Shawreh Htayliphu, a native of Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — was forced out of his war-torn home in 1995 because government troops had burned down the village where he lived.
He fled to Thailand and lived in a refugee camp until 2009, when he was able to resettle in the United States.
“I left Thailand with about 10 families and a couple of single people,” said Htayliphu, a member of the Karenni ethnic group. “But along the way, different families were sent to different locations. I came to this country alone. . . . I had no friends and no family members at that time.”
Htayliphu first lived in Columbia, Mo., for about eight months before moving to St. Paul, where other Karenni refugees had begun to settle, many becoming parishioners of St. Bernard parish in St. Paul.
After meeting Father Mike Anderson, the church’s pastor, and establishing a relationship with the parish community, Htayliphu, 27, became the refugee liaison and president of the Karenni Youth Conference, comprised of 23 people between the ages of 14 and 23.
The group has a two-fold mission: to welcome and help settle new refugee arrivals, and to help establish an identity as people who contribute to the good of the parish.
The archdiocesan council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a charitable organization that operates thrift stores and food pantries as well as conducts visits to the homes of the poor, announced that it will partner with St. Bernard’s Karenni Youth Conference to open a thrift store and neighborhood service center as early as May 2014 to help new arrivals and others in need.
St. Bernard parishioners started a group in late 2005 in order to pray together and study Scripture.
“They then moved forward living out their faith by addressing the needs of their immediate community,” said Ed Koerner, executive director of the local St. Vincent de Paul council.
In 2007, members of the group, along with programming help from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, began organizing “free stores” in the parish gymnasium on the second Sunday of every month.
“We began giving away food, personal care items, clothing, toys and whatever else we could round up,” said Koerner. “Every month, 150 to 225 families from the parish and the neighborhood began to show up and partake of the ‘free stores.’
“With the arrival of a new immigrant population, there are many challenges for people who are beginning to find their way in a new country,” Koerner said. “With this new group being Catholic, they found us.”
St. Bernard’s now has over 450 Karenni families registered as parishioners.
“This has been a welcome moment for our parish,” said Father Anderson, “but a challenging one, too. There are differences in culture, language and expectations. Trying to bridge the cultures has proved to be a struggle on the part of both the existing parishioners and the new addition of the refugees. But it continues to grow each week.
“The greatest reward is in knowing that we are doing the work of the Church by welcoming the refugees and making a home for them,” he said.
More than shopping
The partnership plans to open a thrift store that will benefit the North End community in St. Paul. Organizers began searching for properties last summer and are still looking for options. They hope to raise $100,000 through a capital campaign that will kick off in February.
“I hate to use the term ‘thrift store’ because it is so much more than that,” Koerner said. “By putting the shops in poor neighborhoods, working people have easy access to basic items.
“We also use a voucher system, partnering with over 50 different agencies that send clients to our stores for household items and to get essential needs,” he said.
“Eventually, the stores become self-sufficient and begin to provide jobs to folks right in the neighborhoods.”
Koerner said the Karenni people are not coming for a handout, but for a better life.
“Not everyone walks around with their hand out,” he said. “This shows us that humanity is still good and that people want to maintain their dignity. They want to give back to the community that has helped them, and they want to be involved and make the neighborhood their home.”