St. Katharine Drexel teen serves Muslim Rohingya refugees during gap year

| Jessica Weinberger | October 11, 2018 | 0 Comments
Grace Baldus, center in red, poses with the refugee school students Oct. 10, 2017, her final day serving at New Thessalonians Apostolate School for Refugee Children in Alor Setar, Malaysia

Grace Baldus, center in red, poses with the refugee school students Oct. 10, 2017, her final day serving at New Thessalonians Apostolate School for Refugee Children in Alor Setar, Malaysia, where she spent two months. Courtesy Grace Baldus

As a high school senior, Grace Baldus knew she needed time away from the non-stop cadence of student council meetings, orchestra practice and tennis matches to discern her educational path, so she decided to take a “gap year” before starting college. But, rather than focus on herself, she wanted her experience to center on others.

The 2017 Anoka High School graduate from Ramsey, now 19, contacted her cousin serving in Malaysia who had spent time volunteering at a school for Muslim Rohingya refugees. A handful of email exchanges later and Baldus, a parishioner of St. Katharine Drexel in Ramsey, was on her way by August 2017 to spend two months at the New Thessalonians Apostolate School for Refugee Children in Alor Setar.

Situated approximately 30 miles from the Thailand border, Alor Setar in Malaysia’s Kedah state is in the epicenter of the Muslim Rohingya refugee crisis. Thousands of ethnic minority Muslims considered stateless in western Myanmar have fled to neighboring countries including Malaysia to escape extreme violence, rape and arson. Pope Francis visited Myanmar in November 2017, addressing refugees and asking for forgiveness on behalf of their perpetrators.

In Alor Setar, Baldus lived with a Catholic host family who ran the school, funded by the United Nations Refugee Agency and other non-governmental organizations to provide a basic education to 70 Rohingya refugee children ages 5 to 14. She focused on the older students, helping them improve their English and teaching them basic fractions, multiplication and division. Baldus would sit with the students during meals, offer up language tips or simply play games — a distraction from the realities of life as a refugee.

“Especially in their home lives, a lot of them have a ton of responsibilities, so they never get the opportunity to just be a kid,” she said.

Once relationships developed between Baldus and the students, students shared glimpses into their harrowing experiences — dangerous journeys across borders, corruption, and random killings that took the lives of many of their parents. Baldus befriended one girl, Mariam, who had one year remaining at the school and would soon face the possibility of marrying young with no clear answers for what the future would hold. She offered the young girl words of encouragement, reassuring her of her intelligence and resilience — words refugees often don’t hear, Baldus said.

Working alongside children who have all the odds stacked against them initially angered her and caused her to reevaluate her faith, knowing that religious persecution is at the root of many of their trials. But seeing the children and their gratefulness for a chance at an education became a source of hope.

“Their smiles and willingness to learn and to show me, a complete stranger, love was so Christ-like,” Baldus said.
“I saw Christ in all of them.”

Now back in the United States as a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, she is using her experience to spread awareness of the crisis, while encouraging others to pray, donate or commit to serving this group entrenched in a humanitarian crisis. A recent fundraiser at her parish helped support the school, including a newly added second location to serve the refugee children.

Baldus’ time in Malaysia solidified her intent to devote her life to service. When choosing colleges, she specifically chose the University of Maryland for its involvement with Engineers Without Borders, an organization that sends students and professionals to foreign countries to address infrastructure problems while teaching locals how to replicate the work.

Whether her civil and environmental engineering studies brings her to Malaysia or another country, Baldus wants her college experience and future career to be rooted in service.

“I have to be doing what I’m doing for others; otherwise, what’s the point?” she said. “Whether that’s increasing awareness on a day-to-day basis, raising money or whatever I decide to do with my degree, I want it to be for the good of others.”

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