Working with refugees builds friendships at Oakdale parish

| Bridget Ryder | December 5, 2017 | 1 Comment

Parishioners of Guardian Angels in Oakdale sponsored this family of eight from Myanmar, pictured in their Twin Cities apartment in June. The family asked that their names be withheld. Courtesy Joan Healy-Hauser

Parishioners at Guardian Angels in Oakdale have spent the last six months helping a refugee family from Burma acclimate to life in the United States. Though their obligation to the family through Lutheran Social Services’ resettlement program ended in November, the experience has taught them about friendship, cultural expectations and even happiness.

“We had preconceived notions of what it would be like to help them acclimate,” said Joan Healy-Hauser, 63, one of the parishioners who volunteered to mentor the family. “We knew they were from Burma, spoke little English and that they had spent 12 years in a refugee camp. We had no idea we would be blessed with such a wonderful family.”

The family assigned to Guardian Angels was a married couple with six children, ages 9 to 19, from Myanmar, also known as Burma, in southeast Asia, and a country Pope Francis recently visited. They were also reunited with an older daughter who had already settled in Minnesota.

LSS found the family an apartment and assisted with job placement, while Guardian Angels parishioners provided some financial help, furnished the apartment and guided the family through daily life, such as understanding public transportation and shopping.

The mentoring team, consisting of a group of 12 volunteers, met with the family twice a week. Each Monday and Thursday, four members of the team spent the evening in the family’s home, answering questions, helping the children with homework and practicing English. The parishioners, though, said they learned as much as they were teaching.

Healy-Hauser recalled that the family arrived carrying all their possessions in six suitcases.

“We learned it’s not material possessions that make life blessed,” she said.

On another occasion, volunteers took the family on what they thought was a desperately needed trip to the grocery store.

“By our standards, the cupboards were bare,” Healy-Hauser said. “We later found out that they had a 25-pound bag of rice, and they thought they had plenty.”

Understanding and accepting cultural differences has been part of the learning experience for volunteers. Meetings with the family, for example, took place on the floor, their preference over sitting at a table. They also learned new ways to communicate, such as using facial expressions. With the family’s limited English, communicating was difficult.

“When we did finally get a message across, they would give us a big hug,” Healy-Hauser said.

As such, parishioners also learned about the immigrant and refugee experience months before Pope Francis launched the “Share the Journey” initiative to draw attention to refugee and immigrants’ plight worldwide.

Suzanne Bernet, justice and outreach coordinator for the parish, was surprised to learn that the family is responsible for repaying the government for the cost of airfare to the United States, a considerable expense for a family of eight, although some loan forgiveness is available. The parish is looking into helping the family apply for that assistance.

This is not the parish’s first time helping refugee families make Minnesota home. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, parishioners worked with Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis to resettle several Vietnamese families.

Judy Scheider, 78, who was involved with the first families the parish resettled, said Catholic Charities regularly turned to Guardian Angels for support in resettling refugees at that time. She and other volunteers worked with approximately eight groups of families. Many have become lifelong friends. One of those former refugees, now a restaurant owner, donated $1,000 worth of gift cards for his restaurant to assist with resettling the most recent family. Bernet said the parish is still deciding how it will use the donation.

Now that the contract with LSS has ended, volunteers want to continue the relationship they built with the family. They have planned a meeting with an interpreter to see how the family would like to stay in touch with them going forward.

“We never expected them to become close friends, but they have,” Healy-Hauser said.

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Category: Local News