When Marie Uwamahoro was 7, her family fled the civil war in the Central African Republic.
She loved her former home, but being so young, the adjustment to life in the United States was easier than it was for her parents. Now a sophomore at Notre Dame High School in Lemay, Marie likes the opportunities St. Louis offers and the diversity of the city. She's planning to attend college, perhaps becoming a nurse.
Belonging to St. Pius V Parish in south St. Louis brings joy to her family. Parishioners have helped them in many ways, but Marie is particularly thankful that parishioners give them rides to Mass on Sunday.
Marie gathered with family and friends at an international potluck luncheon after attending the annual Migration Mass at St. Pius Jan. 8, the Feast of the Epiphany, and the start of the U.S. bishops' National Migration Week. She chatted with Tom Knaup, one of the drivers in the parish ministry that identifies refugees and immigrants who need transportation. His wife, Cheri, schedules the drivers, and they get to know the migrant families and help them in their adjustment to their new country. Tom Knaup praised Marie as a self-starter who works hard to succeed.
Knaup also has given rides to Mazengia Getahun, his wife, Adol, and their children, ages 8, 5 and 2. Mazengia Getahun spent 12 years in a refugee camp in Kenya, where he met his wife, who is from Sudan. He was forced to leave his homeland, Ethiopia, because of political instability and appreciates the United States, where a person can criticize the president and not worry about being shot on the spot or taken away to jail as was the case in his country of origin.
In the United States for four months, he and Adol speak English well. He's in North Carolina on a temporary job and is seeking a permanent position in St. Louis. The Immigrant and Refugee Ministry at St. Pius provided the family with clothing, food, books for the children and more. He appreciates the advice he's received from the ministry director, Sister Leslie Dao, CMR. "She's my strength," he said.
He wants to get an entry-level job here to care for his family and contribute to the local and U.S. economy.
For generations the Church in St. Louis has grown and flourished because Catholics have welcomed migrants from many lands. The foundations laid by the Spanish and French soon were built upon by the Irish, Germans, Italians, Polish, Czechs, Bohemians, Hungarians and others. In recent years, Catholics from Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Latin American have renewed the local Church.
St. Pius is among the most diverse parishes in the archdiocese, with parishioners from countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa as well as Europe and the Americas. Approximately a fourth of the parishioners are of non-European background. They migrated from or are descendants of migrants from all countries in Africa, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Mexico, the Philippines and Cuba, among other nations. The parish's Immigrant and Refugee Ministry — supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal — welcomes, assists and advocates for refugees and immigrants who settle in the neighborhoods around the parish. Sister Leslie visits homes to assess needs and provides a variety of help, from towels to grocery gift cards. She focuses on giving them help to get on their feet and become self-sustaining.
"I tell them, 'I'm journeying with you, but nobody can help you forever,'" Sister Leslie said.
The Migration Mass started with the song "All Are Welcome," with lyrics "Here the love of Christ shall end all divisions." The readings were in Vietnamese, Kenyarwanda and Zomi and petitions were in English, Spanish, German, Italian, Vietnamese, Zomi, Dutch and Mina.
Father Stephen En Suan Lian said in the homily that the Bible is filled with stories of migrants who left much behind on a challenging, difficult path to a new land but found liberation. He told of a revolution in Myanmar, his native country, where blood flowed like water and forced his family from their home. "It was not easy to be on the move," he said, noting how difficult it was to leave people behind. Father Lian is in residence at St. Pius while studying at St. Louis University.
"Our feelings were mixed, with worries and anxieties," Father Lian said. It has given him empathy for the immigrants and refugees who come to America but speak little English.
These migrants, he said, are usually fleeing from persecution and fleeing for their lives. Migrants in search of a better life — searching for security and success — are on "a journey of hope and faith," Father Lian said. Christians embrace them because "we are one body. ... If one part is ill, all the parts suffer. Migrants are vulnerable, they need help. They need protection. They also offer us a lot."
Trish Trueblood and her family from Sacred Heart Parish in Valley Park came to the Migration Mass to support immigrants and refugees. "We enjoyed it thoroughly," she said. "They're very welcoming here."
St. Pius isn't the only place where National Migration Week was observed. The Hispanic Pastoral Leaders Group of the archdiocese was set to hold a Prayer for Life event in support of immigrants and refugees on Jan. 13 at eight Catholic parishes, two Jewish congregations and several Muslim houses of worship. The Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs shared news about this initiative with some of their partners, and as a result the Jewish and Muslim congregations offered to join in the prayer intention.
>> National Migration Week
National Migration Week was observed Jan. 8-14. This year's theme of "Creating a Culture of Encounter" provides an opportunity to raise awareness about the contributions of migrants, including refugees, and victims of human trafficking.
"National Migration Week is an excellent opportunity to highlight biblical tradition and our mission to welcome the newcomer," said Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration. "While the observance is only a week long, it is a vital time to show welcome, compassion and solidarity with our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters."
The observance of National Migration Week began more than 25 years ago by the U.S. bishops to give Catholics an opportunity to honor and learn about the diverse communities of the Church and the work that the Church undertakes to serve immigrants and refugees. The week serves as both a time for prayer and action to highlight the contributions of immigrants and vulnerable populations coming to the United States.
To support the Immigrant and Refugee Ministry at St. Pius V Parish in south St. Louis:
• Send a check to St. Pius V Parish, 3310 South Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63118; specify the ministry
• Online at www.stpiusv.org/ways-to-give
• Call (314) 772-1525, ext. 204
>> Migration Facts
• The Catholic bishops and the Church support humane immigration reform, seeing it as a broken system that separates families and impedes due process.
• Since 2010, 3.6 million immigrants have become naturalized U.S. citizens.
• Unauthorized immigrants also pay a wide range of taxes, including sales taxes where applicable and property taxes — directly if they own and indirectly if they rent. Estimates state that unauthorized migrants pay an estimated $11.64 billion every year in state and local taxes.
• It can take a decade or more for legal permanent residents to reunify with immediate family members from Mexico, the Philippines, and other countries (Congressional Research Service).
>> Refugee Resettlement
• The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is the largest private refugee resettlement agency in the United States, helping to resettle more than one million refugees in the United States since 1975.
• The top five populations resettled during Fiscal Year 2015: Congo, Syria, Burma, Iraq and Somalia.
• 12,000 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 (Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration).
• According to the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 66 million people were displaced in the world at the end of 2015.
Unaccompanied Children and Families from Central America.
• Unaccompanied children arrive at our borders without their parent or legal guardian with them. In recent years, many of these children were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Most are fleeing violence and gang recruitment and are seeking to reunify with family in the United States.
• In FY 2015, Mexico deported 165,000 Central Americans. The number detained in Mexico has tripled in the past four years amid growing pressure and economic support from the U.S. to stem the flow (The Guardian).
• 73 percent of unaccompanied children who had legal representation won their immigration case in the United States, compared to 15 percent who were unrepresented (American Bar Association).
• Immigrant detention is a growing industry in this country, with Congress allocating as much as $2 billion a year to maintain and expand it. Due to mandatory detention laws, people who are not flight risks or risks to national security and are extremely vulnerable, such as asylum-seekers, families and victims of human trafficking, are being held unnecessarily in detention.
• In FY 2015 the Department of Homeland Security detained 406,595 immigrants compared to 486,651 in FY 2014; it is required that 34,000 beds are available each day (Department of Homeland Security).
• Alternatives to detention programs can cost as low as $10.55 per person per day, as compared to $164 per person per day for detention (GAO).
• Human trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. The Catholic Church objects to this practice as an affront to human dignity.
• Estimates vary, but as many as 17,500 persons are trafficked into the United States annually.
• Although sex trafficking remains a serious problem, the two largest trafficking cases in the United States involved labor trafficking, in Guam and in New York (Long Island).
• Catholics are called to stand with new American immigrants as our brothers and sisters.
• Pope Francis, who is from Argentina, is the son of immigrants and a native Spanish speaker. These issues are close to his heart.
• Immigration is about real people who are trying to find a better life and a new beginning. As Pope Francis stated, "Each migrant has a name, a face and a story."
• Welcoming immigrants is part of the Catholic social teaching and reflects the biblical tradition to welcome the stranger.
• The Catholic Church has been welcoming immigrants to the United States since the nation's founding and has been integral in helping integrate into American culture.
• In addition to welcoming and caring for those in need, the Church continues to uphold the centrality of family reunification as a critical component of the immigration system.
>> Dignity and hospitality
Following the fall elections, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Migration, cited the need to continue to protect the inherent dignity of refugees and migrants.
Calls for restrictions on migrants and refugees dominated various political campaigns this fall. Bishop Elizondo asked Catholics and Americans to remain "a people of solidarity with others in need and a nation of hospitality which treats others as we would like to be treated."
"We pray that as the new administration begins its role leading our country, it will recognize the contributions of refugees and immigrants to the overall prosperity and well-being of our nation," Bishop Elizondo said. "We will work to promote humane policies that protect refugee and immigrants' inherent dignity, keep families together, and honor and respect the laws of this nation."
Serving and welcoming people fleeing violence and conflict in various regions of the world is part of Catholic identity, he said. Today, with more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, the need to welcome refugees and provide freedom from persecution "is more acute than ever and our 80 dioceses across the country are eager to continue this wonderful act of accompaniment born of our Christian faith," the bishop said. "We stand ready to work with a new administration to continue to ensure that refugees are humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security or our core values as Americans. A duty to welcome and protect newcomers, particularly refugees, is an integral part of our mission to help our neighbors in need." RELATED ARTICLE(S):