Mission dioceses welcome the stranger, disenfranchised

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Chaz Muth

N.C. (CNS) — When Aida Sarkisian and her family left their home in Iraq for
the U.S., it wasn’t because they wanted to. It was because their survival
depended on it.

refugees received death threats as far back as 2006 in their homeland because
of Sarkisian’s work as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Baghdad.

applied for refugee status with the International Organization for Migration to relocate to the United
States in 2008, but they were not approved until mid-2015.

long journey to Raleigh included a move into the Kurdistan region of Iraq,
where they endured the continuing dangers of increasing violence from the
Islamic State, and as Christians they were more vulnerable to attack.

and her husband, son, daughter and mother left behind their loved ones, their
careers, their culture, their church and all of their belongings to start a new
life in an unfamiliar land where they knew no one. But, they were free of

met another Iraqi family living in the U.S. who invited them to attend Sunday
Mass at St. Sharbel Maronite Church, a mission chapel on the grounds of the
Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh.

the Maronite Catholic faith wasn’t the same denomination as their Armenian
Apostolic Church, the traditions were similar and the celebration of Mass in
Arabic allowed them to worship in a familiar language.

found many nice friends in that church,” Sarkisian told Catholic News
Service. “It finally feels like a new beginning now that we have found

religious and social connection has helped ease the family’s collective

offers of help from fellow parishioners and church leaders also have provided
them with a more secure feeling in their new domicile.

the threat of Islamic State violence in the Middle East intensifies, it forces
more Iraqis and Syrians to flee their homeland and the Eastern Catholic
churches in the U.S. are seeing an increase of refugees arrive in their faith
communities, said Chorbishop Michael G. Thomas of the Eparchy of St. Maron of
Brooklyn, New York, a Catholic home mission diocese for Maronite Catholics
living along the U.S. East Coast. Its territory stretches from Maine to

other financially strapped home mission dioceses, the eparchy scrapes together
what little resources it has to assist these refugees in setting up their homes
and sometimes in helping them find work, Chorbishop Thomas told Catholic News
Service during an August interview in Raleigh.

it’s the sense of community that these refugees are most in need of and the
parishioners with Middle Eastern backgrounds are generous with their fellowship
and resources, he said.

can relate with the culture and the food,” Chorbishop Thomas said. “But,
just knowing another family who they can ask, ‘Where should I send my kids to
school?’ or ‘Where’s a good place for me to move to?’ if they know of job
opportunities. Those things are so important to find out from people they can

communities in Raleigh were instrumental in helping Iraqi refugee John
Youkhanna and his family upon their 2008 arrival in the Southern city.

too had been an interpreter in Iraq, but once he and his family escaped danger
for refuge in the U.S., he work menial jobs to help put food on the table and
pay the rent.

was through his connections with the church that helped him eventually land a good-paying
job with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that also helped him build an
affordable house.

thank God for the people in my church,” Youkhanna said. “We’ve been
able to build a whole new life here with their help. We’ve (also) been able to
hold onto some piece of our culture, our customs and our old way of life.”

the stranger and caring for the disenfranchised is a tenet of Catholic
teaching, said Bishop Peter F. Christensen of Boise, Idaho, who is the former
chair of the U.S. bishop’s Subcommittee on Catholic Home Missions.

a time in the U.S. when some politicians have called for more restrictions on
refugees and taken a populist stance to resist immigration reform, Catholic
leaders have urged members of Congress to show compassion and hospitality for
people in need.

the role of a mission church in the 21st century to bring the warm embrace of
the faith to the poor, the sick, the alienated and immigrants and receive them,
as they would welcome Jesus Christ, Bishop Christensen said, even when those acts are
contrary to public sentiment.

Carlos J. Gonzalez, a member of the Fraternal Society of Mercy, is heeding that
call in the Diocese of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, at the Belen Community,
which shelters and cares for homeless men and women who have mental illness,
AIDS and cancer.

people say, ‘oh, come on, you’re giving breakfast to all of these people who should
be working,’ or ‘they’re on drugs,’ or ‘they’re working the streets at night.’
I don’t care,” said Father Gonzalez, who is also a doctor. “I’m not
here to judge them. I’m here to show them God’s love.”

Francis has called on clergy to bring spiritual care to the sick, dying and

pope also has urged people of all faiths to welcome the stranger.

Sarkisian says she has felt that embrace in her new home in the U.S.

are not strangers here,” Sarkisian said. “We have some people, they
are taking care of us. It’s a blessing.”

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Contributing to this story was Tyler Orsburn.

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Chaz Muth on Twitter: @Chazmaniandevyl.

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