Peace event in Alexandria fosters education about refugees

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Kristi Anderson

The Visitor

Over the next two weeks, Randy and Joan Meyer and their daughters, Rachel, 15, and Rebecca, 13, will light a candle in their home and pray the rosary for Hany, a 21-year-old refugee in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

Until July 25 when the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation committee at their parish of St. Mary in Alexandria kicked off its annual peace event, the Meyers had never heard of Hany, who was forced to flee his home in Syria in March 2011 after the country’s civil war reached his family’s neighborhood.

refugee cards

Randy and Joan Meyer and their daughter Rebecca, 13, look through cards — each featuring the story of a refugee — after Mass at St. Mary in Alexandria July 25. (Dianne Towalski / The Visitor)

“The bombs fell and the windows shook. For a year and a half we locked ourselves in,” Hany wrote about his experience. “We squeezed into one room and slept and ate there. One day the horror came to our house. My aunt, uncle and cousins were murdered in their homes — their throats were slit. Our family needed to flee.”

Hany said the only thing he brought with him was his high school diploma.

At weekend Masses July 25 and 26, the JPIC committee handed out cards with other stories like Hany’s as part of a peace event to raise awareness about global social justice issues and to encourage dialogue. The stories come from various organizations that work with refugees.

“We are trying to expand the notion of what brings about peace, and that is working for justice in the world,” said Father Steven Binsfeld, pastor of St. Mary’s.

But, he said, working for social justice is a slow labor.

“It can be so politicized — people think you must be a Democrat or you must be a Republican,” he said. “But the call to justice is biblical, scriptural. It is a call from Christ himself to care for the least among us.”

Long-time JPIC committee member Kathleen Lingor said members see themselves as ambassadors of peace. “It is something we have committed ourselves to and the parish is engaging in more and more,” she said.

Over the last eight years, the committee has examined several historical and current events and honored those who worked for peace such as Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day. One year, parishioners were invited to create paper peace cranes that were hung on a bare tree in the gathering space of the church as a visual reminder of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Through the peace event last year, the Meyers learned about missionary efforts around the world and began to sponsor a 9-year-old girl in Uganda through the Unbound program. Both Rachel and Rebecca said they enjoy the family letters being sent back and forth.

So when it came time for this year’s peace event, the whole family was on board. “We are doing this because we want to help people around the world,” Rebecca said.

“God’s greatest commandment is to love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves,” Randy said. “And our neighbors are not just the people next door,” Joan added. “It includes everyone.”

This year, the committee is focusing on bringing awareness about refugees — what a refugee is, how many there are, where they are and why its important to know about refugees. This year’s theme is an Irish proverb, “It is in the shelter of one another that we live.”

“It tied in with the crisis in Syria and what we were hearing on national media,” Lingor said. “We also wanted to clear up a common mistake about the term ‘refugee.’ Oftentimes people use the words refugee, immigrant, undocumented immigrant, illegal alien, and sometimes don’t understand the difference.”

The story cards define the word “refugee” — those who have fled their homes because of war, persecution, disaster or other threats to their safety. They include a story and discussion questions to generate conversations. In addition, parishioners are encouraged to learn more about what is happening in their refugees’ areas of the world like Syria, Guatemala and Southeast Asia.

“We are asking people to pray for them but also take time to learn about them — their government, their situations, to have conversations around the topic. One family might invite their child to write a report, do some research or color a picture about their refugee,” Lingor said.

At 5 p.m. Aug. 11, all are invited to attend a Mass for peace at St. Mary’s. Afterward, guests are welcome to stay for a light meal, fellowship and dialogue.

“Families will be invited to share the impact it had on them to learn about and pray for refugees,” Lingor said.

The Meyers have already been touched by what they’ve learned so far. “This effort made us aware of the numbers of refugees there are. And the actual stories of real refugees hit close to home, or really, close to heart,” Joan said.

“When we see news about the refugees, we can’t help but be an advocate for those in need,” Randy added. “We talk about it in our family about how none of us can help the situation we are born into. We talk about how we all have gifts to share.”

For the next two weeks, the Meyers said they will try to put themselves in Hany’s shoes and offer their prayers for him and his family.

“We know this effort will have a wonderful impact on our family,” Randy said. “It is a time of spiritual growth for our family — not only to be praying for them but for them to share their story with us. It helps us see that we are all connected.”