Parish welcomes refugee family
American flags, flowers, balloons, a welcome sign made by third-graders and a dozen well-wishers greeted a family of Burmese refugees who stepped off the last of three jets that carried the five of them from a refugee camp in Thailand to their new home in Oakland.
As Cha My Too and Paw Ser Blay and their three small sons made their way from the jetway through Terminal A of Oakland International Airport on Feb. 25, they were welcomed enthusiastically by parishioners from St. Raymond Parish in Dublin. It's the first parish to answer Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ's, Christmas call to join with Catholic Charities of the East Bay: "Wouldn't it be great if we become the first diocese in the USA where every parish co-sponsored a refugee family?"
Rev. Lawrence D'Anjou, pastor of St. Raymond Parish, and a handful of parishioners — including kindergartner Liya Perko in her plaid uniform jumper — stood smiling with a welcome sign created by third-graders at St. Raymond School.
Parishioner Maurice L'Estrange, who as a teenager immigrated to the United States more than 40 years ago, knows the religious persecution Burmese Christians face. "In the villages, the soldiers do anything they want," he said.
Walking with the family was Tess Chiampas, who leads a core team of volunteers at the parish, who, with two weeks' notice, scrubbed and furnished a rental house in Oakland procured for the family by Catholic Charities.
Before the family's arrival, which was delayed slightly, Chiampas, who came to the United States in 1995, described entering the house and the task she and the volunteers faced.
"I was there today," she said. "We've been there. We scrubbed it," she said, showing photos of a bathroom stocked with new blue towels, and a kitchen counter with bananas.
"Those cupboards are filled with food," she said. As was the freezer and refrigerator, with foods the family would find familiar.
Twin beds were neatly made, awaiting two small boys, while the smallest would be comfortable with the youth-sized bed placed near the parents' bed.
A dining set would accommodate them all. The living room was furnished with a large sofa, with a tapestry above it.
"All this was donated by the parishioners," Chiampas said. She gratefully acknowledged the Knights of Columbus. "Grand Knight Steve Rasmussen arranged the delivery of all the furniture," she said.
How did they know what the family would need? One of the members of the core team prepared a manual that is available to all parishes considering co-sponsoring a family. The manual includes a guide to ethnic grocery stores and other services to help welcome newcomers to this country.
For decades, Catholic Charities of the East Bay has worked with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees in the Bay Area. About half of the parishes in the diocese were represented at a "how to" session Catholic Charities conducted in January; more than a dozen parishes have completed the paperwork to co-sponsor families. St. Theresa Parish in Oakland is expected to be the next parish to welcome a family.
Arrival in the United States for the Burmese family had been a long time coming. The father, Cha May Too, had spent more than half his life in the refugee camp. Paw Ser Blay would be reunited with her brother, who has resettled in Oakland, not far from where her family will live. Their three children have not known life outside a refugee camp.
The father led the family off the plane. He carried a simple thin, plastic bag, as did the mother. These held their belongings. The older boys — ages 6½ and 5 — were wearing new white shoes. They tapped their feet along the airports' wide corridors, appearing to delight in the sound they made.
The smallest brother, age 2½, was wrapped in a shawl around his mother. He demanded, in the most polite way, to join is brothers in walking. She compiled, and he walked along under her watchful eye.
As they neared the waiting area, cheers arose from the dozen people who came to greet them, including representatives from Catholic Charities, and the relatives who are now their neighbors.
Father D'Anjou welcomed "our family," flowers were handed to the mother and a bouquet of balloons and small American flags to the little boys.
After a short welcome, they went to the parking lot and loaded into several cars — the boys in what was perhaps their first experience with car seats — and headed off to see their new home, before going to the relatives' home to enjoy a dinner prepared in their honor.
Pedia-trician appointments, English classes and an introduction to the transit system were on the family's calendar.
For the people of St. Raymond Parish, there was still work to be done. They were planning to invite, at the end of the weekend's Masses, the whole parish to participate in the support of the family, which could continue for six months. That resulted in raising more than $10,000 toward that goal.
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