October 16, 2015

A bridge of faith: St. Mark parish, school welcome Burmese refugees with open arms

The close friendship of Kho Ti, left, and Sophie Albertson—two sixth-grade students at St. Mark School in Indianapolis—reflects the welcome that Burmese refugees have received in the past five years at St. Mark Parish and its school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The close friendship of Kho Ti, left, and Sophie Albertson—two sixth-grade students at St. Mark School in Indianapolis—reflects the welcome that Burmese refugees have received in the past five years at St. Mark Parish and its school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Cathy Boyle gets emotional as she recalls watching the friendship develop between two children from different worlds.

The seeds of the friendship were planted last year in her eighth-grade homeroom at St. Mark School in Indianapolis.

At the beginning of that school year, Boyle watched as one of her students who had attended St. Mark’s for eight years made a conscious effort each day to befriend another boy whose family had recently arrived in the United States as refugees from Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.

“He made it his goal to personally welcome the other boy into the group,” recalls Boyle, who teaches middle school social studies. “In the beginning, he would talk about soccer because that’s a big sport for the Burmese. Before long, they were joking and teasing each other. And by the end of the year, they were doing things together and going places together.”

That friendship offers a hint of the remarkable transformation that has taken place in the school and the parish of St. Mark during the past five years—ever since Burmese refugees have become a growing part of both communities.

“It’s changed the whole culture of our school in a positive way,” says Rusty Albertson, the school principal. “It’s changed us from a school that had a 6 percent minority population to about 38 percent right now. Our Hispanic population has also risen, as well as our African-American. And it’s not just in the school, it’s in the parish. Our students get to see what the real world is like without having to travel around the world.”

Father Todd Riebe, St. Mark’s pastor, beams as he says, “The Burmese are a gift to us. The gift they bring to us is how they treasure their Catholic faith. Many of the adults were persecuted at one time in Burma. When they come here, they come to Mass immediately. They’re so faithful.”

A new wave of American immigration

For Father Riebe, the story of the arrival of the Burmese refugees at St. Mark reflects another chapter in the history of American immigration—the same history that involves his Irish, German and English ancestors who came to this country for a new start, a new life.

“Every once in a while, you’ll hear, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Father Riebe notes.

“It’s our history being re-played. At one time, it was our great-grandparents. They shared their stories of why they came here. And where was the one place they felt welcomed and accepted? The Church was the one safe place, with the connection of God and the community. We’re reliving our history, and we have this great opportunity to welcome people.”

Similar to many stories of immigrants and refugees, there have been challenges in the transition.

“A lot of them have been to refugee camps before they came here,” Albertson says. “For some, they may not have had an educational process in Burma because of the civil war. And their native language isn’t English. We had to have a game plan to not only help them with the social language but the academic language. Our teachers stayed after school and worked with the students.”

Boyle and Evelyn Karozos were two of the teachers involved in the language lessons.

“They were lost at the beginning, but then so were we,” Karozos recalls. “It was new to all of us. Their English was so limited, and being thrown into the classroom was difficult. We worked on vocabulary—desk, table, chair, ‘I live with my parents.’ We had them tell us about their family, their village, what their parents do. We had them write essays to prepare them for communicating, for life.”

The essays proved to be eye-opening for Karozos.

“Imbedded in all their essays was their faith in God and helping their family,” she says. “They’re so family-oriented and faith-oriented.”

Those lessons have also given Karozos a deeper appreciation of her own family’s story.

“I understand now what my father experienced when he came here from Greece at the age of 12. He didn’t know one word of English, and he was thrown into the sixth grade. One of our boys from Burma had never been in school until he came to the United States.”

‘It was like a dream’

At 17, Htoo Thu is living her own immigrant story.

Growing up in Burma, Htoo faced a difficult family situation. When she was in the second grade, her father had to move to the country of Malaysia to work.

“I had a decent life, but my family was separated,” she recalls. “It was really hard on my mom. She had to take care of me and my two brothers.”

Five years ago, her family moved to the United States and Indianapolis as refugees, settling in St. Mark Parish.

“It was like a dream to leave Burma,” she says. “Only here could our whole family be together. And my mom really loves us all being together. That’s why my dad tried so hard to bring his family together. It’s amazing how, after so many years, we’re together in a home.”

As she shares her story, Htoo’s words flow in English—a drastic contrast from when she first arrived at St. Mark School in the eighth grade.

“At first, it was scary because I really couldn’t speak English,” she says. “I studied hard, and whenever I needed extra help, I’d get it from my teachers. By the end of the year, it was surprising to know I graduated with the highest GPA (grade point average.) It was awesome.”

So was the welcome she received from the teachers and students.

“It was like a family,” she says. “They’re very loving. They take care of you. They treated me like one of their friends.”

The friendships and the academic success have continued for Htoo at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. Now a senior, she has a 4.2 GPA (on a scale of 4.0), two part-time jobs, a plan to major in pre-med in college, and a dream to become a surgeon. She describes Roncalli as a place where “they accept you”—a feeling she and her family have always experienced at St. Mark.

“We go to Mass every Sunday together as a family,” she says. “We don’t take being together as a family for granted. It’s good to see other families together, too, whether they’re Burmese families or American families. I can’t imagine being at a different parish with all the other Burmese families, and being taken care of by the native families. We’re blessed.”

Kho Ti feels the same way.

She and her family came to the United States and St. Mark Parish five years ago. She felt “scared and kind of shy” to be in a new country and a new school with no friends and no ability to speak English. Now in the sixth grade, she feels at home at the school, and she has friends she confides in and who invite her for sleepovers.

“It’s so fun here,” says Kho, the youngest of five children in her family. “It’s awesome.”

Living life with arms wide open

The challenges and uncertainties that initially marked the arrival of Burmese families at St. Mark have increasingly been replaced by a spirit of acceptance and embrace.

Father Riebe gives much of the credit for that change—at least in its early stages—to one person, Mary Lynn Cavanaugh, the longtime pastoral associate of the parish.

“As the Burmese were relocating here, she welcomed them,” he says about Cavanaugh, who has since died of cancer. “She lived her life with her arms wide open. They came to Mass and found a warm welcome, especially in the arms of Mary Lynn. The parish then formed a committee to see what their needs were, and how they could be helped. Now the school is becoming a bridge in a wonderful way.”

Karozos notices how far that bridge has extended after five years.

“When they first came here, there were six students,” the teacher says. “Now, we have 40. They assimilate easily because of their gentle, friendly nature. They might be shy, but the other students extend a hand, and they’re willing to accept that hand.”

She laughs and adds, “They’re so gentle until you see them on the soccer field. Then they’re so aggressive. They’re fun to watch.”

Boyle has found other joys from watching the Burmese students assimilate to their new world.

“They work very hard in school,” she says. “Education is so important to their culture, and their parents want them to succeed. It’s also very lovely the family connection they have—how the older siblings look out for the younger ones. They’re helping to watch those kids while mom and dad are sleeping because they’ve worked the night shift.

“It’s not like we’re so different anymore. We’re open to their culture. They’ve brought the rest of the world to us.”

The grace of God

That spirit of embrace has also flowed into the worship of the parish.

Albertson noted how 11 Burmese children were baptized during one Mass this past summer. He also described how the Burmese families sat together at Mass when they first arrived, and how they now spread across the church.

“It’s neat they feel comfortable, and other parishioners have made them feel welcome,” he says.

Father Riebe smiles broadly as he recalls one endearing aspect of their faith.

“They get together in their homes on Friday nights for rosaries and to hear the Gospel in Burmese, so they’ll be ready for Sunday Mass,” the pastor says. “The first time I went to one of these gatherings there was no furniture and wall-to-wall people.

“Another time, one of them was getting ready to buy a house, and he wanted to have his house blessed. They made personal invitations to invite all the neighbors for the house blessing. Some of the neighbors said they had been there for 20 years, and had never talked to some of their neighbors. They were just delighted to be part of the blessing.”

Albertson sees the blessing that has transformed St. Mark in the past five years.

“At some point in our lives, everyone has the propensity to be a refugee—to be in a situation that’s new to us or we have no place to go. Christ’s message is to help those people.

“In their case, they’re trying to get out of a bad situation because of a civil war. What a perfect opportunity to teach our children what is right and what is not right in regard to this. This was dropped in our laps with the grace of God.” †

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