September 20, 2017 // Bishop

ABA: Realizing the hopes and dreams of refugees

Catholic Charities resettlement director Nyein Chan returned in 2006 to the area he had fled 30 years prior, to visit a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand.

As the theme of this year’s Annual Bishop’s Appeal video reminds us, Catholics across the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend — regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, income level or condition — constitute “One Body in Christ.”

One of the ways that unity is demonstrated is by providing for the needs of refugees and accompanying them in their difficult journey toward a new life.

Although charity and compassion for refugees is something every parish and individual can exercise, it’s one of the primary missions of Catholic Charities as well.

Nyein Chan, 52, has been in the United States for 30 years since arriving as a refugee. He has big hopes that many more refugees would be able to come to the U.S. — a country where they can express their faith more openly and be part of a Catholic community of faith — free of fear and oppression.

“I like to say that I owe a debt of gratitude to Catholic Charities and the entire community for enabling me to start new life beyond the bonds of oppression,” Chan said.

He wishes that all people would have the right to live fearlessly in a place they call home. “Every family has rights to stay together. Many refugee families left behind family members and loved ones when they fled from persecution. I wish they will be reunited one day.” Chan knows the Annual Bishop’s Appeal will help support Catholic Charities’ work of welcoming and adopting refugee families, being their friends, teaching them English, helping their children with homework and taking them around to become familiar with the community. Teaching and mentoring them about American history and ethics would be wonderful as well, in his opinion.

Chan’s journey almost three decades ago was a long and unbelievable one that many people in the United States wouldn’t imagine in their wildest nightmares.

Labeled an “Internally Displaced Person,” he was forced to flee from his country because of fear of persecution by an oppressive military government. His long journey to the United States first took him to a jungle at the Thai-Burma border, where he spent two years of his life.

That extended, nightmarish jungle experience was only the start of his long and arduous journey to freedom. “A few years later I found myself in the prisons.”

Chan was then detained at two different prisons and two detention centers in Thailand for being an undocumented immigrant.

Finally, after all the years of problems and red tape, he was granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Thailand. “I was very thankful,” he said. 

Chan arrived in the United States by plane, which was arranged by International Organization of Migration. He was happy, but it was bittersweet day. “I left behind rest of my family; my parents, three brothers and two sisters.

“It is still hard for me to be being away from my family — all are still remaining in my country,” he said, except for one of his brothers who has been resettled to Canada. 

At the time he left Thailand, Chan did not have a job. “I was a college student,” he said, adding that he wished to continue his studies after his resettlement in the United States. He studied business administration, has a degree, has taken some courses in leadership and is now finishing his graduate studies in Organizational Leadership and supervision at Purdue University. “Hopefully I will be finished next year,” he said. 

Luckily, when Chan first arrived in the U.S. he knew some English — which helped him in his transition to living in a new country and to his studies. 

Two of the hardest adjustments were the cultural adjustment and language barrier. Despite both, he was able to find a job and was working in a trailer factory before the month was out.

“They (Catholic Charities) found me a job two weeks after my arrival,” he said, happily adding that “they have helped me since the beginning until now, in so many ways, to grow my life in the U.S.”

Chan now works for Catholic Charities as the resettlement director. He has been with the organization since July 2000. 

His hopes and dreams for the future are that his daughter grows in a fear-free country. “I hope that will continue always,” he said. 

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