by Moira Cullings
TONGANOXIE — Sisi was overwhelmed when she fled to the United States from Burma.
“I was facing so many difficulties,” she said.
Sisi didn’t speak English, couldn’t drive a car and needed to drop off and pick up her daughter from the school bus stop each day.
“[For] about one year, I’m struggling like this,” she said. “Now, I’m very successful within four years. I’m so proud of myself.”
Sisi, a graduate of Catholic Charities’ New Roots for Refugees program, told her story of resettlement to a group of seven parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish in Tonganoxie on Jan. 30.
“Each year, our pastoral council sets some goals to concentrate on,” said pastor Father Mark Goldasich. “One of them this year was to explore how we could acquaint ourselves with the issue of refugees.”
Council member Bob Bender contacted Catholic Charities and was given the option of hosting a dinner for a small group of parishioners with a refugee, said Father Goldasich.
The event was an opportunity for parishioners to ask Sisi about her journey and enjoy the traditional Burmese meal she had prepared for them.
Parishioner Bill Graveman and his wife Kathy attended to learn more about what’s going on with local refugees.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions about refugees and fleeing their countries,” said Bill. “We’re at a very unusual point in time where there are tremendous displacements of people from all over the Middle East and throughout the Far East.”
“I think we need to come to grips with how we as a church and as free people address the problems of these migrations,” he added.
Sisi was accompanied by an interpreter, as well as Bethany Buchanan, a program assistant at New Roots.
Buchanan explained that refugees working through New Roots start at the training farm located at Juniper Gardens in Kansas City, Kansas.
The current 16 farmers each work with one fourth of the nine acres of land there.
The farmers sell their produce at area farmer’s markets, as well as through Community Supported Agriculture, doing so with close guidance from Catholic Charities.
Once farmers like Sisi graduate from training, they move on to their own land and operate independently.
“By support from Catholic Charities and the New Roots program, day by day I improved everything,” said Sisi, who sells her produce at the farmer’s market in Independence, Missouri.
The program’s support offered her a way out of the isolation and helplessness many refugees feel.
Sisi came to the United States from Burma and initially lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she took an ESL (English for speakers of another language) class and got a part-time job.
She wasn’t happy there and didn’t feel comfortable in her new country until she moved to Kansas City.
“Now I feel at home,” she said. “I feel like I am so lucky to move here.”
Denise Ogilvie, vice president of outreach and grants management at Catholic Charities, has high hopes for refugees like Sisi.
“We want farmers to feel empowered in their communities and the Greater Kansas City community,” said Ogilvie.
Programs like New Roots break down the barriers refugees face, like language, transportation and child care, she said.
“They are using skills they had before they moved to the United States to grow food for people living in Kansas City, helping them to build confidence as contributors in this new community,” she added.
In the long term, Catholic Charities is “hoping to bring financial stability to individual families and a lot of earned income into the refugee communities,” said Ogilvie.
Father Goldasich said Sacred Heart plans to stay involved by hosting another refugee dinner with a new group of parishioners and donating practical items for refugee families new to the area.
Some parishioners also plan on visiting Sisi’s garden and inviting her to their own, he said.
Sisi is grateful for the help she’s received in Kansas City.
“My family and I were struggling for the first couple of years,” she said, “but by support of Catholic Charities, our family is so much changed.”
Hearing Sisi’s story, Father Goldasich was reminded of Pope Francis’ references to a “culture of encounter.”
“There is no substitute to listening in person to a recent refugee’s experiences,” said Father Goldasich. “It puts a definite face to the issue and makes their story real.”
Father Goldasich was humbled and inspired by the work Sisi has put into making a life for herself in a foreign place.
“Her willingness to share her story and her culture in a relaxed setting was a gift to our parish,” he said.