It is the month of Thanksgiving, and to all of you who are a part of our Catholic Social Services family, we wish you the best and most wonderful holiday. This holiday I wanted to share with you some of the warmest and best stories celebrating family and Thanksgiving that I know. These stories are from our Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services Program, RAIS, and they speak to our humanity.
In the RAIS program, we resettle individuals and families who have passed through the most difficult pathway to legally come to the United States and join our country legally. These are people from all over the world, and what they share is the classification of “refugee,” which means that they have been forced to leave their country to escape war and persecution. There are more than 25 million refugees on Earth, and many more people displaced within their own country. Of those, only a very small percentage can participate in third-country resettlement following displacement in a nearby country, and this year only 18,000 will be allowed to resettle in the United States. For the small number who have made the difficult journey to Alaska, we extend our arms to welcome them.
When our refugee clients move to Alaska and the USA, they are often excited and eager to learn about their new culture, and Thanksgiving offers a wonderful chance to share an American tradition of sharing food. It also offers a chance for us to talk about indigenous people in our country, and their stories and journeys. Some of our refugee clients feel a connection with Alaska Native culture and stories, and this is a great bridge between people and communities in our great state.
Just like all Thanksgivings though, the best part is the food. Our RAIS program holds a RAIS Thanksgiving event where all our clients bring food to share and learn how to make traditional American Thanksgiving items.
This year we will be joined by a group of inspiring and amazing people, who are grateful to be celebrating a day of thanks and love with their family, after a long journey. Among them is a 101-year-old Congolese grandmother who joined her grandchildren in Alaska in November 2018. Her family has been here for a while and established themselves with stable employment, and kids enrolled in school and a growing local community. In fact, some of her grandchildren are enrolled at UAA, pursuing degrees in mechanical engineering and other areas of studies the grandmother never imagined possible. Bringing their grandmother to join them was the greatest gift they could ask, and she will be there celebrating Thanksgiving with all of us, sharing her traditions and learning ours.
We will also be joined by an elderly Ukrainian mom and dad and their son, who arrived in July after fleeing because of religious persecution. They joined their daughter and other family members who have lived in Alaska for four years and have a stable and safe life here. Now they can celebrate Thanksgiving and pray together as a reunited family.
In so many ways, our RAIS program celebrates and builds on family and community. Eighty-five percent of our arrivals this year are family reunification cases, all immediate family members – parent, sibling, or grandparent. Some of these families have been apart for over ten years and are finally together again.
Pope Francis said, “Opening ourselves to others does not lead to impoverishment, but rather enrichment, because it enables us to be more human: to recognize ourselves as participants in a greater collectivity and to understand our life as a gift for others; to see as the goal, not our own interests, but rather the good of humanity”. This Thanksgiving I pray that we can all open our hearts to the people in our community and around the world with whom we share the gift of life, family and community.