My name is Sr. Luanne Carmon and I live in Utica, New York located in the northeastern section of the United States. Presently, I minister at the Thea Bowman House which serves over 300 low income children and their families by providing day care, prekindergarten, and afterschool care, with the largest program being the prekindergarten. In partnership with the local school district, Thea Bowman House provides prekindergarten classes for 150 four year-olds. Children enrolled in Prekindergarten develop the language, literacy, and math skills they need in order to be successful in kindergarten. A little more than half of the children we serve in the prekindergarten program are refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, and Burma. For all children, but especially children from low-income families and those for whom English is a second language, the prekindergarten program is very important to ensuring success in school. Thea Bowman House also provides transportation to and from the classes, which helps increase the number of children we serve as well as help with more consistent attendance.
The refugee children served through the program are resettled with their families in Utica through the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (a.k.a. the Refugee Center) which is one of 10 national organizations that resettle refugees on behalf of the United States government. Since 1979, over 14,000 refugees have been resettled in Utica. Of the more than 60,000 residents who call Utica home, 12% are refugees. As a result, Utica has the fourth highest concentration of refugees in the United States. The Refugee Center works closely with churches and other local service providers, such as Thea Bowman House, to make Utica a welcoming place for refugees. It also provides intensive help and support to the newly arriving refugees by assisting families in applying for government benefits, find affordable housing and enroll in job training and English classes. Due to the fact that Thea Bowman House offers prekindergarten classes, many of the refugee parents are able to attend English and job training classes during the day while their young children are being cared for in our program.
The majority of the refugee families we serve in the prekindergarten program are the Karen (Kah-Ren) people from Burma, now known as Myanmar. The Karen are a Christian ethnic group who, by nature, are a simple, quiet, and peace loving people; very devout and committed to cooperative living. Although they are by nature a peaceful people, they have endured great suffering and persecution by their country’s military regime. The stories are similar as they tell of having had to flee the violence of direct military attacks in Burma. Of how the army invaded the villages and destroyed everything they owned including their homes and crops. Some of the families witnessed unthinkable acts of violence that has left deep psychological wounds and, in some cases, physical scars as well. Fearing for their lives, many families made their way to the refugee camps along the Burma and Thailand border. Life in the refugee camps is hard and the wait to come to the United States is very long.
At Thea Bowman House, great efforts have been made to employ staff who can serve as translators as well as function as family advocates for the refugee families. Presently, we have several Karen and Burmese speaking translators, one of whom is also a family advocate. Our service at Thea Bowman House often goes beyond the boundaries of the classroom as we frequently accompany children and their parents to doctor and dental appointments as well as help them through the intimidating world of social services, health care, and education. We also conduct parent education programs in the evening that address topics dealing with their children’s health, education, and safety.
A good part of my day at Thea Bowman House is assisting and supporting the prekindergarten teachers and their staff. With so many refugee children, there are constantly concerns or problems that arise that require us to reach out to the children’s parents. Some of the situations are as simple as finding out if their child has warm clothing for the frigid temperatures we experience during the winter. Other situations can be a bit more challenging as they might deal with a child’s learning difficulty, the death of a parent or child, a family not having enough food in the house, or an unsafe environment within the home. Frequently, these situations allow me the opportunity to work closely with our Karen translators. I am always humbled by the sincere and heartfelt respect that they show the families. I’ve also learned that the role of a translator can be tedious and very draining but I never hear our translators complain about it. They often remind me that they, too, were once refugees. They remember how hard it was to come to a new country. They challenge me to serve persons who are poor with a boldness of charity that communicates a genuine and cordial respect regardless of how wearisome and exhausting the ministry may be.
The Karen people have a great trust in a loving God and their strong faith has sustained them in their suffering. They show tremendous resiliency and a profound joy in the Lord despite the difficulties and uncertainties of life. By the example and witness of their lives, they challenge me to reflect on my own faith and trust in God. There is a boldness of charity in giving myself each day and trusting in God’s loving providence rather than focusing on my own plans and designs. There is a boldness of charity in remaining open and receptive to every encounter, in responding with gentleness to each knock at the door, in reaching out to each sister in my local community, believing that I am meeting Christ in every circumstance of my day. In order to live the boldness of charity in the ordinary moments of my life both in community and in ministry, I must daily spend quality time with Jesus, the source and model of all Charity. In this way, I can only hope to grow more rooted in Him so that Christ’s love will flow through my every glance, every touch, and in every gesture in my service and within my local community.
Province of St. Louise, USA