Namaste

by Sharon O’Flaherty, volunteer at Joseph House Clothing Bank

   

Joseph House is 7,519 miles from Kathmandu, Nepal. On a quiet summer morning, I and a few of my colleagues sort through and hang some of the newly donated clothes in our clothing bank.  We catch up on family news and current events while anticipating the arrival of the refugees, who are coming to Joseph House for some basic needs- clothing and shoes. Soon we will be busy welcoming beautiful people from faraway places who are here because of dire circumstances beyond their control, things we cannot even imagine.

A small group from Nepal arrives with Megan, from Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services. We show them where to find what they might need. Sometimes communication is mostly through smiles and what might appear to an outsider to be a game of charades, when verbal language fails us.

On this day, an older gentlemen from Nepal is looking at the men’s jackets.  He is delighted to find a tweed blazer that fits him well. I show him another and ask if he would like to try it on? No, he shakes his head. It’s clear this one is just enough and he will be wearing it home. 

While others in the group continue to shop, I point out to the man in tweed the world map on the wall, with pins marking Cleveland and his former home. How far he has come to get here! I wonder what he is thinking. I say a little prayer for him, his family, friends and all of us wandering about on this planet that we share.

In a few minutes, the group is done shopping and they are preparing to leave. We wish them well and they are grateful.  As they head to the door, the man in tweed turns to me, pressing his hands together and with a small bow says “Namaste”.  No one outside of a yoga class has ever said that to me before.  We smile at each other.  I know what he means. I press my hands together, nod my head and respond “Namaste”.   “The Divine light in me acknowledges the Divine light in you”.  Regardless of where we are from, what we look like, or what language we speak, we share this connection.  Namaste.   

 

Background: Nepal is a small landlocked country in the central Himalayas of South Asia, bordering China and India.  It is home to eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains, including Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth.  Since the early 1990’s, Nepal has also been home to over 105,000 refugees from the nearby tiny country of Bhutan, who were forced to leave their homeland because of ethnic cleansing being carried out there.  Some of these refugees lived for 15-20 years in refugee camps in Nepal. In 2008 a resettlement process began, and some of these Bhutanese people were relocated to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.  

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Excerpts taken from the article

“Christmas: A Time to Be a Stranger No More”

By Stane Kuhar, Parish Finance Director, St. Vitus Church 

 

Janez would not live to see three months. He was born in a displaced camp in southern Austria, son of fleeing Slovenian immigrants from the ravages of a civil and world war that had been raging his home country for over five years. His problem?

There was not enough of a “new medicine” that could save his life after he had been born in a small wooden building. The young doctor told the mother that the “new” medicine, penicillin, was not available to treat her new born child. Over the next two months the child would remain in a crowded barrack, 15 feet X 15 feet, that housed more than ten people. That was about as good of a living arrangement in a displaced camp circa 1945. In less than two months Janez was dead and buried in a makeshift cemetery. His mother would not attend the burial as her heart could not bear burying her only child. As the couple was already in their mid-30s they thought at that time that this might have been their only child.

  

Spittal, Austria- Funeral of the Kuhar infant

The mother and father would leave the displaced camp in 1950 for the cold lands of Gilbert, MN. This would be their new home for one year. It was the place where their sponsor resided. The couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio in 1951 where their lives would finally begin anew but without any guarantees and never again to return to the native homeland.  The father refused to be a Partisan. He was classified as an enemy of the state despite the fact that he had been a prisoner of the German Nazis, working in a slave labor mining operation where prisoners were simply worked to death. The Nazis reasoned: Why waste time and money in machines when we have free labor at our disposal.  His miracle was that he survived the 18 or so months as slave labor. He shrunk from 235 pounds to around 135-to-140 pounds. But he was now happy, happy to be in a free country as a free person despite never again to see his brothers and sisters and his newly buried son.  

Despite a number of set-backs there would be many individuals who would help this couple make a new life in a new country now in their late 30s. They would have a second miracle: four more sons would be born into the family. Jozefa was 42 years-old when she gave birth to her last son, a child who would one day earn a doctorate in the field of pharmacy. Baby Janez was my oldest brother. The mother and father were my parents, Luka and Jozefa.  And the son who earned a doctorate in pharmacy was my youngest brother, Bogomir.

In the St. Clair Avenue neighborhood that became an entry way for many such immigrant families after WWII, as much as it also did for Slovenians in the late 1800s and early 1900s, another type of resettlement of immigrants is emerging. The resettlement house is under the Catholic ministry work of “Joseph House of Cleveland, Inc. (JHCI).”

Over the past six years a former retail store front has been remodeled to serve as both as an office and clothing distribution point for incoming immigrants to Cleveland. Three apartments have been remodeled for resettlement purposes with a fourth apartment to be completely remodeled by the end of Dec 2016.

The apartments and office store front now provide a clean and safe place to resettle in a new country with ease of access to public transportation for work purposes: most refugees do become employed within 90 to 120 days after arriving as well as taking English classes and learning the “ropes” in a new city and country, no more different that the newly arriving Slovenians and others after WWII.

An incoming immigrant is a stranger no more to a new country when words are put into action. Acts of kindness along with guidance and motivation to become employed and contribute to their new society are what new immigrants strive toward. And to become good citizens in a new country that offers opportunities nowhere else in the world.  May we continue to pray to St. Joseph for this ministry as well as have the courage to do the right thing and help our neighbor in need with a hand up and not a hand out.

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“Joseph House”

taken from the Divine Word Church Newsletter, February 2016

 

Over the past few months, most of us have learned more about refugees than we ever knew before. By definition, a refugee is an individual who has fled his or her country of origin and who meets the United Nations’ criteria of having a "well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."

Refugees have been around long before the crisis in Europe. In fact, dating back to Bible times, we see stories of Moses fleeing from Pharaoh (book of Exodus), Joseph being sold into slavery (Genesis 37), and even Jesus as a refugee after His birth, fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt to avoid a death threat from Herod (Matthew 2).

We all have a heritage based on migration. Where would we be today if the doors of opportunity in our country had been closed to our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents in their time of need?

The parishes of Divine Word, St. Vitus, Immaculate Conception, and St. Paul Croatian have an amazing ministry to show love to refugees in very real, hands-on ways. Joseph House of Cleveland has the mission of "assisting refugees who come in need of shelter and a path to self-sufficiency, and helping those in need in our neighborhood community". We do this by providing affordable housing and a community of welcome to refugees and all who come in need. This takes place in our three -soon to be four- apartments where refugees live in Cleveland, as well as our Clothing Bank, which opens each week to provide clothing to local neighbors and refugees from around the world.

To date, over 100 refugees have lived at Joseph House since its beginning in 1997. During a one year time period, 300 local residents and 400 refugees came in to the Clothing Bank for shopping appointments.

The work of Joseph House is joyous, humbling, and challenging at the same time. Each week we meet guests who come through our doors looking defeated, overwhelmed, out of sorts, and bewildered but after a short time, leave with looks of gratitude, amazement, and thankfulness, feeling loved and cared for.

We have the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus to people who are hurting in very real ways, suffering the loss of family members, careers, culture, familiar ways of life, and home. They have been uprooted due to no choosing of their own, and are starting over in a land they usually know very little about.  Rarely do these refugees want to be here, so far away from all they know. They would give anything to hold their family members close or walk through the streets of their old cities without fear of violence. They want the same things we do- love, security, freedom, the opportunity to give their children a good life.

God is asking us to love and welcome the stranger. How can we respond to their needs? How can we possibly meet them in their time of crisis? To get these answers, we look to our source of hope and guidance, the Bible. It asks us to love. To treat others how we wish to be treated. To feed and clothe others as though it is Jesus we are seeing in front of us. 

We cannot take their pain away- that is something no human can do. Yet we can walk along this path beside them, cheering them on as they put one foot in front of the other and try to start again.

So what might a refugee look like? 

  • They can look like the Sudanese man in his twenties who came in to the Clothing Bank looking for professional work clothes. He shared with us his goals of finding work, and told us that once he got a job, he would return and give us back all the clothes he was taking, plus more!

  • They can look like the smiling man from Burundi who fled his country during a period of intense unrest. During his 20 plus years in a refugee camp, he met his wife and became ordained as a pastor. He now lives with his children and grandchildren in Cleveland, where he pastors a church on the West Side.

  • They can look like the mother and her three small children from Tanzania who came to shop. As the family shopped, we realized that the nine year old daughter was quite the fashionista, trying on glittery shoes and high heeled boots and making us all smile and laugh. As they left, the three children went around to each volunteer and shook our hands.

    These are a few of the faces we have seen, the face of Jesus when he tells us in Matthew 25:40, "Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me." During this Holy Year of Mercy, may we open our hearts to how God may lead and use us.