On Thursday, April 6th at St. Ignatius High School, close to 400 students from across the Greater Cleveland area came, learned and witnessed the concept stated by Pope Francis in March of 2016 when he asked, "How can we not see the face of the Lord in the face of the millions of exiles, refugees, and displaced persons who are fleeing in desperation from the horror of war, persecution and dictatorship?"
Joining with their counterparts and peers from the high schools of the Diocese of Cleveland, teachers and students alike met to discover the many different aspects of a complex issue. They first gathered at the Breen Center Auditorium where they heard from Chris Kerr, the executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, an organization that advocates for social justice initiatives in the spirit of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The group was also given their packets for the day, a schedule, prayer card and a companion booklet, which they would access throughout the day to learn the real and authentic story of a migrant. Mr. Kerr was not alone in presenting to the crowd though, he was joined with Mayra Martinez, a student at Loyola University of Chicago and herself an undocumented immigrant. Mayra, via skype, shared parts of her story with the audience as she talked about coming to the United States with her family when she was very young. Settling in Chicago, she and her family made a new life in America. She spoke about the many challenges that undocumented people face within the system and some of the reasons why many choose to leave their native country.
After the keynote speakers, students and adults split up into several groups and began to hear from a diverse set of speakers and panels who educated them on the growing list of Migration issues we see here in the United States. Ranging from the legal and political intricacies to fair trade to the difference between an immigrant and a refugee, the network of CSPJ made their way around to different break out sessions. One challenged students to write down what they would take if they had to flee within an hour. They could choose only six things. Two other sessions were a little different in that they were student panels of teenagers from CSPJ schools.
The first panel, made up of students from St. Ignatius, Magnificat and St. Joseph Academy, discussed and presented information on becoming a fair trade certified school. Their goal was to help their peers learn how they can implement fair trade practices in their own schools for things like school uniforms, food, bookstore items and school supplies. The second student panel was made up of students from Cleveland Central Catholic and St. Joseph Academy. Every student on that panel was either a refugee or an immigrant and they shared some of their own personal experiences and answered many questions about why the fled their native countries and what they found surprising about life in the United States.
"Everyone in Africa thinks that everyone in America is rich, they believe once you make it to America, you are rich too." said Fabrice Akakpo, a sophomore from CCC. Esther Ngemba, a student from St. Joe's and an advocate for refugees now, discussed her own story about how her family left the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to violence and civil war. "I would not be here today if we had stayed, rebels attacked where my family was soon after we had left," she recounted. When asked what was the most surprising thing about life in America, Tatu Wadesisi exclaimed. "Your bathrooms are inside! Your pets are not kept outside and you do not keep goats or chickens in your backyards!" All the students expressed that they have heard both positive and negative things said to them about not being native born here, although it has mostly been positive out of a curiosity that most Americans have. Peter Harb, a senior from St. Ignatius High School who also served as the event's student emcee had this to say about the day. "The summit taught me so much about why immigrants and migrants allow our society to flourish. Learning how to stand with immigrants and migrants with 400 of my fellow peers, and seeing them take in everything that we heard was a truly incredible experience, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity in taking part in it. Peace can not be achieved without justice, and we learned that if we want peace in this world, we must achieve justice for all."
Once the break out sessions were completed, the entire group of nearly 400 students and faculty walked from St. Ignatius to St. Patrick Church on Bridge Avenue. Despite the rain, all were in good spirits as we celebrated mass together. Ms. Brenna Davis from St. Martin de Porres acknowledged that while no one really likes to walk in the rain, imagine if you were an immigrant or migrant and you had no choice but to walk all day in the weather. Fr. Steve Vellenga, the pastor of St. Mary Church in Painesville, a parish that serves a large migrant community, was the celebrant in addition to being one of the break out session presenters. He had a message of hope and togetherness as he reminded the congregation that we are all called to "work out our spiritual muscles" for peace and justice and to "live justly not just live."
Lunch was held at the hall at St. Patrick's and while half the group ate, the other half heard from Chris Kerr again on how to advocate for change and what the best practices and challenges to doing so are. The day was completed with the director of the Diocese of Cleveland Social Action office, Sr. Kathleen Ryan, speaking to the whole group in the church once more and sharing a story from her life about getting to know a refugee family from what was then communist controlled Albania. She discussed how because communist countries suppress religion, she had the unique privilege of explaining to them what was celebrated at Christmas and why she was giving them gifts. In doing this, she explained the Nativity and how Mary and Joseph were forced to leave their hometown by themselves and with nothing in order to make it to Bethlehem. She then said she had to tell them this is why many Christian families have nativity scenes in their houses, to remind them of that story during the Christmas season. Sr. Kathleen ended her story with telling all those in the church that the man she was saying this to had tears in his eyes and that when she asked why he was crying he said "In Albania, they force you to give up God, but in America, God comes to your home." She asked the whole group to remember to bring God to people's homes by working for peace and justice.