Immigrants find help making way in classroom, society

Eleventh in a series

The October 2017 issue of the Catholic Review explored the theme of “Positively Catholic” through Education, Health Care, Parish Life and Service. Each print issue of the Review in 2019 will explore one of those aspects of being “Positively Catholic.” The following explores Education.

Joshua Muhumuza, a parishioner of St. Matthew in Northwood, is among the young volunteer tutors at the Immigration Outreach Services Center. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Joshua Muhumuza mixes pop questions about the presidents – “Who was the first? The 16th?” – and tidbits about explorers such as Christopher Columbus – “He was Italian, but worked for a lot of countries” – into his tutoring.

The boys benefiting from his knowledge may be new to the United States, as their parents came here in search of opportunity and stability. Muhumuza has been in their shoes, as the high school junior came here a decade ago from Rwanda, infamous for a deadly civil war in the late 20th century.

While his friends sleep in on Saturday, Muhumuza heads to the rectory of St. Matthew in Northwood, his home parish, where its Immigration Outreach Service Center offers homework help to dozens of school-age children.

What began as a way to fulfill the service component required for a Maryland high school diploma evolved into an ongoing commitment.

“I enjoy coming back and watching the kids’ progress,” he said.

Two millennia after Mary and Joseph crossed a border and encountered closed doors, agencies and parishes across the Archdiocese of Baltimore heed the Gospel call to welcome the stranger.

Those efforts include a considerable educational component. Besides homework help, it can involve guiding newcomers through a green card application or registering for junior college, or serving as a clearinghouse for how to make their way in America.

‘Empathize’

The most visible aspect of immigration services in the archdiocese is the Esperanza Center, an arm of Catholic Charities of Baltimore which “provides a welcoming atmosphere, social services, health services, legal support and English as a second language (ESL).”

It’s headquartered along Broadway in East Baltimore, where the Hispanic population has boomed in recent years. The staff includes Lucy Fernandez, a victim services specialist, and Daniel Zawodny, a client services representative who serves as something of an answer man.

On a recent weekday, Zawodny notarized a letter verifying a man’s source of income, served as power of attorney for a client trying to access his bank account in Honduras, and helped someone pay a parking ticket online.

“Everything we do is about education,” Zawodny said. “People come in for something as simple as directions to the courthouse. ‘I don’t speak English, I don’t know what to say.’ There’s a lot of orientation involved.”

His family, parish and the Jesuits combined to instill a strong sense of service in Zawodny. He was a rising senior at Loyola Blakefield in the summer of 2009, a chunk of which was spent in Nigeria, on a mission with the Church of the Nativity in Timonium.

Fresh out of Boston College, Zawodny, who now worships at St. Ignatius in Baltimore, joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and served two years in Nicaragua. His Spanish was halting when he got to Managua. When he came home, it was good enough for Baltimore County Public Schools to hire him to teach the language at the high school level.

“That all allows me to empathize with our clients, especially my time in Nicaragua,” Zawodny said. “I had to learn where the grocery store was and what I needed to say to check out. I would freeze up because I wouldn’t know what to say.

“That experience of feeling like a child again, not knowing how to live in a new place, allows me to sit across from our clients and have a sense of where they’re coming from. That (experience) makes me want to be somebody who is going to make them feel welcome and safe.”

Nuanced

Belen Evans is among the advocates in Frederick County for Andres Escobar, a young immigrant from El Salvador. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

St. Katharine Drexel Church in Frederick was dedicated in November 2016, with room for national flags in the narthex.

“When we opened, there was space for 68,” said Father Keith Boisvert, pastor. “We’re out of room already.”

Two months after the church opened, Deacon Scott Rose, the CEO of a mental health nonprofit and pro bono attorney for Esperanza, tapped into that spirit with a homily that evolved into a booklet, “Blessed Are the Refugees: Beatitudes of Immigrant Children.”

Belen Evans and Mary Ann Ford were among those he reached.

A native of Ecuador, Evans first came to the U.S. at age 16 as an exchange student. She works in accounting, has a degree from a university in Texas, and married an American.

“I myself am an immigrant,” Evans said. “I went through the whole process myself. I do share, to some extent, some of the hardships that many immigrants come through, but I was very lucky. I was able to learn the language and culture for a year. I had an advantage that a lot of immigrants don’t.”

Unlike Evans, Deacon Rose does not speak Spanish. Evans’ service includes interpretation, including for Andres Escobar, a native of El Salvador. She assisted in his application for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), for undocumented children “who have been abandoned, abused or neglected by at least one parent.”

“That doesn’t mean the parent didn’t love you,” Deacon Rose said. “That kind of nuance, I couldn’t convey without Belen.”

Evans said, “The idea is to make sure they understand each other. Translating legal terms, you want to make sure you’re doing it correctly.”

“If I don’t understand something, I’ve got someone to help me understand,” Escobar told the Review.

His advocates include Ford, 82, who was moved by images of the body of a Syrian refugee child washing ashore in 2015. Her passion has included helping Escobar enroll in a GED program and then driving him there, as well as transporting another young immigrant to ESL class.

Cary Plamondon and Laura Venezia are other attorneys offering their services pro bono to immigrants in Frederick County. The collaborators on “Blessed Are the Refugees” include Plamondon and illustrator Ana Silvia Herrera Delgado, who was 19 when she fled gang violence in El Salvador. A wife and mother of a 21-month-old, she has been featured previously in the Review. Like Evans and Ford, all worship at St. Katharine Drexel.

Youths contribute

Zipporah Ogabo, a parishioner of St. Thomas More in Baltimore, is a volunteer tutor at the Immigration Outreach Services Center. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

As St. Katharine Drexel became a destination church for immigrants, the parish launched an Inclusion Project, led by a native of Burkina Faso. According to Father Boisvert, that direction included advice from Father Joseph Muth, the pastor of the aforementioned St. Matthew in Northwood. The parish in northeast Baltimore has a similar demographic reach, among the reasons it’s home to the Immigration Outreach Service Center (IOSC).

Elaine Crawford, a parishioner, retired math teacher and member of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, coordinates the volunteer tutors for IOSC, whose clients include asylum seekers and those who have lived in refugee camps.

“When you hear some of the stories of the people who come here, you know that they need and want a better life,” Crawford said. “They have sacrificed so much to come here. My experience with the families that we work with, they are hard-working, dedicated.

“My (ancestors) came here for a better life and they worked hard and that’s why I’m here today. In the same way, these folks are coming to contribute and to work hard and to make a better life.”

IOSC tutors include fellow retirees, a large group from Calvert Hall College High School, and teens such as the aforementioned Muhumuza, a junior at Dundalk High School whose dream of studying law accelerated last summer, when he was immersed in a pre-college program at Harvard.

His peers include Zipporah Ogabo, who aspires to work at the United Nations. A sophomore at Towson High School, she is a lector, altar server and Sunday School teacher at nearby St. Thomas More Parish, where Monsignor James Farmer, the pastor, told her mother, Suzan, about IOSC. Now she sits on its board of directors.

Ogabo was born in Nigeria, where English is the official language. Her family came to Baltimore when she was “11 or 12,” and it wasn’t long after that she began tutoring at IOSC.

“I decided to help,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Email Paul McMullen at pmcmullen@CatholicReview.org

Paul McMullen | Catholic Review

Paul McMullen | Catholic Review

Paul McMullen has served as the managing editor of the Catholic Review since 2008.

The author of two books, Paul has been involved in local media since age 12, when he began delivering The News American to 80 homes in his neighborhood. He began his journalism career with the Capital-Gazette Newspapers in Anne Arundel County, and spent more than 25 years as a sports writer for The Sun in Baltimore. His favorite writing assignments have included the Summer Olympics in Australia and Greece, the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and “Feet for Francis,” a 2015 walking pilgrimage from the Baltimore Basilica to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis.