Social Justice Convocation discusses themes of refugees and immigrants

BOSTON -- People traded business cards and stories as they browsed the dozens of exhibitor tables set up in Boston College High School, Nov. 4. They talked amongst themselves, until a voice announced that the speaking program was starting, and then they quickly and quietly took their seats, eager to hear the keynote speakers at the Archdiocese of Boston's 9th annual Social Justice Convocation.

Over 300 people attended this year's convocation, themed "Justice and Solidarity: Caring for Refugees and Immigrants," as well as exhibitors from dozens of organizations involved in Catholic social justice ministries and programs.

Highlights of the convocation included keynotes by Sean Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and Father J. Bryan Hehir, cabinet secretary for Health and Social Services of the archdiocese, as well as a brief greeting from Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley.

Attendees were also invited to network with each other, attend a panel held by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston on immigration, participate in a workshop led by CRS, and participate in a faith sharing session. A Mass, celebrated by Father Hehir, closed out the event.

A 28-year veteran with CRS, Callahan was appointed president and CEO at the end of 2016. In his keynote, he spoke about the work CRS does in providing aid to individuals and families overseas, and share the images and stories of some of the people his organization has encountered.

Using a projector, he showed attendees an image of a mother holding a baby with a young child by her side. The photo shows her in a hut, living on the border of Somalia and Kenya, and even though the floor was dirt, the space seemed clean. And it was, said Callahan.

"When you went into her house, it was the cleanest dirt floor you ever have seen," he said. She was proud of her hut, he said, and made sure to wash her children's clothes once a day, "because they only have one set of clothes and it wouldn't be dignified for her children to go out in dirty clothes."

The mother's journey to that moment had not been an easy one. Her husband was killed in Somalia, and to escape the violence, she walked for two months with her young son. She was pregnant with her other son at the time, said Callahan, but she told Callahan that she was glad she was pregnant -- it prevented her from being raped.

She said she is only afraid of two things, said Callahan, "the future of my children, and the cold at night." While she does not have much, when she sees refugees come by without shelter, she offers them a place to stay in her small hut.

"So, here's a woman with almost nothing, and she gives everything she has," said Callahan.

He told her story, and the stories of other immigrants and refugees, to make a point -- that immigrants and refugees are not dangerous, and they are not terrorists. They are, instead, "our brothers and sisters who are in need -- women, children, families, migrating around the world. They don't have some opportunities where they are, so that's our job, to assist them with opportunities."

CRS works to provide people overseas with opportunities, so that they do not feel the need to migrate to escape poor or dangerous conditions, said Callahan. The organization supports programs in over 100 countries around the world, helping to respond to peoples' health care, education, spiritual, and financial needs.

We try to give people "a future," he said.

In his own keynote, Father Hehir spoke in blunt terms on the refugee and immigration situation in the world today, noting that it is a "true humanitarian crisis."

"Today in the world, 65 million people are forcibly displaced," he said, and of that number, an estimated 22 million people are refugees.

People move, he said, because of chaos, war or conflict in their home country, or hope and aspirations for a better life.

"People move because they can't stay alive if they don't move," he said.

Yet, in the United States and in countries across Europe, "divisions and debates" are being created in how to address the crisis, and the responses have, at times, been "totally wrong and distorted."

In "normal times," he continued, the U.S. would open its doors to immigrants. Now, under the current administration, with the number of refugees allowed into the country cut in half, that is not the case.

"We end up suspecting each other's motives, we end up with language that is intolerable and disgraceful when it is used about human beings, and at times the worst instincts are appealed to, often times by people who have public platforms," said Father Hehir.

"You can't live in a crisis of humanitarian proportion and let people describe it in terms that denigrate people rather than appeal to the need for cooperation and collaboration," he said.

The theme of the day resonated with high schoolers Natania Simoly and Jada Marley, who attended the convocation with a small group of fellow students from Cardinal Spellman High School, in Brockton.

They attended because they "thought it would be a great opportunity to mingle and educate ourselves on migration and immigration," said Simoly.

Both Simoly and Marley are the children of Haitian immigrants, and although neither of their families is directly affected by the possible revocation of Temporary Protected Status by the Trump administration, they expressed fear for their friends and neighbors.

"We both grew up in Brockton and Brockton has such a big group of Haitians that it could be your friend or neighbor who might be deported," said Simoly.

"You might never see them again."