China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2014/Oct

Seeking refuge

We live in the 21st century, but we are hearing and seeing things that we thought were part of our past. People in many countries are seeking refuge from war, persecution or natural disasters. Some have been forced to leave their homes and countries by marauding fanatics.

The older generations here in Hong Kong have most likely heard many stories from their parents and grandparents about how they had to leave China in a hurry.

In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of people fled war, famine and social upheaval in the mainland.

The Hong Kong people and the government reached out to the many refugees with food and water, but until housing could be built for them, they used their ingenuity to make a place to keep their families together and safe. They built ramshackle settlements on the hillsides of the territory.

These places often suffered from fire and the people had to start all over again.

The many Protestant and Catholic parishes and their people helped the families get settled, educate children, find jobs and, most importantly, feed this great number of people from the mainland.

Here is a brief story about food, comfort and hope through the faith and innovation of caring Catholics.

The Noodle Priest

Millions of Chinese refugees poured into Hong Kong between 1948 and 1950, when Mao Zedong’s Communist forces swept through China.

In 1955, Father Paul Duchesne, the head of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Hong Kong, called the city the largest displaced persons camp in the world.

One person who tried to make life more bearable for the masses of poor and hungry people was a Maryknoll priest, Father John Romaniello. At the time, he worked for CRS and he would earn the nickname, The Noodle Priest.

One day, Father Romaniello noticed something peculiar. Many refugees were lining up outside a local shop with an allotment of flour in hand – they were paying the shopkeeper to turn their flour into noodles, because they didn’t eat bread.

This gave the priest an idea. He decided to develop a way to turn flour into noodles. Because the United States of America (US) was providing the flour, cornmeal and powdered milk through Food for Peace, Father Romaniello assembled a dozen electric noodle machines.

His noodle machine was an immediate hit. One day a Cantonese man carrying a five-pound bag of noodles came up him and said, “I want to tell you how grateful I am for this food.”

For Father Romaniello, the invention was a simple act of reciprocity.

He said, “For centuries, my Italian forebears enjoyed spaghetti, the food brought back from China by Marco Polo. I brought noodles to the Chinese at the rate of millions of pounds a year.”

In our day, we see and hear how the Christians of the Middle East are being robbed of their culture and their very lives by the extremist, Islamic State.

They give the people four choices, “Either convert to Islam or pay the Islamic tax on non-Muslims, or, leave the city or get the sword,” which they use to cut off hands and heads.

The Chaldean Catholic Church is one of the oldest of the early Churches.

Its ancient history is the history of the Church in Babylon that is mentioned in the New Testament in 1 Peter 5:13, out of which grew the Church of the East – represented today by at least 11 different Churches, including the Assyrian Church of the East.

Between the first and third centuries, it was known by its derivative names of Athura and Assuristan. This region was also the birthplace of the Syriac language and script, both of which remain important within all strands of Syriac Christianity (Wikipedia).

I cannot adequately speak of the horrors these people are going through right now and while the media is keeping the situation up front, I would like to share the words of a Catholic sister who is a witness of this evil.

It pierced my heart like a knife

Sister Marie Claude Naddaf, provincial leader of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd for Lebanon and Syria, said, “It pierced my heart like a knife.” She is still shaken by what she witnessed in Irbil.

Representing the Union of the Superiors General of Women Religious in Lebanon, Sister Naddaf accompanied the Catholic Near East Welfare Association on its September 2 to 5 mission to the capital of the Kurdish region in Iraq.

More than 100,000 Christians and other minorities have sought refuge in the region following attacks by Islamic State forces. Many were given less than half-an-hour to flee their homes.

“I saw with my eyes, listened with my ears, met them (refugees) and received them in my heart,” Sister Naddaf told Catholic News Service.

“I was not at all expecting to see that much misery, poverty and sadness in the eyes of the refugees,” she continued.

Sister Naddaf said, “For me, it is very difficult to find the words to describe this tragedy, people who were uprooted from their civilisation, their culture, their land.

They were pulled out like weeds – expelled, exiled and taken away. Will the world even try to understand and feel what these people are feeling?”

Sister Naddaf lived through Lebanon’s 1975 to 1990 war, the current war in Syria and has worked with Iraqi refugees, who fled to Syria after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

“But never before have I witnessed anything like this, people living on the streets, when before they were living comfortably with dignity in their homes,” she said. “It pierced my heart like a knife.”

Most of the displaced adults are educated professionals – doctors, engineers, architects, government workers, teachers and university professors – who were providing services to the Iraqi people. Now their future is uncertain.

Sister Naddaf likened their plight to that of the Christians living in the catacombs, exposed to the elements and all kinds of dangers.

A recipient of the Woman of Courage award from the US State Department in 2010 for her work with abused, neglected and trafficked women, she is one of the Middle East’s most effective champions of women at-risk.

“There are all these political strategies and policies concerning women’s rights and violence against women, yet women are left exposed on the roads and sidewalks of Irbil, exposed to all kinds of violence and dangers, and nobody is doing anything to raise a voice for them,” Sister Naddaf said. “The world is able to see, but it seems it doesn’t want to look at them.”

During her visit, she heard about a pregnant woman who was living in a tent with about 20 other people when she went into labour. The woman delivered her baby without medical assistance.

“There was not even anything to cover the newborn baby with, except a shirt off somebody’s back,” Sister Naddaf said.

The next day the baby was very sick, so the mother walked with her child to the dispensary tent. Because there was a team of about 15 doctors, all exiles from Qaraqosh volunteering their time, the baby’s life was saved, but its face was severely burned from exposure to the sun during the walk.

“I want to send a plea to the world. This is enough. It cannot continue,” Sister Naddaf said, as she questioned the policy of airstrikes against the Islamic State.

“The US secretary of defence is saying that each airstrike costs US$8 million ($62,051,800),” she said.

She added that the international community should, instead, work toward liberating the villages that were taken over by Islamic State and, through the United Nations, create a protected zone.

“The objective of the airstrikes,” Sister Naddaf asserted, “is just to protect their own interests, especially the areas rich in oil.”

Yet she says that the Church is a shining witness amid the misery. Among the displaced are two bishops, priests and more than 100 sisters who are living among the people, helping and sharing in their sorrows (Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service, September 11).

Unfortunately there are also refugees in their own countries, such as the Rohingya in the Union of Myanmar. They are part of the Muslim minority and are denied citizenship even though their families have lived in the country for centuries.

Enduring the ravages of ethnic violence, the Rohingya are prohibited from leaving designated areas for work, to forage for food, or to seek medical treatment. They are identified as eternal outsiders.

More than 140,000 Rohingya have been trapped in crowded camps since extremist mobs began chasing them from their homes two years ago, killing up 280 people.

Myanmese authorities view the Rohingya, estimated to number 1.3 million, as undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, not one of the country’s officially recognised ethnic groups.

Discrimination against them has intensified as Myanmar attempts to emerge from military rule and some see in the communal violence the warning signs of genocide (South China Morning Post, October 1).

Natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons, floods, drought and tornados, result in internal refugees. People can lose their ancestral homes, livelihood and all their possessions and must look for another place of refuge for their families.

A prayer for refugees

COMPASSIONATE GOD, make your loving presence felt to refugees, torn from home, family and everything familiar.

Warm, especially, the hearts of the young, the old, and the most vulnerable among them. Help them know that you accompany them as you accompanied Jesus, Mary and Joseph in their exile to Egypt.

Lead refugees to a new home and a new hope, as you led the Holy Family to their new home in Nazareth.

Open our hearts to receive them as our sisters and brothers in whose face we see your son, Jesus. Amen (UNHCR).

On September 23, Pope Francis said that migrants and refugees have a privileged place in the heart of the Church.