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Responding to refugees in radical love

With so many opposing voices regarding the Syrian refugee crisis in America, it’s hard to know how to react.

On one end of the spectrum, people such as President Barack Obama are vehemently defending America’s role in housing and providing for Syrian refugees, stating that we “must do more to accommodate refugees,” whereas others, such as Presidential candidate Donald Trump, are starkly against allowing any Syrian refugees to enter the U.S., for fear of threats to national security.

Of course, Syrian refugees aren’t the only refugees entering our borders. People from all over the world, including Africa, Asia and other parts of the Middle East are seeking refuge in the U.S., trying to escape the terrible circumstances they find themselves living in.

It’s easy to fall into either side of these camps, but how are Catholics supposed to respond to refugees? Several local churches are providing practical examples of what Catholics can do to assist refugees in compassionate and realistic ways.

St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy

Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Church in Lakewood, is a man on a mission. Born and raised in Lebanon, the refugee crisis, and particularly the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, hits very close to home for him.

“The Christian presence is being cut off in the lands of the Middle East at the very regions where Christianity first began,” Father Mahanna said in a St. Rafka press release.

Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Church, speaks about persecuted Christians in the Middle East at the Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast on May 15. Father Mahanna has created the Mission of Hope and Mercy in an effort to help refugees and others who have been affected by the violence in the Middle East. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

Many refugees from Iraq and Syria are fleeing to Father Mahanna’s homeland of Lebanon to escape the terrible violence wrought by the Islamic State. In response to this, he founded St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy in May of this year, whose mission is to act “as a prophet who warns and educates, a soldier who protects and saves, a good samaritan who ministers and restores, and an apostle of Christ who is a peacemaker and herald of the Good News.”

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St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy provides food, medicine, clothing and hygiene supplies to refugees seeking aid in Lebanon. Father Mahanna has a team of people on the ground in Lebanon who are in constant communication with him, reporting back what is going on and informing him about the situation in the Middle East.

Father Mahanna believes it is better to help refugees where they reside, rather than bringing them to foreign lands where they could be alienated and cast into an environment where they can’t live comfortably.

“Helping them in their place is a sign of greater love,” he said.

Sometimes, though, it’s just not feasible to leave refugees where they are. Father Mahanna understands this, and he has provided care and shelter for refugees here in Denver. He recently brought a young Iraqi woman to Denver, where she is currently in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. She wants to become a doctor so she can help her family and friends in Iraq, she said.

Father Mahanna asked that her name be redacted for the safety of her and her family.

This woman’s story is a hard one to hear, but one that’s unfortunately common among many Christian Iraqi and Syrian refugees. She fled her home on Aug. 6, 2014, to escape from ISIS forces. She recalled standing on a rooftop, counting the bombs passing over her head. She and other refugees walked for a day in 115 degree Farenheit temperature on what she called a “road of death.” They became hopeful when they were approached by an ambulance, only to discover the vehicle had been confiscated by Islamic State forces. There was a massacre, she said.

St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy seeks to provide help to refugees such as this woman and other like her. Through inter-faith and ecumenical cooperation, Father Mahanna hopes to be united front in assisting refugees in the Middle East and protecting them from the horrors of ISIS.

“We are more than a charity mission; we are the Body of Christ in action,” he said.

For more information about St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy and to find ways to get involved, visit savechristianmiddleeast.org.

Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs

Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Wheat Ridge helps refugees from Myanmar every year by holding a winter coat and clothing drive. A deadly civil war between at least 15 different factions has been raging for decades in Myanmar, making for very dangerous living conditions and forcing citizens to flee to other countries in order to escape the violence.

Thu Cao, a leader of the AGAPE youth group at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs, first got involved in helping Myanmar refugees in 2009. She met a seminarian at St. John Vianney Seminary who was studying to become a priest in Myanmar, and he would help refugee families from Myanmar by interpreting for them, since none of them spoke English, Cao said.

“Most of them were from rural areas in the country so they were very poor,” she said. “Civil wars made the country unsafe. They came to the United States seeking a better life. The winter of 2009 was the first time we met the families and many of them saw snow for the first time.”

A member of the AGAPE youth group at Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish carries a box full of winter clothing during their winter clothing drive. They donate the clothes to refugees from Myanmar living in Denver as a result of the violence occurring in their homeland. (Photo provided by Lily Dam)

She said there were about 25 families in Denver at the time and a lot of children. They held a coat drive that year to provide winter clothing for the families, and the following summer, they donated school supplies to the children, both of which they continue to do to this day.

This year, their coat drive provided for over 150 families.

“I was blown away when I heard that number,” Cao said.

Cao has a personal connection to helping Myanmar refugees because she, too, was a refugee over 40 years ago, she said. She was born in Vietnam one month before the fall of Saigon, when the communist party took over the country in 1975. Her family fled the country and eventually ended up in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Families from a Methodist church in Denver sponsored her family, and she’s been here ever since.

Cao has walked in the same shoes as the people she’s helping, and said that Christians, need to fight reservations with helping other and just do it.

“As Christians, we are taught to love one another without reservations,” she said. “We need God’s constant help to remind us that we are all the same, no matter where we come from. We all need to help one way or another.”

For more information and to get involved, visit projectworthmore.org.

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.

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