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From Strangers to Neighbors: Working with Refugees

August 21, AD2017

poverty, children, neighbor

Diana (pronounce Dee-ahna) sat in the passenger seat as I was driving. Her three kids were in the back seat looking out the windows quietly. Diana was equally quiet as we had only met the day before, and it was only by chance that I was asked to give her and her family a ride home. Suddenly she turned to me. “This and thatthis is for close and that is for far. Is that correct?” She made the statement slowly, pronouncing the words as clearly as possible.

My English teacher genes bubbled up in glee. “Yes! You use this for something that is close to you, and that for something that is far. Same with these and those. Can you give an example?”

This is my hand. That is the stoplight.”

“Awesome!”

These are my kids. Those are the trees.”

“Yep!”

“I want to learn grammar. I want to teach my people to speak English better.”

I looked at her and smiled. She was a very attractive young lady in her late twenties. She smiled, and her freckled face blushed to match her rose-colored cotton hijab. “I want to go to university. When my daughter goes to kindergarten, I want to go to school also.”

She turned and looked straight ahead as we came to a stop. I realized that Diana resembled most of the young Syrian refugee women I had met. They were fair-skinned, wore modern jeans or leggings under their long, flowing tunics, and Converse tennis shoes were a favorite. Their hijabs were light and colorful and frequently sequined by hand. Only the elderly mothers or grandmothers continued to wear the heavy black apparel. The few Catholic refugees dressed in western apparel. I began to think that I was learning more from the strangers than they were from me. I was part of a group of volunteers assisting with US Together, the refugee settlement program in Toledo and other cities nearby.

Strangers Among Us

It all began with a homily given nearly two years ago.

Our pastor, Fr. Bill Rose of Toledo Christ the King, had given a homily at our weekly all-school Mass about the terrible plight of Syrian refugees. He talked about how many people had been killed and persecuted. He told the students that it was our job to help in whatever way we could. They were our neighbors (cf. Luke 10:29-37).

As was our practice after every Mass, we discussed Father’s homily. Our 7th graders were sensitive, caring, and energetic. They asked what they could do. We looked up the local refugee agency, US Together, and asked how we could help. By the following week, the 7th grade had organized a food and supply drive for newly settled refugees. Each family would receive a laundry basket full of starter goods: olive oil, rice, laundry soap, towels, flour, sugar, spices, and more. The kids collected enough items for 20 baskets.

We kept in touch with US Together over the next 18 months and continued to provide help where we could. Then, in the spring of this year, coordinator Corinne Dehabey asked if we could organize a special summer camp just for women and children. She said that the men get jobs and get out into the community, where they learn English and the customs of our society. The children go to school. The women, however, stay at home with their younger children and have little opportunity to join the community or learn about anything beyond their four walls.

With the help of various Christ the King parishioners and generous support from community groups and institutions around Toledo, we came up with a schedule following Corrine’s timeline. We would meet on Monday, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at various locations around the city. There would be Art Museum tours and lessons, swim lessons for the kids, a tour of local orchards, a visit to Lake Erie and the docks, a concert at the Zoo, pottery workshops, field trips at the Botanic Gardens, and an in-service at the Library. They would practice driving directions, fill out forms, shop at various locations, visit coffee shops, and see, many for the first time, the inside of a Catholic cathedral and a Jewish synagogue.

From Strangers to Neighbors

Corinne wanted them to see how pluralistic and diverse American society is, to practice their English, and, most of all, to see the possibilities for themselves. Not only did we all look different and dress in a wide range of ways here, we were accustomed to talking to one another much more freely and openly. And while many of the women had gone to school, most had no opportunity to go to university or pursue a dream of their own, as they spent the past two or three years in a refugee settlement in Jordan or Turkey.

As the weeks went by, they changed from a bloc of refugees to individual women with expanding opportunities, unique personalities, and a new-found ability to stand on their own. As we enter week 4, the women now easily ask questions about music, food, schools, neighborhoods, and, most of all, what words to use. We know each other’s names, our talents, our children, and our dreams.

And while they bring their culture with them, whether they are Muslim or Catholic, they are seeing the new person they can become, in this new place, in their new home. They will add their individual gifts to our community in due time.

I Was a Stranger …

It all started with a homily and a group of kids who took their Catholic faith seriously enough to do something about it. They welcomed strangers (cf. Matthew 25:35) and set an example for all of us to do the same.

Meanwhile, I hope that Diana will go to school and teach English. She has invited me over to tea at her home and said that she will show me how she braids her long hair each morning and practices her English words. I am looking forward to it.

See stories published about this in the Toledo Blade and Catholic New Agency.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

After marrying her husband, Jim Roberts, in 1980, Cynthia Millen graduated from law school, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Law Review, and practiced in Ohio for a short while. Excited about having a large family, Jim and Cindy were blessed more quickly than expected with the birth of five children in four years (two set of twins), and she enjoyed being a stay-at-home mother. Her love for reading and writing grew into the publication of several children's books (under the name C. M. Millen), poems, short stories, and a short book about the Natural Law while earning her M.Litt. from Trinity College, Dublin. (Thank you dear Professor William Binchy) Now she relishes the teaching (and learning) from the students at Christ the King School in Toledo, Ohio, attending Mass there with marvelous parishioners and priests, visiting Ireland whenever possible, and staying close to her two wonderful grandchildren in Vermont.

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  • captcrisis

    Refugees are a whole lot worse off because of people like you, who voted for Trump, who demonizes them.

    • Cynthia Millen

      To Ranger and Captcrisis:

      You both are guilty of painting with too broad of a brush and are inaccurate in your thinking.

      First of all, I voted for Mr. Trump because, as a Catholic, I could not stomach voting for someone as anti-life as Hillary Clinton. I know many, many people who voted for Trump for the same reasons I did and who help refugees, and do not fit the stereotype promulgated by the media. I suggest you get to know more people who actually voted for him and ask their reasons why.

      Second, Islam is not a cult. It is a good religion based upon the writings of Mohammed. It is one of the three great monotheistic faiths in the world. My son-in-law is Muslim, as are many of my friends. Please get to know more Muslims. Judge by what you know, not what you see in the media. Yes, there are radical extremists, but they do not represent what Islam truly is.

      Finally, may I suggest that you use your ability to post for more positive and uplifting messages?

      Cynthia Millen

    • captcrisis

      Imagine reading a post from a proud Hillary voter about her work with Down’s Syndrome children. How would you react to that?

    • Cynthia Millen

      I will pray for you at Mass this morning. You are wasting so much God-given energy on trying to score political points.

      As for your question–believe it or not, there are very good people who voted for Mrs Clinton and actively support charities for children with Downs and other disabilities—and I think they are awesome folks. There are –yes– pro-life people who voted for her. You need to get out and meet people where they are and try using your arm to shake others’ hands rather than patting yourself on the back. God bless you.

    • captcrisis

      You could have reflected on the irony of a Trump voter talking about the need to understand refugees. It would have been easy to do — admitting that while you might not regret your vote, with Trump in power you are in part responsible for this intolerant and hateful state of affairs. Instead, by saying “I will pray for you” you use prayer to “pat yourself on the back” in violation of what Jesus told us in Matthew 6:5 – 6.

      Humbly done, prayer can change you. Are you ready for it?

    • Spitfire

      Sorry, Miss Millen, but you know nothing about Islam! You use the same rhetoric used by Muslim apologists though.

    • Cynthia Millen

      Spitfire,
      Let me ask you this. How many Muslims to you know personally? How many have you shared a meal with or met for coffee?
      It’s easy to make broad, speculative statements. But let me give you some facts:

      1. The people who have suffered the most casualties at the hands of ISIS/the Taliban and other violent fundamentalists in the Middle East are Muslims themselves. Christians and other people of faith have also suffered enormously, but it is the Muslims who are moderate or do not “tow the line” to Isis’ crazy rules who have suffered more deaths, injuries, and loss of property. When an area is liberated from ISIS, it is the frequently the Muslims who celebrate their freedom the most, to live the way they wish.

      2. In the area stretching from Toledo to Detroit, there lives one of the largest Muslim populations in the U.S. They settled here over 100 years ago. They work in every profession and own all types of businesses. Many of their children have been educated in Catholic schools. They are our doctors, lawyers, restaurant owners, professors, and friends.
      If Islam were such a violent religion, in and of itself, we non-Muslims would all have been killed years ago. Instead, we feel blessed that they are part of our communities, and we have seamlessly intermingled and intermarried with them for over 100 years. Our family was blessed to have my daughter marry a wonderful Muslim man last year. (No, she did not convert and neither did he ask her to do so.)

      Please make a point to visit a Mosque, or meet an Imam (a religious leader).
      ISIS is not Islam. The Taliban is not Islam. As an Irish-American, it pained me to see Catholic IRA members support violence in Ireland. That is not true Catholicism and fundamentalist violence is not true Islam.

      Peace to you.

    • captcrisis

      Good point. Though as a liberal I don’t have to actually meet someone in order to feel sympathy for them and object to unjust discrimination.

      Spitfire should also realize that if s/he’s in any kind of urban area, s/he sees Muslims every day, as co-workers, or in gas stations or convenience stores, cell phone stores, etc. Often behind the counter. Do those people look like terrorists? Of course not. They’re trying to live peacefully and support their families, just like the rest of us.

    • Cynthia Millen

      We agree. But I would change the start of your second sentence to read: “Though as a human…..”

      Peace.

  • ranger01

    Christian refugees do not have the agenda demanded by the cult of muhammad.
    Welcome.