‘Thank God we are here’

Written by Mary McCusker

CHERRY HILL — “We were forced to leave Myanmar,” Maria Hoih explained to the group of individuals seated around her table. “[My family and I] escaped from Myanmar to Malaysia, but Malaysia turned out to be just as dangerous.” Maria’s story was interrupted by her 3-year-old daughter, dressed in handmade, Burmese clothing, who excitedly showed her mother the colorful balloons she had gathered.

Refugee children, volunteers, and others enjoy a day of fun and fellowship at the annual celebration of World Refugee Day at the Catholic Community of Christ Our Light, Cherry Hill, on June 22.
Beaming, Maria said, “Thank God we are here!”

Sitting to the right of the young mother was a group of parishioners. On her other side sat a family from Ukraine, who had also been settled as refugees through Catholic Charities. They were just some of the nearly 200 attendees who joined in celebrating Catholic Charities’ eighth annual World Refugee Day on June 22 at the Catholic Community of Christ our Light in Cherry Hill.

Each year on in June, countless groups around the world host World Refugee Day events to draw attention to the millions of refugees and displaced persons who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, conflict and persecution. The annual commemoration, established by the United Nations in 2000, has a special significance in the Catholic Church, which leads the world in the call to welcome those desperately seeking safety and refuge.

This year’s World Refugee Day theme, “Step With Refugees,” was created to encourage people from all walks of life to take big and small steps in solidarity with refugees. It overlapped with the two-year global Share the Journey campaign, launched by Pope Francis in 2017, which encourages Catholics to encounter the other, and aims to put a human face to the phenomenon of migration.

And many steps were taken by those in the Camden Diocese. Laughter and squeals of delight echoed throughout the grounds of Christ our Light as parishioners and volunteers from around the diocese, as well as refugees from more than 10 countries mixed and mingled, shared meals, and engaged in lively games and activities, from sports to face painting to singing. And, to everyone’s delight, a Mister Softee truck was parked nearby.

Samantha Astley, Catholic Charities’ volunteer coordinator and planner for the day’s activities, took a break from the hustle and bustle to reflect on the celebration in the Camden Diocese.

“[Today] is a time of celebration for refugees who have been resettled in our communities, as well as for all of those who have so warmly welcomed them. It’s been a great day of food, fun, friends and family,” she said smiling, as a group of children dashed past her to get in line for ice cream.

The day was a joyful respite for the many refugee families in attendance, but the big picture shows a much grimmer situation for the 68 million displaced individuals around the world, over half of whom are children.

Historically, the United States was a global leader in refugee resettlement, but the percentage of refugees has continued to shrink as the U.S. Administration has lowered the fiscal year 2019 refugee admissions ceiling to an all-time low and added other restrictions to an already rigorous refugee vetting process, according to data provided by the International Rescue Committee, Inc.

Since the beginning of the 2019 fiscal year, 18,051 refugees have been welcomed into the United States, at a rate of around 2,250 per month.

Those numbers stand in stark contrast to past statistics. With an average ceiling of 95,000 per year, the United States was welcoming more than 6,500 refugees per month in the years since 1980.

The reduced numbers has had a devastated effect on many refugees now living in South Jersey who have family members still stuck in their countries of origin, despite having undergone years of extensive vetting and application processes.

Such was the case for one native-born Ugandan refugee who was granted asylum to the United States after three years of torture and living in fear of continued persecution in his country. He was ultimately resettled through Catholic Charities and now lives in Audubon.

“My wife and children were supposed to arrive in 2017. But just months before they were supposed to arrive, they were told that they couldn’t come, that the U.S. would not accept them,” he said. “I have not seen them for five years now, and I don’t know when I will see them again. I pray for them every day.”

Despite the heartache and trauma that many refugees have endured, their joy was evident during the festivities in Cherry Hill.

As Catholic Charities’ Samantha Astley noted, “Each World Refugee Day is special and unique, but this year we had the highest turnout ever of attendees and volunteers who came out to celebrate alongside the refugee families. They are part of our community now.”