I love stories. I think I could sit and listen to stories of family, struggle and experiences beyond my own any day. My favorite stories are the ones of home. While conducting research for my thesis, I had the opportunity to sit down with a number of Lao families and ask them questions about home, about the places that feel familiar and always welcoming. I found that, for many, home was a place half a world away.
Although some families have lived in the United States for more than 30 years, they did not always feel like they belonged here. Some still consider themselves guests in a foreign land. Whether this feeling was brought on by discriminatory incidents with co-workers, neighbors or others, or if the sense of otherness was self-conceived, these particular stories were not always volunteered or easily shared. However, there was a sense of appreciation among all participants. While forever grateful for the opportunities afforded to them in this country, they missed family left behind, the inviting smiles of neighbors and the kindness of strangers.
The stories of the Lao and other Indochinese refugees are not too different from many other migrants to this country that have come before and are coming now. The circumstances surrounding emigration and modes of entry may differ, but the all too human feelings of uncertainty, fear and bewilderment at the prospect of beginning anew echo throughout their stories.
We all acknowledge the immigrant past of this country and take pride in the contributions of various groups, yet the stranger has not always been welcome here. What happened to “the land of opportunity”? What happened to “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses…”? I can understand that the world has changed since those words were engraved on the plaque inside the Statue of Liberty, but we should never cease to strive to live up to those ideals.
Today, the discussion on immigration reform has reached a boil in this country. I will not claim to understand all the particulars of the immigration debate, but I fear that lawmakers and the general public sometimes fail to see immigrants as fellow human beings and rather see only the racialized “other.” Indeed, the world is changing and so too has the face of the Catholic Church.
In Milwaukee, we have seen growing numbers of various minority groups in our schools, workplaces and parishes. We can see the beautiful styles of worship that each brings to God’s table. We celebrate these differences and welcome the stranger not just on Sunday, but also in our daily lives.
I know that, as young people, we may feel powerless to bring about the just changes we would like to see. The road to justice and compassion for all is often littered with fear and pride. Certainly, the issues can seem overwhelming. At times, we may feel it isn’t our place to speak, but we were called to see with the eyes of Christ, to recognize the dignity in other humans, and to speak for those without voices.
As the immigration debate continues, we should look for the small ways in which we can make a difference. Try to stay as knowledgeable on the subject as possible and keep an open mind during discussions. However the conversations result, we should know that where we stand should come from a place of care and not a place of fear.
(Soukhaphon, 28, belongs to St. Michael Parish, Milwaukee. He works as an admissions counselor for Messmer Catholic Schools, and graduated with a master’s degree in geography from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)