Sarah Merwin  ·  United States

Bridging Gaps and Fostering Hope in Kansas City

Edited by Nicole Taylor
Photography by Meredith Kelley
Sarah Merwin
Sarah Merwin, Senior Director of Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.

My name is Sarah Merwin and I’m the Senior Director of Migrant Services at Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.

My mother is an immigrant and I grew up overseas and spent most of my life in northwest China. My father is from Kansas so I spent time in the US as well. I also lived in Turkey for a while, and am a part of an ethnic minority group called the Uyghurs from Central Asia. I have always lived in a very international community. Even when I was in university, I spent a lot of my time with international students. When I was in graduate school, I had an internship at a refugee resettlement agency. I think that’s kind of when I decided this is the work that I want to be doing.

I actually moved to Kansas City specifically for my job working at Catholic Charities. I started in case management.

I had a hard experience when I first started working with refugee families. I was working with a young couple who had been in the US for less than a year. The wife was pregnant with their first baby. And the husband had epilepsy and was really struggling to keep employment because of that.

Unfortunately, because he was struggling to keep employment, they were not able to access health insurance and so there was a cycle of, okay, we’re trying to get you employed, but we’re also trying to get you health care. Eventually he passed away.


Walking through that experience with the wife and also feeling like this was something that didn't need to happen - the feeling that there needed to be something on a policy level that could have assisted this family - has stuck with me for years.

Now that I’m in a director role, I’m working with grants, administration, community partners, and I also get to do a little bit more advocacy and a little bit more looking at things from a big picture perspective. Hopefully I can help prevent situations like theirs in the future. If we’re always solving what’s directly in front of us, then it’s hard to also have the time to address a larger issue.

On the positive side, I’ve been here long enough to have seen some of my families get citizenship. There was a family that I picked up from the airport when they arrived, and last year, I went to their citizenship ceremony and they were speaking perfect English. They were really excited. I hadn’t seen them in years and they had a lot of new family members that had come to the US and were joining them. It felt like a very celebratory thing.

I think that reminded me that we will never know the impact of many of the things we do. Sometimes we are just doing that initial resettlement and we don’t know what their lives are going to look like in 5 years or 10 years or 20 years or however long. But a lot of families are going to remember their first case manager or their resettlement agency. And so, I ask myself how we can give them the best experience. They’re coming from a place of vulnerability and it’s so important to just be kind. We’re not going to be able to give them everything they want, but just having a relationship that shows compassion and good intention - I think will still make an impact.

One of the big things that we were working on last summer was the Afghan Adjustment Act. This year, there was a Kansas refugee Advocacy Day at the Capitol in Topeka. And so we met with and presented to several legislators and refugees that worked at our agency were able to share their stories.

On a more local level, we are always working on language, transportation and housing barriers.

There is all this paperwork that you have to jump through in order to connect people to services, which is difficult for native English speakers. New arrivals need someone to walk them through the process.

Public transportation in Kansas City is unfortunately not always an option for families. We only have buses that come a couple of times a day. It requires a little more creativity to be able to go to different organizations, or even visit our office.

And housing is a really big barrier. A lot of our families, when they first arrive, are placed in hotels. Sometimes it’s for one month, sometimes it’s several months because finding affordable housing is such a challenge. We work to develop relationships with landlords.

It’s all important work. Both with individuals and the big picture policy work because the beautiful thing about the United States is that it’s such a diverse place.


I think about our school district, about how many languages are spoken, how many different populations are being served. We get to experience global culture and the beauty of the world without leaving our home.

Being surrounded by diversity opens up your mind to knowing that there’s not one right way to live life. There’s not just one correct value or one higher meaning, there are a lot of different ways to experience the world.

I think it’s also personally helped me be grateful for the life that I’m living. I think we perceive life as being really challenging, and lose sight of the bigger picture. So many people around the world are experiencing trauma and have no home. They’re coming here, to a safer environment. Keeping that in mind provides a little bit of shift in perspective.

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