By Dorothy K. LaMantia | Correspondent
Faithful from St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Hightstown, and neighbors from surrounding communities came together March 4 to seek insight into and be part of the solution to the obstacles refugees and migrants are facing in today’s world.
Sister Eileen Reilly, a consultant to the United Nations, conducted a workshop titled “The Plight of Refugees and Forced Migrants Worldwide: Sharing the Responsibility,” which was sponsored by the parish’s social justice committee. Since 2010, Sister Eileen, a member of the Schools Sisters of Notre Dame, has served as a representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, where she reports on her order’s issues of concern, particularly, the welfare and education of women and girls, economic justice and sustainable development.
In her presentation, Sister Eileen discussed the differences between migrants and refugees, situations contributing to their rising number, and the efforts the United Nations is developing to guide the international community in shared responsibility during humanitarian crises.
“Migrants are people who voluntarily cross a border for family, job or education. They have a purpose for being here,” she explained. “Refugees are people fleeing a country because of fear of persecution, conflict and violence who require protection. It also includes those fleeing rising oceans and tsunami or earthquake-prone areas. We don’t know when countries will accept people fleeing climate change. How to work it is a challenge.”
“Internally displaced persons [IDPs] are those who move from one part of a country to another part of it to flee war, as in Syria, conflict, violence, or drought,” she continued. “It is complicated; these distinctions are fluid.”
Numbers presented during the event showed that as the world population grew from seven billion in the year 2000 to eight billion in 2017, the number of migrants increased from 173 million to 258 million.
The United Nations, Sister Eileen said, is creating compacts, or conditions, to guide countries in contributing to safe and orderly migration and acceptance of refugees.
The conditions list specific essentials to meet refugees’ needs – especially those of women, who frequently suffer abuse and exploitation, and children, whose education and cognitive development are threatened by prolonged stays in refugee camps – while honoring the national sovereignty and the legal security concerns of the host country.
Sister Eileen shared success stories of neighborhoods, such as Wilton, Conn., where the appropriation of an abandoned home and concerted community effort created a new life for a Syrian widow and her five children. She also spoke of a small town in Pennsylvania where the welcoming of refugees revitalized the town by their creating new businesses.
“Learn the facts; understand the realities,” she said. “Monitor language [as] some of it is inappropriate and hurtful. Avoid labels like ‘illegals.’ It’s an adjective, not a noun.”
“Look for ways to advocate for the migrant,” Sister Eileen said. “Help amnesty seekers and refugees through the hurdles of finding jobs and housing, learning English, furnishing homes and providing transportation.”
Over coffee, audience members discussed what they learned, and how they hoped to use the information.
Parishioner Gina Laidlaw, who was born in Mexico, said she was glad to hear about U.N. efforts but hopes to learn and do more. “As Christians, we can’t look at what government is doing, we need a push to do more ourselves.”
Salim Manzar, a member of the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton, said the presentation and conversations with others helped give him a broader view of what the crisis means from a global perspective.
“We can’t solve the world’s problems, but we can address what happens on a local level,” he said.
Lenore Isleib, coordinator of the parish social justice committee, said welcoming the stranger is one of the most important and challenging issues for the Catholic community to embrace.
“We hope that everyone who came will understand what church communities can do to alleviate the suffering of refugees. We hope to become more effective activists to encourage our government to allow greater numbers of adequately-vetted refugees into the United States,” she said.For information, call 732-264-4712.