November 17, 2017

Sharing the journey: Latest ‘great American story’ highlights mentor’s commitment to refugee family

The joyous reunion of a parent and child shows as Bershlmaws “Alo” Koko greets his mother, Nasra Anglo, with a bouquet of red roses on Oct. 19 at Indianapolis International Airport. Alo, a refugee of Sudan who came to the United States in January, was reunited with nine members of his family on that October evening. (Submitted photo)

The joyous reunion of a parent and child shows as Bershlmaws “Alo” Koko greets his mother, Nasra Anglo, with a bouquet of red roses on Oct. 19 at Indianapolis International Airport. Alo, a refugee of Sudan who came to the United States in January, was reunited with nine members of his family on that October evening. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: This is the first in an occassional series.)

By John Shaughnessy

For nearly an hour, the young man stood anxiously by the exit of Concourse B at Indianapolis International Airport. Holding a bouquet of red roses, he repeatedly strained to see down the long corridor, waiting and hoping for his family to appear.

Finally—at last!—he saw them in the distance, and all his anxiety and tension disappeared as his face burst into a smile. Then he stood on his toes and waved at them as his eyes glowed.

Within seconds, he embraced his father, and greeted four of his sisters, his two brothers and his nephew—all the time making his way toward his mother. Handing her the bouquet of red roses, he wrapped his mother in his arms in the same extended motion. Her face reflected all the joy and all the emotion of a mother reunited with her child.

For the young man nicknamed “Alo” and his family, it was a long-awaited moment of thanksgiving. Ever since 2001 when their family fled their homeland of Sudan as refugees, they’ve held the dream of coming to the United States to start a new life—one without fear, one with freedom.

And 16 years later, on the night of Oct. 19 in Indianapolis, the dream finally came true with the assistance of the archdiocese’s Refugee and Immigrant Services program—a program of Catholic Charities Indianapolis that has helped 20,000 people during the past 40 years.

(Related: Mentors play a key role in helping refugees and migrants)

Alo, whose real name is Bershlmaws Koko, arrived in Indianapolis in January of this year. He and his family had spent 16 years in Egypt while waiting for clearance by the U.S. government so they could come to America. Reunited with his family again on that October evening, Alo softly said, “Everything is good. I’m just so happy to see my family.”

Still, the reunion is just part of the story for the 23-year-old Alo. So is the first year of his life in the United States, a year of change, challenge and cultural shock in which he has been helped by his Catholic Charities volunteer mentor, Fritz French.

Helping people ‘at the ground level’

When Alo arrived in the United States, he faced the challenges that confront many refugees—separation from family, poor command of the English language, adjustments to an unfamiliar culture, and no knowledge of how to navigate life in a new country.

Trying to meet such challenges, Refugee and Immigrant Services of Catholic Charities Indianapolis has provided its usual support of housing, food, clothing and job readiness classes for Alo.

The program has also linked Alo with French—a longtime business professional who has allegiances to Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish and St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, both in Indianapolis.

French was looking for an opportunity to “help people at the ground level, to roll up my sleeves in a personal way.” As the father of a 21-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son, the 58-year-old French feels drawn to the challenges that Alo faces at a young age.

“I treat him like a son, trying to push him in the right direction,” French says. “I helped him get into a single apartment, and how to get checks from the bank. He had no idea what a check was. I try to help him with the practical things, like how to pay his electrical bill and get rental insurance.

“These are all simple things, but for a guy who doesn’t speak English, it’s hard. When you first meet him, you realize he’s a little scared of where he is, and what’s going on.”

Through it all, Alo has been working a full-time job at a warehouse distribution center since shortly after arriving in Indianapolis. He’s also started to take English language classes.

“He’s had to grow up pretty quickly,” French says. “The language barrier has gotten a little better. His mother tongue is Arabic, and he also speaks a second, Sudanese language. Just because of the language barrier, I’m not sure of the impact I’m having, but he does listen. I talk to him about the importance of being a hard worker. He’s gotten a pay increase. That’s awesome.

“My next effort is to help him get a high school equivalency. I do see his potential of getting a college degree someday. He’s been sending money back to his family since he’s been working. He’s had barely enough money to live on, but he still sent money back. It’s really admirable.”

Sharing the journey

On the October night when Alo’s family arrived in Indianapolis, French drove him to the airport.

Inside the airport, French bought Alo a cup of coffee and tried to calm him as Alo kept checking his watch and kept heading to the concourse exit.

And when it was clear that the family’s plane had arrived on time and more than 40 minutes had passed without any sight of the family, French went to the American Airlines counter where his suspicion was confirmed: no one at the arrival gate had told Alo’s nine relatives how to leave the airport after their journey from Egypt to Germany to Chicago to Indianapolis.

Minutes later, after an American Airlines counter agent made a call to the gate agent at French’s request, the family strode down the concourse toward Alo. There, French took photos of the family being reunited, including Alo hugging his mom.

Then French guided the family members to the baggage area. And shortly afterward, he and Catholic Charities intern Tracy Pizano led the last leg of the family’s journey that night—driving to the Indianapolis apartment complex that is the family’s new home.

During every step of that evening, Alo never said much about what French was doing, but it was evident how much he trusted his mentor and relied on his guidance.

Indeed, every effort, every small touch that French made seemed to reflect the “Share the Journey” campaign that Pope Francis started on Sept. 27—a two-year campaign in which the pope encouraged all Catholics to find their own way of supporting and welcoming refugees and migrants.

In his seven months of helping Alo, French has learned how much of a difference that kind of approach can make in the lives of refugees—and the people who support and assist them.

‘The great American story’

“I really didn’t know about the refugee program, but for me it’s very rewarding,” says French, who meets with Alo two or three times a week. “You see the humanity of the people, and you hope you’re helping them in some way. It’s made me more sympathetic to the plight of the refugees.”

The experience has also taught French a sense of perspective and humility.

“We all live comfortable lives here [in America],” he says. “You realize how fortunate you are to be born where you are, and in this time where you are. Not everybody has been that fortunate.

“It’s a moral imperative that rich countries help people who are desperate. Obviously we can’t help everyone, but people who are born into some very fortunate situations have to help people who are most desperate. It’s clearly humanitarian.”

On a personal level, French’s ultimate goal is for Alo “to do all of this on his own, so he won’t have to rely on me.” In the meantime, French plans to be there for Alo and his family. Their reunion at the airport has left a lasting impact on French. So has the fulfillment of their dream of coming to America—a dream that became a reality after 16 years.

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs for Alo and his family,” French says. “When he finally heard they were coming, he said, ‘My family is coming!’ He’s not someone who expresses a lot of emotion, but there was a lot of emotion for him. And it’s exciting for me, too. Helping someone get integrated into a new country is huge.

“When you bring it down to a personal level, Alo is a great young man, and his family has been through a lot. They have an opportunity to make a fresh start here. That’s the great American story.” †

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