A Stranger No More

By Stane Kuhar, Parish Finance Director of St. Vitus Church
[Reprinted with permission from the Slovenian American Times, April 2017]

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.

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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