by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Burmese refugees at All Saints Parish here needed help acclimating to their new home and finding affordable health insurance for their families, Father Dan Gardner knew just where to turn.
The All Saints pastor called on the organization founded specifically to help struggling immigrants — the Knights of Columbus.
Steve Abels, the Knights of Columbus district deputy for several parishes, including All Saints, was quick to respond.
Abels, a member of St. Pius X Parish, recalled how Father Michael McGivney started the fraternal organization to help Irish Catholic immigrants with similar concerns more than 125 years ago.
“It was bad enough being Catholic,” he said. And being Irish only made it worse.
“The only jobs they could get were in the mines, and the death rate was pretty high.”
“Just like these [Burmese] people,” he continued. “If something were to happen to them, they wouldn’t have any insurance. That’s why [Father McGivney] started the order and the insurance program.”
Since January 2008, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas has had more than 620 individuals emigrating from Burma enroll in its refugee resettlement program. Each has been a victim of persecution.
Typically, when people flee Burma, they go to camps in Thailand or move on to different locations in Malaysia where they wait to be resettled.
“Some of our refugees wait up to 25 or 30 years before being resettled over in Kansas City, Kansas,” said Kristen Allen, Catholic Charities director of refugee and migrant services.
Catholic Charities helps the refugees set up homes, enroll their children in school, arrange for health screenings, and find a job for each employable adult.
Refugees then face the daunting task of overcoming homesickness while acclimating to their new life, culture, climate and language.
This is difficult for any immigrant, but for the Burmese community, the challenge is compounded by the fact that they don’t share a common language.
Burma, known to some as Myanmar, is a tribal culture divided by ethnic groups. Many members of these groups do not speak Burmese, but only their tribal language.
“The Chin, Karen, and Karenni are the three largest ethnic groups we serve out of Burma,” said Allen.
“They come from different parts of Burma,” explained Father Gardner. “So they can’t even talk to each other.”
Father Paw Lwin, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Harrisonville, Mo., was born in Rangoon, Burma, and moved to the United States 20 years ago.
He first learned about the Burmese community in the area when Children’s Mercy Hospital called him for assistance in communicating with a refugee family.
“I felt I wanted to do something because my own experience of being an immigrant was not easy,” he said. “So my hope was to help them integrate into the larger society.”
Keeping the faith
Father Lwin and his sister, Joanne Sauter, became involved with the community and found that one of the greatest desires of the immigrants was to hear Mass in Burmese.
Father Lwin and Father Gardner worked out a schedule. But because he had a parish of his own, Father Lwin could only make the trip to All Saints once a month.
He has done so now for a year, during which time he and his sister, a parishioner of St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park, have grown close to the community, and have watched them struggle to fit in. Father Lwin said it broke his heart when winter came and people didn’t have the proper clothes to wear.
“Some of the women were still coming in sarongs and sandals,” he recalled. “That’s what they were wearing when it was 20 degrees outside. And so we had to help them get shoes and warm pants and jackets.”
Helping our brothers
Father Lwin was the first to learn about the refugees’ desire for affordable life insurance. Living in a foreign land with dependents and no family support plagued them. What if something happened to the wage earner?
Father Lwin talked to Father Gardner, who contacted local Knights of Columbus about helping out.
“I said to the Knights,” said Father Lwin, “‘If you want to fulfill the vision of Father McGivney and live his memory, you have the opportunity right here.’”
An informational meeting was held after one of the Burmese Masses and an invitation was extended to the men of the community to join the Knights of Columbus.
Initially, eight men were interested. But when information about the Knights spread through the community, another 24 men asked to join.
The Knights were surprised and pleased.
“We made sure we did everything the way we were supposed to do it,” said Abels. “We had to get interpreters for the degree and everything. We didn’t want to get them in and then not be able to help them.”
In June, Father Lwin and Father Gardner celebrated a special Mass for the Burmese community. The new Knights were given rosaries and their first- degree certificates.
After Mass, the community was treated to a feast of brisket, hot dogs, potato salad and baked beans.
“They have a deep desire to be American,” said Grand Knight Walter Hodge, who helped organize the dinner. “So we thought we might as well have American traditional food — the old cowboy and the Old West Americana-type beef.”
The Knights of Columbus induction event was bittersweet because it was also Father Lwin’s farewell Mass for the Burmese community.
He shared dinner with the new Knights, their friends and families, and helped translate as the refugees filled out their life-insurance forms.
A few days later, he left for his new assignment in California, leaving the community without a priest who speaks its language.
“My hope is that they can continue to keep their faith they received in Burma and their culture, but at the same time that they also learn how to continue to assimilate into the larger society,” he said the day before he left.
“They need to learn practical things —shopping and wearing appropriate clothing,” he added.
Father Lwin’s last request before he left was that the greater Catholic community would learn about the plight of these refugees and step forward to help.
“When I came, I lived with an American family for three years,” he said. “[They] helped me to learn English and know more about how to survive in society.”
He hopes the community he has left behind can find the same kind of help.
“Any family could adopt a family, and that means just to have the social communication,” he said. “They are like lost people in Kansas City.”
“They are like a blind person or a deaf person, because they don’t know the language,” agreed his sister.
The time the refugees have to learn English is limited, but they are eager to work out a schedule with anyone who is willing to teach them.
The majority of those employed in the community work long and difficult hours at Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, Mo.
“They are bussed up there,” said Abels. “They leave at about one o’clock in the afternoon and then come home at two in the morning. They’re gone 10-12 hours a day, five to six days a week.”
They don’t have a whole lot of time to be with each other,” said Father Gardner. “So [Sunday Mass] is kind of a family event for them, and we want them to be part of our family — the parish. Part of the reason they need to learn some English is so that they can talk to each other.”
Sauter said the mothers who are left home alone with their children are especially in need.
“They can’t go out, because they don’t have a car,” she explained. “If someone could help them, teach them English, it would be good.”
“We’re trying to reach out and help them be included in part of the fabric of America here,” said Father Gardner. “We don’t want to lose them as Catholics, so we’ll try to do our best to keep them involved.”
All Saints Parish is reaching out to the Knights of Columbus and to fellow Catholics throughout the archdiocese to help them help their new neighbors.
“They’re enthusiastic about being Knights and we’re enthusiastic about having them,” said Hodge. “And they want to become better citizens, and so we’re here to help them and support them.”
“We will do our very best to help our brother Knights,” he concluded.