(CNS photo/Nathalie Ritzmann)
Syrian refugees are seen in 2015 at a makeshift camp in the Turkish city of Adana. A U.N. summit seeks more efficient, sustainable and humanitarian ways of helping the world’s millions of refugees.
World’s 20 million refugees deserve a compassionate hand
June 21st, 2016
By Mercy Sister Diane Clyne and Mercy Sister Marilyn
World Refugee Day was observed June 20, a time to consider the plight of refugees both historically and currently, not only in the Mediterranean but the world over. There are about 20 million refugees in the world now, a ghastly statistic that cannot possibly be ignored or convey the distress it holds for the people involved.
Today the focus is on those fleeing violence in many countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, but we must remember that steady streams of those seeking shelter have come to U.S. shores since the country was founded and were not turned away. Refugees in the U.S. are a subcategory of immigrant (anyone born elsewhere who now sees U.S. as home).
The Sisters of Mercy have stood by and served immigrant and refugee populations in California since we arrived in 1854. The sisters came to San Francisco to care for and educate the poor, especially Irish immigrants during the Gold Rush, but our 26-year-old leader Mother Baptist Russell learned Spanish on the boat from Ireland so she could reach out to the needs of the Spanish speaking people already here.
In the 1980s the Sisters of Mercy provided sanctuary on our property in the Bay Area for families fleeing the wars in Central America. We sheltered refugees who were at risk of violence if they returned home to El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala.
We and other communities of women religious want to continue to serve those who live in the gray area between a country they fear to return to and a new country that threatens to deport them. In our work, we have seen firsthand the plight of refugees in Thailand and Sudan and have witnessed the conditions including violence that are causing them to flee their homes. We tutor those learning English as they struggle to integrate into our society.
Sister Martha Larsen recently volunteered at the Loretto Sisters’ Nazareth House in El Paso which aids people journeying north to relatives from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in fear of their lives. Sister Martha sees our services for those fleeing their homelands as important but not enough. She asks these questions: “Why are hundreds of people leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador risking so much to come north? What are the root causes? People come because of the constant violence of gangs, police and military. Corruption and violence are part of everyday life.”
Many refugees in California today are fleeing conditions in Central America, brought about and encouraged by our lifestyle: our use of water, drugs and oil. Our government has supported dictatorships which have resulted in more oppression.
What action should we propose? At the very least, our communities could reach out a compassionate hand to those whose lives are in danger and not reinforce walls of prejudice. The Mercy community continues to support immigration reform, which has been blocked in the House. This year we are sending this message to Congress:
“As a person of faith, I am writing to ask you to speak out against fear and using inflammatory rhetoric about refugees. I oppose any legislation that would block the resettlement of refugees of any nationality or religion, both those refugees who have asylum and those who flee violence to seek asylum in the United States of America.”
We suggest careful, compassionate thinking about the vision and viability of a country which rejects those most in need.
Sister Diane Clyne served in El Salvador and Honduras, in Mercy Housing in California, and as chaplain at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz.
Sister Marilyn Lacey, founder of Mercy Beyond Borders, has worked for over 30 years with refugees from all over the world, including South Sudan.
From June 23, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.