June 20th is World Refugee Day. The Dehonian North American Migration Committee commemorates the day by inviting SCJs, co-workers and others with whom we minister to share their personal stories of migration. The following stories from from Fr. Gustave Lulendo, SCJ, of the Canadian Region, Fr. Bernie Rosinski, SCJ, of the US Province and Lois Harrison, volunteer coordinator of Sacred Heart Southern Missions.
We begin with Lois’ long journey toward American citizenship. It was a journey with more than a few bumps on the road and much frustration.
Lois Harrison, volunteer coordinator of Sacred Heart Southern Missions
MY STORY: This is my personal story of immigration: When I married my husband in 1984 we were living in Saudi Arabia. I got pregnant in 1985 and we decided to come to the States in May. I had a 10-year multiple entry visa. In 1986 I had my first child and in 1987 my second. When he was three months old I received a letter stating that I had to leave the country immediately so I could start the process towards citizenship. We took both our children and left for Canada as I had family there. After a week of humiliating questions, hundreds of dollars to fill out several forms and tests, I received a “Resident Alien” or green card. At the border on our way back from Ontario, in the middle of the night, US immigration officers boarded the train and pulled me out for questioning. Several hours later, with my husband pleading, babies crying, and the train conductor threatening to leave without me, they let me get back on the train. This was done after I was issued a green card. Why?
I did not hear from the immigration department again until 1999 when my father was very sick and I needed to go to India. By this time my Indian passport had expired. The immigration office in Memphis said that I should renew my Indian passport because it would take a long time to become a US citizen. So I sent paperwork both to the Indian and US offices, with several checks. I did not receive my new passport in time to see my father before he died in April, 2000. The Indian Embassy finally sent me an emergency passport, which arrived May 30th and I left the first of June.
Nothing was moving forward over the next two years. I filled out paperwork, talked to the immigration officials, and paid for more forms. I had made up my mind to get this thing behind me as my youngest was learning to read and was curious about my “resident alien” card, wondering what I looked like underneath my mask. Funny, but…
I knew it was time to start pushing to get this over with. Then 9/11 happened. I received a letter from the immigration office saying that I had an appointment to take an English language and American history test. They sent me a book to study. On the appointed day in 2002 I went, passed the English and history test, and was waiting for the final interview and swearing in. In the final interview they asked if I had ever been to the Middle East. Well yes I worked there. So they apologized and said they had to look into it further and they would get back to me.
FINALLY, I received a letter in February 2004 saying that I needed to fill out the last set of papers and send them with a check for over $1,000. I was to report to the courthouse in Oxford, MS at 8:00 am on Good Friday. At 10:00 am, along with 40 other immigrants, I was herded into a room, and with my husband and three children beside me I was sworn in by the judge and became a citizen. It took me nearly 20 years and I came into the country legally.
Sorry to give such a long drawn out summary of my experience, but I wanted to show the disparity in treatment. My best friend and roommate decided to apply for citizenship and with just a few forms and a couple of hundred dollars she was a citizen within a year. She was not married to an American, did not have any special skill, and did not go to college.
It is hard when people dismiss you (not intentionally) because you come from another country. They question your thinking, openly mock the way you speak and the words you use to describe things. They laugh at you to your face and make disparaging remarks about where you come from. This is done with no regard or consideration of whether they are hurting a person (that never enters their mind) because you are “other” and do not belong.
I help out with religious ed, mostly Confirmation classes in my parish and most of the students are Hispanic, but I have had students from other countries who are struggling with the same issues and we make a connection. They belong, they have a voice, and will be heard in their church, the Catholic Church. I am trying to put together a group of post confirmation students called “Let’s talk…”. Hopefully a diverse cross section of young adults will be interested enough to participate. The goal is to get young people talking to each other about current events and what the Church has to say in a safe and confidential environment. This is not an attempt to demonize one group of people to uplift another. On the contrary it is an attempt to facilitate conversation and conversion on all sides.
Fr. Gustave Lulendo, SCJ, Canadian Region
MY STORY: It is hard not to feel concerned about immigration when you live far from your native country regardless of your status in the host country. Coming from a family of immigrants, where my grandparents, for political reasons left Angola to establish in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this reality affected me but without really leaving an impact in my personal experience.
As a Dehonian religious, I had a direct experience of immigration when the Congolese Dehonian province sent me to Canada to continue my studies. In my mind, I was convinced that the process would be facilitated by the fact that I am a member of a well-known congregation. But I quickly became disillusioned because I had to wait for almost a year from my first contact with Fr. John van den Hengel before I finally had all the necessary papers. My first visa request was refused. This situation was really frustrating but I did not give up, and tried again with the same documents. The second time was successful and I got my visa, although there was quite a lot of stress linked to waiting, a stress that considerably affected me and the way I lived my daily life.
Once in Canada, the stress resurfaced several times. Renewing my study permit and my visa, always with the same concerns of papers to collect, letters of recommendation and support from the Congregation or the University, while making sure to have what is required and to deposit all in the right places, without any guarantee that the approach would succeed, was another type of stress to face. What I really learned from this experience was the fact that the situation made me more sensitive to the problem of immigration because, although I had the support of the Congregation, I sometimes had to go through difficult moments of waiting and despair. So, putting myself in the shoes of those who immigrate for political or economic reasons without any external support, I can be in solidarity with them and try to help them as much as possible. That is why, when I was in Ottawa, ministering with the Congolese community, I tried many times to help those in need of papers, looking at problems and trying to find solutions.
Now I am in the Montreal community. Here we also have many challenges regarding immigration in our three parishes. However, the situation is different because most of our parishioners have the right to live in Canada. Their big concerns are: how to have a better life, a good job and to allow their children to have the same dreams for their future as the native Canadians have. The Montreal community has sponsored a family of three (mother with two female children) from Syria but, this was just a financial support without any follow-up about the way they live and inserted themselves in Canadian society. Since the community concluded its financial support (after one year of sponsorship), there has been no more contact with the family; this is very sad.
I hope and believe that something can be done in our parishes or by the community to help more and to be aware about what immigration really means. This is also a challenge for our immigration commission, because as Dehonians, it is also our responsibility as a region to help and to support not only financially or materially but also morally and spiritually those who are newcomers.
Fr. Bernie Rosinski, SCJ, US Province
MY STORY: What am I doing? Frankly, not much. I live on the borders of two sovereign nations, Lower Brule and Crow Creek, where US citizens and Native American citizens can come or go freely and there are no walls, no INS arrests and deportations. It doesn’t mean that my concerns are limited to South Dakota. I send letters about our national policies to our members of congress and, in return, get boilerplate responses. The only time I can do anything about them is at election time. While our state does receive a few immigrants and refugees, few people come rushing to our “warm and balmy climes.” And the few immigrants and refugees I personally know all have homes, jobs, and welcome. There are no local chapters of the KKK and its ilk.
Several years ago one local business tried import labor and mistreated them The owners were arrested, jailed, and their business shut down. This seems to be the local attitude. When immigration and refugee problems become localized I am sure we will respond.