Working to Transform the Lives of Immigrants
In the 2013-14 issue of Trust & Dare magazine, we shared a few of the stories of School Sisters of Notre Dame who minister to transform the lives of immigrants and migrants. Because we did not have room to include everyone's work in the publication, we are using this space to show more of the ways that our sisters serve in the area of immigration.
On this page, we include more detailed stories from the sisters who were included in Trust & Dare magazine: Sisters Anna Marie Reha, Nentaweh Wakger, Joyce Lorentz, Catherine Feeney and Barbara Pfarr. We have organized the rest of the stories on separate pages with the following three themes: education, advocacy and support.
As the Diocesan Director for Hispanic Ministry in New Ulm, Minn., Sister Anna Marie Reha, SSND, pastorally accompanies immigrants in her diocese and is an active advocate for immigration reform.
“Pastorally accompanying our immigrant brothers and sisters means being there with an empathetic listening ear or a compassionate shoulder to cry upon,” Sister Anna Marie said. “It is most heart-breaking to accompany families who are being separated by deportation and who have no avenues for resolving their legal status.
“Recently, I consoled José whose son had been picked up and put into deportation proceedings for driving without a license. Last month I held Chava in my arms as she wept, having just received the news that her mother had died suddenly; Chava, who had lost her father only seven months prior, hasn’t been able to go home these past 16 years due to her immigration status.
“On rare occasions I have been able to joyously celebrate, for example when Alma called me and jubilantly said, ‘Call me Julia, because that is my baptismal name!’ She had just received her permanent residency after so many years of waiting and can now come out of the shadow. I rejoiced when Marlen, a straight ‘A’ student, came to me with a beaming face to share, ‘Yes! I just got my differed action, and I can go to college as a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) student and now legally work and drive.’”
Having ministered in Guatemala, Sister Anna Marie lived on the other side of the border where she watched parents tearfully say goodbye to their children and anxiously awaited the news that they arrived safely in the United States. She has witnessed the conditions that drive sons and daughters to leave their families and walk across the hazardous dessert or cross the dangerous rivers. And she has lived on this side of the “fence” and seen the hidden suffering of those same sons and daughters as they live in the shadows of society.
“The many heart-wrenching experiences of our immigrant brothers and sisters impel me as a School Sister of Notre Dame to work toward immigration reform,” Sister Anna Marie said. “I am driven to work at immigration advocacy because I am convinced that it is our response to the cries of our immigrant brothers and sisters, our concrete expression of solidarity.”
On the staff of the SSND Generalate in Rome, Italy, Sister Nentaweh Wakger, SSND, devotes her spare time each week to volunteer with the women awaiting deportation at the Centre for Identification and Expulsion in Ponte Galeria, on the outskirts of Rome.
“Many of the women in the detention centre are from Africa, Romania and China and were either trafficked to Europe or promised school or jobs,” Sister Nentaweh said. “They get to Rome without papers, no jobs, no school and they end up in the streets of Rome in prostitution. When they are picked by the police they are brought to the detention centre for about three to six months then deported to their countries.”
Sister Nentaweh visits with small groups of women, mostly from Africa, who speak English or Italian. She strives to ensure that they are made aware of their rights and are empowered to say no to false promises, such as jobs and education abroad. She also encourages the women to give information about their situation to social workers, who are most able to advise them about the services that are available or they may require.
“We cry, laugh, hold hands, hug,” Sister Nentaweh said. “Sometimes, a woman will ask for prayer after she shares her story. After the time of visiting with small groups, all the volunteers and the women come together to sing songs, dance, pray, and share snacks. This is also a time to provide the women with some personal items and clothing, particularly what they might need when deported home during the week.
“We also celebrate with the women major feast days and events, such as Christmas, Easter, Women’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Human Rights Day. Each language and cultural group share how they celebrate in their countries. In this there would be more singing, drumming, dancing, and sharing of jokes and stories.”
At Regina Open Door Society in Saskatchewan, Canada, Sister Joyce Lorentz, SSND, works with newly arrived refugees and immigrants. She is a Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC) instructor and teaches English as an Additional Language (EAL). As a School Sister of Notre Dame, she said, she is committed to be an educator in all that she does. One of the urgent educational needs in her local area is basic English language training for adult refugees and immigrants.
“I am grateful to be a part of an amazing LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers) staff at Regina Open Door Society, where we provide that basic training,” Sister Joyce said. “This ministry is so gratifying. I think I gain so much more than I actually give.”
The Open Door students have a strong desire to succeed, working hard to understand and speak English well so that they can fit into and become a contributing member of Canadian society. In addition, many of the women take care of families and households, and many have part-time jobs after class.
“Indeed, my daily experience of teaching newly arrived refugees and immigrants from Africa, Asia, Europe, Central and South America, of meeting their families and coming to know some of their stories has broadened my awareness of the richness and strength that comes from the diversity among us,” Sister Joyce said.
“This shared experience fosters unity and compassion among the students themselves. Indeed, the words in our constitution are true: ‘Membership in our world-wide community broadens the scope of our concern and fosters in us a readiness to be with and to serve people of various cultural backgrounds within our own nation or in another country …. we witness to the possibility of overcoming national and cultural barriers.’”
At the SSND Educational Center in Woodhaven, N.Y., 90 percent of the women who participate in the programs are immigrants, said Sister Catherine Feeney, SSND, who has been executive director since the center opened 10 years ago.
“As director, I have the opportunity to welcome all of them and to teach reading skills,” said Sister Catherine said, who works alongside Sisters Janice Algie, the General Education Development (GED) program coordinator, and Jean McLoughlin, who as outreach coordinator connects students with social workers, day care centers and other resources in the area. Sisters Carlann Buscemi and Margaret Forsyth serve part-time teaching GED and pre-GED classes, and Sister Earl Mary Moores, volunteers as a reading teacher for women who need extra help with English.
The Educational Center turns out numerous success stories each year. For some women, success means learning to speak English well enough to read their child a bedtime story or to discuss their child’s progress in school with a teacher. For others, it means earning a high school diploma years after dropping out of school, or learning to compose a resume online or just gaining the confidence to begin a job search.
In keeping with the SSND mission to educate the whole person, the sisters also bring in speakers to teach “life skills” on topics such as domestic violence, conflict management and household budgeting. Other classes cover job preparation and computer use. All are geared to helping women, many of whom are the sole providers for their families, to break out of the cycle of poverty and reach a level of independence.
Sister Barbara Pfarr, SSND, is the Immigration Organizer for the WISDOM network of faith-based community organizations in Wisconsin. Each of WISDOM’s 10 affiliate organizations has an immigration task force for which she is a resource person.
“I help them plan interfaith prayer vigils, forums and visits to their legislators,” Sister Barbara said. “We have sponsored Immigration Readers Theaters, Immigration Plunges, a mural project involving Black, Latino and Anglo youth, Dialogue Circles, rapid response networks, and delegations to Washington, D.C.”