On Wednesday, Sept. 27, Pope Francis inaugurated a two-year global public action and awareness crusade to promote opportunities for migrants and their new communities to strengthen the bond between them. In a demonstration of solidarity with both the Holy Father’s initiative and the Migration and Refugee Services department of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, that same morning Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades visited two refugee families living in Fort Wayne.
The “Share the Journey” campaign is spearheaded by Caritas Internationalis, the worldwide umbrella organization of Catholic Charities. It runs until September 2019 and urges local communities to defend migrants, not stereotype them; and to facilitate encounters in public places and in private homes between migrants and those who fear or disparage them.
Putting into practice Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger, Bishop Rhoades greeted Thang Suan Siam, known as Jerome, at the door of his family’s home in northern Fort Wayne. Accompanying the bishop was Gloria Whitcraft, executive director of Catholic Charities for the diocese and Jerome’s boss. Jerome, who has been in the U.S. for seven years, introduced members of two families from the Chin State in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). They included his father, Hau Lian Mang; his mother, Yung Nian No; his cousin, Mang Sian Tol, known as Raymond; his cousin’s wife, Nian Huai Cing, called Mary; and their 3-year-old daughter, Niang Deih Jerome, called Dianna. An older daughter was in school.
All the family members are legal, permanent U.S. residents and attend the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, near where Raymond’s family lives. They can apply for citizenship after five years of residing in the U.S.
After presenting gifts to each household, Bishop Rhoades asked Jerome to talk about why and how his family came to America, and what life was like in Myanmar.
Interpreting for his parents, Jerome described the poor conditions and lack of food in their village. He related how the solders would come and terrorize the villagers, shooting their animals while the people hid in the forest until the soldiers left. However, they were free to practice their Catholic faith.
Jerome’s father was forced to work in Malaysia for 10 years, a distance of more than 1,600 miles from home. He cooked in a Chinese restaurant and would send money to support his family, which consisted of his wife, Jerome and four daughters. Two of Jerome’s sisters now are living in the U.S., one remains in Myanmar and the fourth sister, in Malaysia, is hoping to journey to America very soon, Jerome said.
“How difficult was that for your Mom and Dad to be separated?” Bishop Rhoades asked.
“It was very hard,” Jerome related, “especially since my Dad often was put in jail because he wasn’t a citizen of Malaysia.”
“What was it like for your mother to try and raise five children with her husband away working in Malaysia?” Bishop inquired.
“It was very hard, because the soldiers would come make 20 or 30 villagers carry their stuff and demand everyone pay them money, sort of like a ransom,” Jerome explained.
Bishop Rhoades asked whether Jerome’s cousin, Raymond, came to the U.S. when he did. Jerome replied that Raymond arrived in this country less than a year ago. “Why did your cousin Raymond and his wife decide to come to the United States?” Bishop asked.
“Because they were very poor,” came the answer. They did have some problems with the soldiers coming for money, but not as much. Here, however, he has a job and money to live on.
Awaiting a visa to come to the U.S. took Jerome and his parents nearly two years, he said. They lived in a camp outside Malaysia, but had to avoid getting caught and being sent to jail.
“What was it like for your parents when they landed in the United States?” Bishop Rhoades asked.
“It was like coming home, going back to his boyhood parent’s house,” Jerome’s father exclaimed. “Did they feel welcomed?” Bishop Rhoades inquired. “Yes,” they both said. They immediately came to Fort Wayne, where Catholic Charities helped them find a place to live and get a job. Both Jerome’s dad and Raymond have factory jobs. Catholic Charities also assisted with their health care needs and school enrollment.
Jerome indicated, after Bishop Rhoades asked, that his mother, in particular, was now getting the health care she needed.
“Ask your parents how they liked the snow and cold weather,” Bishop jokingly suggested. Seeing snow was like a “new life,” Jerome’s father replied.
“What’s it like being in the church here?” Bishop Rhoades asked. “Do they feel at home in the Catholic Church?”
“Yes, we do,” said Jerome. “And my first time to visit the cathedral I asked myself, ‘Is it real?’
I felt like I was in a movie. The flowers and decorations were so nice,” he exclaimed. He added that they really appreciate the special Burmese Mass celebrated in the St. Mother Theodore Guérin Chapel adjacent to the cathedral, usually by Father Peter Dee De, a parochial vicar at the cathedral who is also from Myanmar.
The visit concluded with pictures and the opening of the bishop’s gifts, after which he blessed the gifts, the families and the home. Jerome’s parents had presented a generous serving of a Burmese lunch, consisting of soup, white rice, tilapia, prawns, mixed vegetables and fruit.
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