francis and Saint Clare: how do respond to the constant appeals by Pope Francis to go towards the poor and towards our brothers and sisters in need in terms of daily actions, and what are the most urgent, yet unsolved issues today? “We try to respond to the appeal of our Pope, precisely in the Year of consecrated life, to address and help solve emergencies and problems of people not only with the project FranzisCa: even in our schools and in our nurseries we strive for provide access to education and training to poor children. Beside basic care (providing food, shelter, hygiene), we believe it is our duty to offer access to education and training, to ensure job access in the future. We consider proper training the key to integration into society and as the contribution to the creation of peace for the younger generations also of the Austrian population”.

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