In Solidarity With Syria

prayerenglishThe picture of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year old boy, who washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach last year after drowning along with eleven others including his mother and brother as they tried to escape war-torn Syria, alerted the world to the plight of Syrian refugees. Pope Francis, in an effort to stem this humanitarian crisis, called on all Catholics to “express the Gospel in concrete terms” and assist the millions of refugees risking death to migrate from Syria. “In front of the tragedy of the tens of thousands of refugees escaping death by war or hunger, on the path towards the hope of life, the Gospel calls us, asks us to be ‘neighbors’ of the smallest and most abandoned.”

The University of Scranton responded to this call from the Holy Father last year by launching In Solidarity With Syria, a coordinated effort involving university administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, and students to aid those most affected by the current immigration crisis through education and advocacy. Since then, I have been overwhelmed at the outpouring of concern from the students, faculty, and staff for refugees coming to Scranton.

We began last September with an interreligious prayer vigil during which the community was invited to pray in solidarity with our sisters and brothers displaced from their homes in Syria. One who spoke that night was a student originally from Hebron. He spoke of his Muslim faith being honored and respected at a Catholic university. “Together… we can fight the darkness and violence. And together we will make a better future for our families and children.”

Other events followed from that evening of prayer: students wrote to elected officials, attended lectures given by authors on the topic, heard first-hand experiences from advocates working directly with refugees, watched documentaries together, participated in discussions on the topic, and greeted refugees arriving in the Scranton area. We held several film series, took part in webinars, facilitated a refugee simulation, hosted round-table discussions, and continued to greet more families arriving at the Scranton airport. Our final event last year took place at a local restaurant where Syrian refugee women served as guest chefs, sharing their cuisine and cultural traditions. This year, we are continuing the conversation with the community, beginning with David Miliband, President and CEO of International Rescue Committee and former UK Foreign Secretary on the Global Refugee Crisis, who presented new insights to our campus about how we can help refugees together.

What can you do? Lots.

First, foremost, and imperatively, educate your community about what it means to be a refugee living in the United States.

Many think there’s no system in place to oversee refugees seeking entrance into the country. In reality, it takes a minimum of 18 to 24 months for a person to achieve refugee status. The vetting process involves a number of governmental and non-governmental partners both overseas and in the United States. Their need is dire and immediate, yet many live in refugee camps for years awaiting the chance to legally enter our country. A local Scranton refugee from Bhutan who now works with Catholic Social Services spent the first 18 years of his life in a refugee camp. It’s easier for someone to enter on a tourist, work, or student visa than it is to become a refugee in our country.

Another concern many people have is security. Contrary to pronouncements by leaders in our government and those seeking political office, refugees entering the U.S. are not a threat to American communities. Since January 2010, nearly 3,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States. According to the U.S. Department of State, none has been arrested or removed on terrorism charges. And people seeking to enter as refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They have to prove they are facing persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Seeking job opportunities is not a qualification for refugee status.

How can you get started?

Form a committee to begin outreach to your community and then plan educational programs that will make an impact. But you don’t have to start from scratch. There are resources out there. Check out the events and programs facilitated at The University of Scranton since September 2015 that are listed on our In Solidarity With Syria web page. Other resources include:

You can also plan a Refugee Simulation and invite community members to participate. The simulation was created by Jesuit Refugee Services.

Educational programs, advocacy opportunities, and prayer activities are concrete, tangible ways to not only express the Gospel, but also to live the Gospel – to bring Christ’s message of love, hope, and justice to those seeking sanctuary here with us.

Don’t forget about five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in the back of an ambulance covered in blood and debris after surviving an airstrike this past August in his native Aleppo. Once again, a picture of a small boy awakened the world to the plight of those living in Syria just as that photo of Aylan did last year.

For Omran there is hope – he is still alive. But he needs our help. This call to help is quite challenging in light of the fear that many have, given the state of the world and the words we hear from today’s political aspirants and news media agents.

As people of faith, we cannot turn our backs on our sisters and brothers at risk of life or liberty. Together we can build communities that move beyond those fears in order to care for the refugee in our midst and respect the smallest and most abandoned of our neighbors.

headshot_helen-wolfHelen M. Wolf, Ph.D. is Executive Director, Office of Campus Ministries at The University of Scranton.


Going Deeper

Did you know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is active in assisting those who have fled their countries, through its Migration and Refugee Services (MRS)?  MRS provides processing and resettlement services, assists unaccompanied children, leads efforts to end human trafficking, and engages in public policy advocacy. Find out more about how the U.S. Catholic bishops are urging Catholics to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Standing with Our Immigrant Brothers and Sisters

Catholics know that every person is made in the image of God. Everyone is due our respect and our love. We’re called to care especially for those who most need our welcome, including newcomers to our country. Because the Church in America has always been an immigrant Church, Catholics feel this responsibility in a particular way.
The Catholic story in America is a story of immigrants, from the first Catholics who arrived here hundreds of years ago, to the waves of European immigrants whose nickels and dimes built so many churches and schools across this country, to those arriving today in search of a better life for themselves and their families. This is who we are.

We are also a family – a family whose life is enriched by the gift of our diversity. Every Sunday, in parishes across the country, people from different backgrounds come together to celebrate Mass. Many cities have Masses offered in twenty or more languages. Catholics of all backgrounds—Chinese, Polish, Guatemalan, Irish, Mexican, Ghanaian, Korean, Honduran, Lithuanian, Vietnamese —come together and are enriched by the Eucharist and by one another.

As a family, we take care of each other and our neighbors. Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, and social service ministries care for immigrants every day, from language classes to job training programs to offering a helping hand when someone’s in need. We’ve been helping integrate immigrants into American life since Catholics first arrived on our shores. This is what we do.

Given who we are and what we do, we have a special responsibility to reject the hostility that dominates the public conversation about immigration today. The language we use in the public square matters. It should reflect the best of our American traditions – traditions of welcome; of unity in diversity; of care for those in need.

Pope Francis reminds us that immigrants are no different than our own family members and friends; each “has a name, a face, and a story.” Let us remember that Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus were also immigrants in a foreign land when they fled from King Herod to Egypt. When we warmly welcome newcomers we open our hearts wider to Christ.

Most Reverend Eusebio Elizondo is Auxiliary Bishop of Seattle and Chairman of the Committee on Migration of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

World Refugee Day: An Opportunity for Reflection and Action

In April 2016, Pope Francis joined Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos to stand in solidarity with refugees. In his remarks, he lamented their suffering and said:

God created mankind to be one family; when any of our brothers and sisters suffer, we are all affected. We all know from experience how easy it is for some to ignore other people’s suffering and even to exploit their vulnerability. But we also know that these crises can bring out the very best in us.

Monday, June 20, we celebrate World Refugee Day, which provides Catholics an opportunity to reflect on the conditions confronting the millions of people who, like those on Lesbos, have been forced from their homes under threat of persecution and possible death.

The most recent reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated the number of forcibly displaced people to be at about fifty-nine million. In other words, about one in every 122 people living today is either internally displaced, a refugee, or seeking asylum. This is a staggeringly large number. Current political conditions around the world show few signs of improvement, with the likelihood that things will only worsen in the coming months.

Often our attention is drawn either to situations of mass displacement or migration related crises that occur closer to home. With respect to the former, the conflict in Syria has resulted in massive upheavals, with as many as nine million Syrians displaced from their homes, and over three million seeking safety in a neighboring country such as Lebanon or Turkey. Approximately one in four people living in Lebanon are refugees.

Closer to home, the increase in the number of asylum-seeking unaccompanied migrant children and migrant families who arrived along the southwest border of the United States in recent years precipitated a moment of crisis and a media frenzy by the summer of 2014. With an average of 6,800 children apprehended in each year from 2004 – 2011, the number jumped to over 13,000 children in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 and over 24,000 in 2013. Over 50,000 were detained in FY 2014 and, although a decrease was evident the following year (28,387), the numbers again increased in the first quarter of FY 2016 (18,558). Trends are similar for migrant families apprehended over this same stretch of time.

In both situations, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for expanded protections for the most vulnerable populations in these migrant flows. With respect to Syria, the bishops have called on the U.S. government to provide 100,000 annual resettlement slots for the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. With respect to Central America, they have stressed the importance of recognizing the families and unaccompanied migrant children fleeing their home countries as refugees, and the need to ensure that the international protections due to these populations is respected.

These are both important situations that are deserving of our continued attention. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of people migrating in both of these crises and others like them often obscures the individuality – the personhood – of individual migrants who are making a long and dangerous journey to what they hope will be a place of safety. For this reason, it is important that we take the opportunity to highlight the people who are affected.

People like Omar, who fled Syria under threat of torture and likely death, and who has since found a new home here in the United States where he is now thriving.

Or like Mariam, who experienced violence in her home country Sierra Leone and then spent years in a refugee camp in Nigeria before coming to the United States.

These kinds of stories help us to recognize the person behind the refugee crises that we hear about every day. They are not just part of a faceless mass of people, but individuals who deserve to have their dignity respected and the opportunity to live a life worth living.

As Pope Francis stated, these crises can, and should, bring out the best in all of us.

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB. 


Go Deeper!

Now is the time for peace!

Pic 1 posterA poster with the message, “Now is the time for Peace,” greeted bishops from Europe, South Africa, Canada and the United States when they arrived in Jordan for a solidarity visit. The “peace now” theme permeated meetings with Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces represented the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the meetings in Jordan. Then the Bishop and I went on to Lebanon to meet with the local Church and more refugees.  The situation in both Jordan and Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions.

In Jordan, we learned that they are hosting about 1 million Syrian refugees and 60,000 Iraqi refugees. This is a heavy burden for relatively small country of modest means with about 7 million people.

In Lebanon, the statistics are even more startling. With a native population of only 4.5 million, Lebanon is hosting about 2 million refugees, mostly Syrians, but also some Iraqis.  That would be the equivalent of the United States taking in some 140 million refugees over five years!  We are scheduled to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, not exactly our fair share.

pic 2 mass for migrants refugees

Maronite Patriarch Béchara Boutros Cardinal Raï distributes Communion at Mass for Migrants and Refugees at the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Beirut.

But statistics only tell part of the story of the suffering that war, violence and persecution have brought to the region. Caritas Jordan and Caritas Lebanon are doing amazing work assisting both refugees and local people.  With the support of Catholic Relief Services and others, they serve Muslims and Christians.  It makes you proud to be Catholic.  They enabled us to meet with refugees, to hear their stories.

An Iraqi Christian family told us they had good relations with their Muslim neighbors before they fled the Nineveh plains in the wake of so-called Islamic State. They found refuge in Dohuk in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and now Jordan.  They hope to be resettled in a country of refuge.  They cannot contemplate going back to Iraq.

We also met a woman who had fled Mosul. Her family left in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs.  She, a teacher and her husband is a hospital worker, escaped with their three daughters, ages 28 to 24.  It took them ten tense hours at night in constant fear to reach nearby Erbil. Protecting their daughters from being raped or kidnapped was a challenge.  They witnessed killings and saw young women who were taken hostage as they fled.

Another woman reported that her father was kidnapped in Syria because Christians are being persecuted. When her brother reported the kidnapping he was put in jail for two days.

Refugees struggle in Lebanon where everything is expensive. One man said he works long hours but barely makes enough for them to live in Lebanon.  Life was better in Syria.  They want to go to Australia where they have been accepted, but their UN file is not moving.  A mother reported that her children only get milk once a day.  She is willing to go back to Syria if the situation improves because her son needs medical assistance.  Originally, they thought they’d be in Lebanon for two months.  It has been years.

These encounters and many others give a face to the statistics. There are lives and families behind the numbers.  At these and many other encounters, Bishop Cantú assured the refugees that they are not forgotten.  And he affirmed what we heard time and time again, “Now is the time for peace.”  For only peace can alleviate the refugee crisis.  I hope all sides realize that at the peace talks in Geneva.

Colecchi headshot

Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Go deeper:

Read Archbishop Kurtz’s statement regarding refugees fleeing Syria.

Learn about the work of Migration and Refugee Services/USCCB in resettling an supporting refugees in the United States.

Join Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of USCCB and Catholic Relief Services, in advocating to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people worldwide.

 

St. Josephine Bakhita: Our “Universal Sister”

bakhita

Icon written by Br. Claude Lane of Mount Angel Abbey

As Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) at USCCB prepares to host its historic Interfaith Prayer Service for Victims of Human Trafficking on February 8, it is fitting to pause for a moment and consider St. Josephine Bakhita, an extraordinary woman whose life the Church celebrates on that day.

When St. John Paul II canonized St. Josephine, he proclaimed her the “Universal Sister.” Considering that Pontiff´s lifelong struggle against tyranny and oppression of all sorts, the logic behind that proclamation is clearly seen. Slavery, an ancient evil that shackles bodies and souls, is cruelly alive and well today, destroying the lives of people around the world, It is a “universal injustice.” St. Josephine´s life reminds us that within the heart of every enslaved person is the divine image yearning to be free, for “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” as St. Irenaeus so forcefully declared.

As human trafficking increases its devastating onslaught worldwide, God shows us an intrepid example of empowerment and dignity in this audacious saint. Born to a virtuous animist family in late 19th century Sudan, at the age of nine Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped by Arab slavers. She endured a succession of brutal “owners” who degraded, tortured, and, in a manner alike many traffickers today, “branded” her with tattoos denoting ownership.  Eventually she became servant a noble Venetian family, who took her to Italy, where she served as the children´s much beloved nanny. Because the family needed to tend to their business interests in Africa, however, St. Josephine was left at the Institute of the Catechumens for a year, in the care of the Canossian Sisters.

For the family who wanted to hold on to their slave, this was a big mistake. For, with the Sisters St. Josephine first heard the most radically liberating message in human history: Christ had died for her, and she was beloved from all eternity by Him, who she recognized as “that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who he was.” When Lady Turina, her former “owner,” came back for her, St. Josephine had already made her choice: “No, I will not leave the house of the Lord.” The next few days were intense, with Turina threatening and harassing Josephine Bakhita and the Sisters. Finally, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice himself came and defended St. Josephine´s freedom, armed with a favorable verdict from the kingdom´s attorney general.

Like many traffickers today, Lady Turina tried to use “love” as a mechanism of control, the love that the saint had for the household´s children. To no avail: “It was the Lord who filled me with such firmness, because he wanted to make me all His.”

In the words of the Archbishop of Khartoum, a pastor in an enslaved land, we entrust the vulnerable to her intercession: “All of you who are refugees, oppressed, exhausted, and without a roof—you are `Bakhita.’ All of you who are victims of injustice and exploitation, victims of discrimination and of persecution—you are `Bakhita.` And God´s love and tenderness embrace you.”

We hope that all readers residing in Washington will join us in person on February 8 to lift up our voices in prayer for the freedom of trafficking victims. If you are not in Washington, you can consider organizing a prayer service or gathering on February 8. Visit our website for more details: http://www.usccb.org/about/anti-trafficking-program/day-of-prayer.cfm and download the Interfaith Prayer Service Invite.

Prayer is spiritual action, as St. Josephine reminded us before departing: “If the Lord allows it, I will send so many graces from paradise for the salvation of souls.” Let´s take her up on that promise.

 

IMG_0068Christopher S. Ljungquist is the National Outreach and Education coordinator for USCCB/MRS Anti-Trafficking Program. If you have any questions about the Interfaith Prayer Service on February 8, contact him at: CLJUNGQUIST@USCCB.ORG

National Migration Week 2016: “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me”

M7-460_NMW PosterIn the Gospel of Matthew (25:35) Jesus tells his disciples, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The call to welcome the stranger plays an important role in the lives of faithful Christians and holds central place for those of us who work in the migration field. The migrant, who moves from one country to another, is truly a stranger in our midst. Often unfamiliar with the local tongue of the new country, not to mention its customs, the migrant needs the support of local communities so that she can better adjust to her new surroundings. National Migration Week 2016 picks up on the theme of welcome and, in doing so, calls on each of us to welcome the stranger among us.

Sadly, every year seems to bring a new migration crisis to the forefront.

In 2014, the United States witnessed a significant influx of unaccompanied migrant children and families fleeing violence in their homelands. Most of these migrants came from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. The Catholic Church has taken seriously the humanitarian and policy oriented aspects of this situation and advocates in support of increased protections for migrant children and their families who are arriving in the United States.

In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis took center stage. Since its outbreak, at least four million Syrians have fled their country as a consequence of the civil war and the rise of ISIS. Most have fled to surrounding countries, especially Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Many others have moved on to Europe with the hope of finding a place of peace and safety. Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops have called on the U.S. government and the international community to provide support to both Syrian refugees fleeing violence and to countries that have been at the forefront of this humanitarian effort. In a related statement, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged:

 … all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.

In both the unaccompanied migrant child and Syrian refugee crises, the Catholic Church’s call to provide protections and support for these vulnerable people has often gone unheeded and has been instead met by demands to implement further restrictions on migration to the United States.

In the case of Syrians, suggestions have been made to ban Muslim migrants from entering the United States altogether. In the case of unaccompanied children, legislative efforts were undertaken to limit their international protections.

The Catholic bishops neither support a policy of open borders nor a process of unregulated migration from one country to another. Rather, they continue to defend the duties of the international community to implement internationally agreed upon protections that are due to vulnerable migrants, and to call upon world leaders to provide a place of welcome, wherever possible, to those who are fleeing an impossible situation.

This position is rooted in the Gospel, and concretely in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB. 


See additional 2016 National Migration Week resources, including a bilingual prayer card.

Humble Listening in The Year of Mercy

Sr. Kathleen McManus Credit: Clarice Keating/Catholic Sentinel

Sr. Kathleen McManus, OP
Credit: Clarice Keating/Catholic Sentinel

She is brilliant and beautiful, and she was my student in an Introductory Theology course. She is Muslim, and she spent the better part of her childhood growing up in Kurdistan.  At semester’s end, I learned of the atrocities she witnessed as a child, including the murder of her grandfather. And I learned that she keeps that part of her story hidden from others, because she wants to be normal; she wants to fit in. She is safe now, but the people she left behind are not.

Victims of poverty, violence, and political turmoil, all of those who are disenfranchised by society, all who dwell on the margins – these are the ones who reveal to us the Reign-of-God-not-yet-come. They reveal it by contrast, precisely through their cries for deliverance from all the ravages of the anti-Reign. How do we train our ears to hear the voice of God in these cries? Moreover, how do we attune ourselves to the silence of the countless voices rendered mute by systems of dominance? From what do we need to empty ourselves in order to encounter the Truth to Whom we claim to belong?

In every global context from which the cries of suffering arise, women bear a unique burden of voicelessness, even as they bear the burden of care for life in its most basic, embodied form. Witness streams of refugees seeking safe haven from violence and torture: Amidst this dire pilgrimage, it is women who struggle to sustain children and the infirm on their perilous journey in the hope of freedom. And, as terror spreads a global shadow, we who are accustomed to dwell secure are startled by the prospect of our own vulnerability.

The attacks on Paris drew an immediate response of solidarity from the Western world, especially the U.S. Why? With the constant violence inflicted upon people in the Middle East, why the dramatic response to this incident? We know why: They are us. And that became all the more evident in the tragic San Bernardino shootings. We are vulnerable, and we Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as vulnerable.

Answers are elusive. Perhaps our call is to a saving question: Might this glimmer of felt vulnerability be our means of solidarity with the truly helpless vulnerable masses? Might it open the ears of our hearts to the voices drawing us into communion with Truth? Might it mark out a path of encounter mediating the healing of relationships, systems, and perceptions that will enable the reign of God’s mercy to come on earth as in heaven?

Pope Francis has inaugurated a Year of Mercy. And now we approach Christmas, when we celebrate God’s Mercy born in human flesh. How might we bear God’s Mercy in our flesh? How might our persecuted and suffering sisters and brothers teach us the vulnerability that issues in mercy? The Year of Mercy is a time for humble listening.

Kathleen McManus, OP is Associate Professor of Theology (Systematics) and Director, Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry Program at the University of Portland

 


Sr. Kathleen McManus will present at the 2016 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering on The Global Suffering of Women as an Ethical Imperative for the Church. See registration information and schedule.