Roger Cardinal Etchegaray discusses “Refugees: a Challenge to Solidarity,” at the UN round table. (photo: courtesy, United Nations)
The large Trusteeship Council Chamber of the United Nations in New York had filled slowly at first, but by 10:00 a.m. on 9 March there was hardly a seat left. Nevertheless men and women priests, sisters and lay people from many nations continued to crowd through the doors.
The occasion was a two-day international round table on the question of refugees, sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and the Path to Peace Foundation, and financed in part by Catholic Near East Welfare Association. The meeting had been called to address the problems raised in a recent Vatican document, Refugees: a Challenge to Solidarity.
This document was prepared by Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, and Archbishop Giovanni Cheli, president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples. Both were scheduled to speak.
The meeting started late, delayed, we were told, by urgent world business that had detained the secretary-general of the United Nations, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Not until 11:40 a.m. did Ambassador Rene Valery Mongbe, permanent representative of Benin to the United Nations, vice-president of the 47th Session of the General Assembly and chairman of the meeting, begin his statement.
Like most of the speakers, Ambassador Mongbe addressed the assembly in French. Many in the audience were fluent in that language; others, like me, reached for the earphones through which we would hear the crisp tones of the interpreters in the languages of our choice.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association was asked to participate because of its fine record of assistance to refugees and the displaced. We have programs for Palestinians who constitute the worlds oldest refugee population. We also help Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq and citizens displaced by civil strife in Armenia, Ethiopia and Lebanon.
But we also work on another front. Catholic Near East Welfare Association is a nongovernmental organization associated with the UN Department of Public Information. We have access to open meetings of United Nations bodies. We receive invitations to briefings, seminars, consultations and conferences on political, economic, social and humanitarian issues.
As a Catholic nongovernmental organization, we are associated with the International Catholic Organizations, which has an information center in New York. Meetings held at the center twice a month feature distinguished speakers from the United Nations and other NGOs.
Responding to Ambassador Mongbes statement, Archbishop Renato R. Martino, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, read a message from Pope John Paul II in which the pope asked the international community to build a world where peace will be secure, minorities will be respected and people will have the freedom to practice their religion and to live in their homes and in their countries without fear and with sufficient means of subsistence by their families.
The pontiff warned that humanitarian assistance cannot be a substitute for political action.
Statements by diplomats and churchmen followed. Dr. Boutros-Ghali, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, drew appreciative laughter when he observed, I am not trying to put forward a laymans interpretation of the Bible, nor to suggest that Adam was the first man to be forced to flee his place of origin, or that Noah was a forerunner of the boat people.
However, he continued, we must admit that anguish in the face of exile, the search for a land of asylum, the hospitality of strangers, the house of the Father, are themes that recur in stories, prophecies, metaphors or parables throughout the Bible. He went on to affirm the right of persons who are persecuted to find asylum in another country, where they would enjoy the rights of citizens.
Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations high commissioner for refugees, disclosed that when UNHCR was created in 1951, there were one million refugees. Today, the refugee problem exceeds 18 million. Most of the refugees are women and children. In addition, as several speakers noted, another 24 million individuals are displaced in their own countries.
Msgr. Robert L. Stem described the work of the Association and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, which was established by Pope Pius XII in 1949 to work with Palestinian refugees.
Perhaps most telling were the statements of the refugees themselves. Dith Pran, the Cambodian refugee whose story was told in the film Killing Fields, spoke movingly of his flight through the jungle from Cambodia to Thailand. Cecilia Moran, a refugee from El Salvador now living in the Diocese of Rockville Centre (Long Island, NY), noted that some refugees from her country had been refused admission to the United States because they were incorrectly labeled communists. The sanctuary churches were lifesavers, she said.
Many refugees described their welcome to the United States as cold and inhospitable. A Cuban woman disclosed that although she has been in a parish with a large Spanish-speaking population for 30 years, the Spanish Mass is still celebrated in a cramped basement at an hour when the main church lies empty.
An Ethiopian woman who had entered the United States on a student visa was stranded without assistance, she said, when the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie cut off her financial aid. She described her struggle to obtain immigrant status, a green card and eventual citizenship.
Others said they were welcomed and expressed appreciation for services such as Masses and CCD classes in their native tongues, classes in English as a second language and assistance with visas and jobs. All agreed that on the parish level an enthusiastic pastor is their strongest ally as they strive to make a new life in an alien land.
The round table highlighted the plight of refugees around the world. Catholic Near East Welfare Association is working to alleviate their distress.
Peg Maron is Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s alternate representative to the U.N. Department of Public Information.