Tuesday, February 23, 2016

To See Our Own Light

Kay Samuelson currently serves as a Computer Literacy / Job Readiness ESL Instructor with The Opening Word Program on Long Island. She lives at St. Hugh’s Convent in Huntington Station, NY where she shares community with four Amityville Dominican Sisters and fellow volunteer Angela Chiappone.

Before I entered life as a Dominican Volunteer, my Catholic education was reduced to what I had learned in History of Christianity general requirements, been told by my Southern Baptist friends, and picked up in my readings of Saint Hildegard. Mystic, botanist, and all around empowered woman, Hildegard’s work called to me in my years as an undergrad. I found myself returning to her words in my first weeks as a volunteer. A single quote stood out to me as I contemplated my purpose in ministry: “We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.”

The Opening Word Literacy Program aims to unlock the language ability of immigrant women, providing them the key to future empowerment. My ministry position is to travel between all three of The Opening Word schools (Amityville, Huntington Station, and Wyandanch) to provide the students computer, technology, and job readiness classes. As a mild perfectionist and Type A worker, I entered into this ministry with structured lesson plans, regimented worksheets, and sharpened pencils at the ready. By God, I was prepared to enrich and educate; my purpose was clear – gifting female empowerment. Little did I know, the women of The Opening Word, my 90 students hailing from El Salvador, Haiti, Turkey, Jordan, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and elsewhere, would be the ones to give me my voice, to show me my own light.

The education program at all three schools focuses on holistic approach: addressing the needs of the individual, so they may be at their very best, so they may reach their goals. This has privileged me to one-on-one time with the women and this is what broke down my strict barriers of what I thought it meant to be a teacher. I discovered that my students have become my ray of shining light. In our pedestrian encounters, those moments outside of lesson plans, with pencils down, is where the most profound education happens. My El Salvadorian mothers have taken me on as their own kin, asking about grad school applications and giving me relationship advice in broken English (“If he is good, be good to him. But know that you are good too”). I help conversationally with their sentence structure so they may communicate their stories of migration, loss, and growth. My young Turkish and Afghani students educate me on where to find the local mosque, Arabic cultural differences, and how to compliment the other women in their native tongue (“Shaista di mashallah!”). We scour job search engines and community college registrars during breaks to find their options for next year. The education is specialized and special to all who encounter these driven yet loving women.

The St. Hugh of Lincoln Community celebrates Halloween!
I was unaware, as a Mid-West redhead who had only ever heard Spanish on television, of the true realities of our immigrant sisters and brothers. I was unaware of the radical work being done by American Catholics to help those men and women who simply want to take part in this national dream, to earn a living for themselves and their children and to give back to the communities surrounding them. The women of The Opening Word truly embody Hildegard’s message and can act as an example for all of us: Catholic, black, American, straight, Korean, trans, Pagan, white… whatever!  You must first take back your own listening, open your heart and mind to the knowledge others have to give. Then, use your own voice to give compassion to others. Finally, see your own light - know that a small act, something as simple as a conversation between classes, can change a life.

For more information about The Opening Word Program, please visit our website http://www.openingword.org/ or follow us on FB https://www.facebook.com/theopeningword/ !

Monday, February 8, 2016

Insha' Allah Part 2

Chris Bargeron currently serves at Catholic Charities Atlanta in Refugee Resettlement as an employment specialist with Dominican Volunteers USA. He lives in community at the Penn Community in Atlanta, GA with two Dominican sisters of Sinsinawa, a husband and wife with a one year old boy, a former Peace Corps/Episcopal Volunteer, and one other Dominican Volunteer, Holly Sammons.

                  They say that if you look at a picture at a different angle, something new will speak to you. Maybe you didn’t catch that shade of blue in the sky when you looked at it before or you didn’t realize the true emotion of someone’s mannerisms until you looked at it in a different angle. Last year when I was serving as an ESL teacher in Chicago, I was moved by this phrase, “Insha’Allah” which means “God willing.” I think I have a different perspective of that phrase after some of my experiences in Atlanta this year.
                  As an employment specialist, there are a lot of different moving parts that I need to control at the same time in order for a refugee to be happy. “Is that job close to home? Is it accessible by bus? Does it pay well? Can I work second shift?” are a few of the many questions I get asked in deciding if this is a job that a particular refugee wants. It gets tough sometimes— having to reject a refugee’s desires to work in a sushi restaurant because you know that they will not be able to live off of the unjust wages that most workers working in Asian restaurants in Georgia receive. Sometimes, with all my might, prayers and power, I am not able to sway refugees in the direction that I perceive as correct. Are these the type of outcomes that God wills? Am I doing something wrong in not trying harder? There’s an incredible amount of pressure trying not to “drop the ball” on these refugees. At any given time, I am helping out 30-35 refugees, at different points in their lives, find gainful employment in order to be self-sufficient, a term that is highly taken for granted by many people in this country.
                  I’ve realized that there are many aspects of life that are taken for granted by Americans in general. I have come to this realization on a deeper level after the catastrophic attacks in Paris. I had no idea that I would continue to be mentally impacted by this event for weeks and months afterward.

Above is a photograph I took before the Paris attacks of a wonderful little picture showing Atlanta endorsing the lives of refugees moving and resettling here, making Atlanta their home. It says, “Refugees, Welcome… Bring your families.”

Here is a picture I took of the same place, three days after the Paris attacks.

                  As I drove past this, my heart sank. Not to mention, I’m living in a country that has condemned not only Syrian refugees, but all refugees. Syrian refugees were being denied to come into this country, to receive benefits, food stamps, to live. I thought, “What a disgusting moment in time for America.”
                  It was a rough time to wake up every morning and go to work knowing that I might be hated by many, many people that don’t even know me around the country. It was hard for me to also hear that fellow resettlement agencies had received death threats and cryptic phone calls in the weeks following the Paris attacks. I was wondering at the time if God willed these incredulous acts and responses, and if some kind of devastating attack on my resettlement agency would happen because of such hate towards ones that are what, escaping fear themselves and the ones helping them rebuild a new life? I also remembered that God also gave each individual free will. To me, the thought of each person having free will allowed me to be peaceful just the slightest bit and continue my work every day. I know that God will protect not only me but also all of us trying to rebuild the lives of those displaced.
                 To make it even better, during those 4-6 weeks of what I want to consider as a dark moral time in America, I had the incredible honor to place a Syrian refugee in a job. That was the moment in time that made everything worth it. And it continues to drive my passion to continue to help these refugees gain employment, live a life that they deserve to live and not have to fear anymore.
                This is a time in America to become more educated about who lives around us and about the refugees that come to this country to live a better life, to live a life without fear. It is not the time to be shunning the existence of those who haven’t even committed crimes. If things were to turn for the worst in our own country, I’m sure that many of us wouldn’t want to be denied entrance into other countries. I continue to be blessed everyday with refugees that come in with different stories and journeys with the same common goal. They want to be able to provide for their family. They want to be able to know the feeling of living how an average American feels, without fear. So I will continue to advocate for refugees and to be their rock and their helper in their continuing journeys, Insha’Allah. But I know that God will always will my actions.

For more information about refugee resettlement and other services Catholic Charities Atlanta provides, please visit catholiccharitiesatlanta.org

Both Chris Bargeron and Holly Sammons, work in Catholic Charities Atlanta serving in refugee resettlement.