BLOOMFIELD – People on the peripheries of society — including immigrants and refugees — were the focus of the 2017 Bishop Rosazza Social Justice Conference, which drew more than 215 social justice advocates on June 10 to the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary.
This year’s conference theme, “Rooted in Faith: One Family Under God,” offered a series of 12 workshops aimed at addressing the divisiveness in our country by concentrating on people on the peripheries: the homeless, the incarcerated, the victim of human trafficking, the immigrant and the refugee.
Several of the workshops were especially timely; June 20 is World Refugee Day.
This year, Archbishop Leonard P. Blair attended the conference in addition to Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Peter A. Rosazza.
Bishop Rosazza presented the 2017 Faith and Justice Award to Mary O’Brien, for her commitment to social justice and global solidarity as well as her many years of volunteer service to the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Social Justice Ministry (OCSJM).
O’Brien currently serves on the OCSJM Cooperative Parish Sharing Committee and the Global Solidarity Team. She is a member of United Action Connecticut and has been on an immersion trip to Mexico and a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) trip to Malawi. She also works as a CRS Fair Trade Ambassador, traveling to parishes to educate parishioners about CRS and the Fair Trade program.
Among the day’s many workshops, an afternoon session titled “Best Practices for Refugee Ministry” introduced three young adult refugees who told their moving stories of despair, hope and new lives built right here in Connecticut.
The refugees were introduced by Deacon Thomas Breen, who is a member of the Refugee Resettlement Ministry at St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Manchester.
According to Breen, who cited 2014 statistics, 53 million people in the world have been “displaced” or driven from their homes by violent conflicts or natural disasters. Of those, 21.3 million have fled the country of their birth out of fear of persecution, thereby meeting the definition of “refugee.” In 2014, he said, only 107,100 of the 21.3 million refugees were permanently resettled.
Breen noted that all three of the refugees speaking at the workshop came to the United States legally after many years spent in refugee camps. They also went through at least two years of vetting by United States government agencies and were assisted by Catholic Charities when they arrived.
Mary Oo, in her early 20s, was the first refugee to address the attendees. She said she is from Burma but was born and raised in Thailand in a refugee camp. The camp, she said, was surrounded by barbed wire and she was not allowed to leave. She lived with her family in a bamboo and thatched-roof hut with no electricity or running water.
“I always had encounters with fear,” Mary said. “I was constantly worried about armed conflict between the Karen National Union and the Burmese Army that was taking place near our refugee camp.”
When she was 4, outsiders bombed the camp, shot at the refugees and burned down the school.
Mary asked her mother if the family could go back to Burma, but her mother told her it was even worse there and said, “Be patient. Pray to God and have faith in him. He can do miracles.”
Through the United Nations her family came to the United States when she was 14,and settled in Connecticut, where her mother had a friend. Mary said learning a new language was “tough” but noted there were always people to help, including family, friends and the community.
“Meeting them helped me to become a more independent, strong woman,” she said.
Mary attended Hartford public schools, Northwest Catholic High School and the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, graduating with a degree in social work. Today she works at Catholic Charities, helping other refugees make the transition.
She said she always remembers what one of her professors told her: “Mary, you’ve got to be tough like a boxer. No matter how many times you fall, have the courage to get up and continue to fight until you win.”
Mahmoud Ismail, age 36, said he has been in the United States for 10 years, after fleeing his homeland of Sudan due to the many wars. He left 12 brothers and sisters behind.
He initially traveled to nearby Egypt, where he took classes in optics. There he learned about the United Nations and saw an opportunity to come to the United States.
Mahmoud arrived here at the age of 26 and learned English within a year. “Within one year my life flourished. I got my driver’s license and a car, like a typical American,” he said, giving the thumbs-up sign.
He acknowledged the many challenges for those who come to a new country but said “day by day you learn.”
“When you come to America, you become American,” he said with enthusiasm. “All the world is here, all languages. America is a unique country.”
Mahmoud attended Capital Community College. He now works in the optics labs of Harvey & Lewis Opticians and Cohen’s Fashion Optical. “I’m crazy about optics,” he said. He would like to be an optometrist one day.
He also has been working as a case manager for Catholic Charities. “Helping people is good,” he said. “I speak a lot of languages.”
Kilanzo Malendo Mbekalo, age 20, speaks Swahili and French. He has been in the country just one year. He greeted everyone in English but opted to tell his story through an interpreter since he is still learning the language.
Kilanzo was born in the Congo but his family fled in 1996, when he was just 2 weeks old, and landed in a refugee camp in Tanzania. He lived there for 19 years with his mother and six siblings. His father came and went, he said, leaving his mother alone and overwhelmed.
The refugee camp, Kilanzo said, was located far from any towns and jobs. In the camp, the family received corn and beans once every two weeks, clothing once a year and the children went to school barefoot. They received no other financial support.
“The good thing is we started attending school through the camp,” he said through his interpreter.
In 2014, the family applied to come to the United States and arrived in Connecticut in 2016. They planned to migrate to Tennessee to join an uncle but decided to settle here, based on the support they received from Catholic Charities, members of St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Manchester and their case manager.
“There’s not enough time to tell all they have done for us, all the love,” Kilanzo said through his interpreter. “The support is still ongoing. You’ve given of your time — that’s the best thing. There’s no way you can replace people’s time.”
Kilanzo is learning about the value of time.
His first job paid $10 an hour at a laundromat but he said that didn’t pay enough to help his family. Thanks to another parishioner at St. Teresa of Calcutta, he is moving on to a job in aerospace that pays $12 an hour. His dream is to become a doctor.
His mother currently works part-time, and the whole family is working toward obtaining their green cards.
Deacon Breen, whose parish helped to co-sponsor Kilanzo’s family with furnishings and other household items when they arrived one year ago, said with visible tears, “Our job was to support them for six months. The problem is we all fell in love with the family.
“Don’t get involved,” Deacon Breen said jokingly. “You’ll fall in love with them. It’s dangerous and wonderful.”