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Fleeing violence. This experience may seem far removed for most of us as we go about our everyday lives. If you had to escape to save your life and leave your home and all your possessions behind, what would you do? Where would you go?
Today, millions of people in Syria are struggling with these very questions. The New York Times has been covering and offering analysis of the Syrian refugee crisis and featuring compelling photo essays that provide an amazing visual perspective that takes you beyond the statistics. With the growing crisis in Syria, we still need to come to grips with the sheer numbers of people impacted.
Just a year ago, the Syrian refugee crisis affected about 270,000 people — compare that to the city of St. Paul which has about 290,000 residents. In recent months, the impacts on Syrian citizens have exploded and over 6 million people have been displaced.
The entire Twin Cities metro area has 2.9 million people — about half the number of Syrian people who’ve been forced from their homes by war and violence. Just stop for moment and consider what it would be like if everyone in our 7 county metro area was on the move by foot, and taking only the belongings they could carry. It’s staggering to contemplate.
Of Syria’s 6 million refugees, about 4.25 million people are still in Syria, but are on the move, having been pushed out of their homes to save their lives. Another 2.2 million Syrians have fled their home country spilling across the borders into neighboring lands of Lebanon (almost 800,000 refugees), Turkey (over 500,000 refugees), Jordan (over 540,000 refugees), Egypt (over 100,000 refugees), and Iraq (almost 200,000 refugees).
The governments of these countries approach the swelling numbers of refugees differently. Lebanon’s government has chosen not to build refugee camps — but the result sounds like what you might read in the Bible. One New York Times report described people finding shelter in over crowded apartments, partially built structures and in stables — which strikes a special chord as we consider the journey of the Holy Family to Bethlehem, and their flight to Egypt after the birth of Jesus. In Jordan the Zaatari Refugee Camp has grown so much, it is now their largest city.
The United Nations has compared what’s happening in and around Syria to some of the largest crises in recent history — like the tragic impacts of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the impacts on the Iraqi people during the war, and the violence that ended the existence of Yugloslavia. What makes the crisis in Syria stand out is the exponential growth in numbers of refugees over such a sort period of time.
During December and January, our parish will explore the journey of refugees as part of our Global Stewardship initiative. We invite you to find our resource kit online and check out a documentary film made by parishioner Dan Baluff. Dan sought out refugees and agencies in the Twin Cities that offer support. He conducted many interviews inviting people to share the stories of their journeys, their experiences, and how they came to arrive in the Twin Cities.
You’ll hear stories of their persistence, extreme danger, acts of kindness, chance and survival. On Sunday, January 19 at 1:00pm, we’ll show clips from the documentary, and invite you to join us at The Basilica to hear a Speakers Panel who will share insights about their work in the Twin Cities and around the world to assist refugees.
The plight of refugees is one that should strike a chord with us as Catholics and as Minnesotans. After all, as Catholics we should understand the hardships of exile and persecution, for Christ and the Holy Family were persecuted and exiled from Jerusalem.
Our state of Minnesota is home to over 70,000 refugees from across the world, and that number is growing every year. Just this year, 268 individuals have arrived in Minnesota. It may seem odd that Minneapolis, with its harsh winters, is a popular location for refugee resettlement, but its strong advocate organizations and extensive social benefits make our city a great place for starting a new life. In fact, the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis is the most diverse neighborhood in the United States, with over 100 ethnic groups represented.
However, the refugee community often remains fragmented from the greater Twin Cities community. Understanding the hardships of those who have faced persecution in other countries and have sought refuge in Twin Cities strengthens the bonds of our diverse and thriving community.
A refugee is someone who has fled persecution in their home country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and because of that fear seeks refuge in another country. Refugees do not choose where they will be located; they are assigned to a city by the U.S. government. However, Minneapolis is a popular destination for assignment because of its strong network of volunteer agencies that help with resettlement. For that reason, Minneapolis has the largest Somali community in the United States and the largest Hmong community outside of Laos. There are also large Ethiopian, Cambodian, Bhutanese, Liberian and Vietnamese communities here.
Such a diverse community helps make the Twin Cities a true proverbial melting pot of citizens. However, families that have sought refuge in Minneapolis struggle with a host of issues in integrating into our community. Language is often a visceral and difficult obstacle. To make matters more difficult, the current economic climate makes it difficult to find jobs, especially because skills and degrees often do not transfer to the United States. A recent study found two Iraqi refugees in Ohio with engineering degrees that were sweeping floors.
The Twin Cities’ volunteer agencies work hard to make this transition easier. Local organizations connect refugees with English as a Second Language courses, set up social security applications, find and furnish housing, and help access medical care, amongst other efforts. But there are limits to funding and opportunities.
As Catholics in the Twin Cities, it is imperative that we understand the hardships of the refugees in our community and strive to lessen them. Volunteer agencies can work hard, but we are called as a Catholic community to continue to make the Twin Cities welcoming and integrated.
About the columnist: "Luke Olson is a Basilica parishioner and choir member. A third-year law student at the University of Minnesota, upon graduation Luke will join the firm of Dorsey and Whitney in Minneapolis."
Fr. Bauer promised to write a letter to the Archbishop regarding what we heard at the listening sessions on November 9th and 10th. Below is his letter:
Dear Archbishop Nienstedt:
On the weekend of November 9th and 10th I, along with the members of my Parish Council, invited parishioners to “listening sessions” after our weekend Masses. The purpose of these sessions, like the one you held on October 30th with the priests and deacons of our Archdiocese, was to offer people the opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns in regard to sexual misconduct on the part of several priests that has recently come to light. As I listened to people that weekend eight themes/categories became apparent.
1. Why is this happening again? Many stated they thought we had dealt with the issue of sexual misconduct 10 years ago, and now it is surfacing again. Why weren’t the protocols and procedures we supposedly had in place followed? It looks to some like a conspiracy to cover-up the sexual misconduct of priests rather than deal with it. They questioned whether the church is more interested in protecting priests than in dealing with this issue. They said we need to put victims first. We need to pray for them, as well as for our leaders and clergy. Many compared it to their experience in the business world. If these types of behaviors happened there, people would be fired.
2. How can we go forward and believe that things are going to change? There is a sense of outrage and betrayal among many people. Their Catholic faith is very important to them. They care deeply about their faith and about the Catholic Church. Many are struggling to stay within the church. Some even said they were ashamed of what has happened and openly questioned if/how they could stay in the church. It is hard for them to be and/or remain a Catholic with all that is going on. People are struggling with how to respond to family and friends who aren’t Catholic. It was suggested that there should be a forum/way for people to vent and then to get involved so that something like this will never happen again.
3. The Church should be a safe place and it isn’t. The question of why a private firm is needed to go through priest personnel files was raised. If there is a record of illegal activity in the files, why not let the proper civil authorities review the files? At this time, nothing less than honesty and complete candor will do.
4. There is a lack of trust in regard to the independence of the Task Force and other entities that will be engaged in researching and responding to this crisis. Some parishioners wondered how we can be assured of their independence and objectivity. Will they truly be independent and will their report(s) be made public, unedited and in their entirety? Who will determine the actions resulting from the Task Force findings and how can we be confident that these actions will address the problem?
5. There is a lack of accountability and transparency in regard to how money is being spent, e.g. funds spent on the marriage DVD, the marriage amendment, the Minnesota Religious Council, lobbying, money spent on attorneys, settlements and support of abuser priests. There were numerous questions about where is this money coming from and who is making decisions regarding how it is spent. It was suggested that there should be a committee to monitor the use of funds given to the Archdiocese. People are even questioning and reconsidering their support at the parish level, because they know a portion of their contribution goes to the archdiocesan assessment, and they are not sure how that money will be spent. Some individuals wanted to know if it was an option to “direct” where their contributions would be used.
6. What kind of screening and psychological testing is being done for those who are entering the seminary? Also is there ongoing reviews and evaluation of priests so that concerns/issues can be identified and dealt with before they become problems? What is being done and what will be done to ensure that we are dealing with this issue appropriately so that it won’t happen again. How do we move ahead and regain people’s trust?
7. There were several concerns raised specifically in regard to your leadership. People said there appears to be a “bunker mentality” — just hunkering down and hoping that the crisis will pass in time. Many people felt there was a lack of accountability in that no one seems willing to accept responsibility for the current situation. The Archdiocese appears to have control over how issues will be addressed and what information becomes public. It was suggested that rather than sending letters and issuing statements the Archdiocese should have a press conference to publicly answer questions about this situation. Many people wondered whether you will be able to lead us out of this situation.
8. Finally, it was noted several times that Pope Francis and his public statements should serve as our model. He has been very open and has encouraged priests and bishops to be in touch with the people, not apart from them.
Archbishop, I told parishioners I would summarize what I heard and share it with you and with them. In regard to the current troubles, I think it is important that you hear not just from your priests and deacons, but from the “people in the pew.”
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. Please know that I will be open to any response you have to it.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
John M. Bauer