The United States was supposed to be a safe haven for Jay Ro. He brought his wife and four young children to this country in 2011, departing from a camp in Thailand where they had fled the turmoil of the civil war in their native Burma.
The family settled in Milwaukee and, with the help of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Rofound work at Cargill Meat Solutions. His wife, Ca Tri Na, became a home health care worker. His children, now ranging in age from 5 to 11, attend St. Rose and St. Leo Catholic School. They lived in a home on the 1500 block of North 30th Street, just three houses from Milwaukee Fire Station 32.
Even though the ongoing violence of their homeland was a world away, the United States had its own evil in store for Ro, 49, who was shot to death on Thursday, June 25, while defending his oldest son, Htee Ku Moo, during a home invasion.
In the aftermath of the murder, leaders of the family’s church and school communities are pulling together to support Ro’s wife and children even as they themselves struggle to comprehend the violence of this attack.
“It’s been pretty tough,” said Jim Piatt, president of Messmer Catholic Schools, which includes St. Rose and St. Leo. “It cuts pretty deep. It’s just a horrible thing.”
“Their concern is, ‘What do we do now?’” said Fr. Dennis Lewis, pastor at St. Michael Church, Milwaukee, where
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the family are parishioners. “We are here to offer help and support and continued service, not only through the funeral but as things go on.”
Steven Xiong, director of migrant and refugee services for Catholic Charities, first met Ro in 2011 when the latter arrived in the United States. He was struck by his new client’s friendliness and work ethic.
“When he arrived here, we interviewed him about the first day, in my office. He was willing to work. You can see he’s a young guy, smiling, he moves around fast,” recalled Xiong.
Because of his youth and physical ability, Xiong and Catholic Charities decided to forego signing him up for W2 assistance, instead opting to help him find work. Ro secured a job at Cargill, where he was employed before the plant closed in 2014.
At the time of his death, he was looking for work and going to school to improve his English. In addition to Moo, their other children include son Da Ku Htoo, 10; daughter Hser Blut Kue, 7; and son Dah Ku Sher, 5.
Xiong described Ro as the consummate “breadwinner” who was well liked by his peers, had many friends and was devoted to his family.
“He was working – working very hard. He is a clean, clean person – the house (was always) clean,” he added.
His devotion to his family was evident in the final act of his life — protecting Moo from the threat of a gun-wielding intruder.
The family had house guests, and Na and Ro were in the kitchen preparing food. The doorbell rang, and Moo answered.
Xiong said that, according to Moo’s account, the strangers at the door identified themselves as “the caretaker of the house” and said they would make repairs for the family. One man then pointed a gun at the boy’s neck and dragged him into the kitchen. Ro was initially in shock and thought it might be a prank, said Xiong, until the man demanded money and threatened to kill Moo. Ro then charged the stranger, who shot him in the chest.
Xiong was surprised by the attack, especially given the home’s proximity to the fire station. He described the neighborhood as “a very nice area” populated with several other Burmese families.
“In the area you cannot find a better house,” he said.
Xiong said Moo is suffering the effects of the trauma of witnessing his father’s murder.
“He is still really afraid,” he said.
Fr. Lewis said the family came to the church later that day with translators.
“They were devastated … they were irreconcilable, trying to figure it out, to put meaning to it,” the priest said.
Piatt visited the family the afternoon after the murder, and said that he was “struck by how peaceful the family and the home was. It’s mind-boggling that we were sitting in their dining room, probably just a few feet away from where their father was murdered yesterday.
I don’t know how to describe their sense of dignity and human decency, which was so tragically violated just one day ago.”
The Messmer school community, he said, stands ready to support the family in the difficult months ahead, and has established a fund to help pay for Ro’s funeral and burial costs (any leftover donations will be used to provide “other essential support such as housing and educational needs for the family,” according to a press release).
“I’ve already gotten strong indications of response,” said Piatt.
The school also wants to work closely with St. Michael Parish, where the family were active parishioners and Ro served as an usher, to meet the needs of Ro’s widow and children.
St. Michael Church has a substantial Burmese population, which Fr. Lewis describes as “growing by leaps and bounds.” Ro’s family belongs to the Karen ethnic group, which hails from southern and southeast Burma.
Fr. Lewis estimated there are about 200 Karen individuals at the parish, and hundreds more who belong to the Karenni, Chin and Kachin groups.
The parish also has a large, youthful Latino, Hmong and Laotian population, and weekend Masses – which usually draw around a thousand people – are multilingual.
The parish saw its first Karen funeral this past weekend, said Fr. Lewis, when Ro was laid to rest July 4.
The family, who had been meeting in the homes of friends and family to gather in prayer and vigil in the nights leading up to the funeral, chose readings to reflect their belief that earthly life “is only the trial period for the kingdom,” said Fr. Lewis.
“They chose a reading from Wisdom – ‘the just man, though he die early, shall be at peace.’ They selected John 14 for the Gospel reading – ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’” he said.
A memorial fund to support the needs of Ro’s family has also been established by Catholic Charities, the organization announced last week.
Catholic Charities interim executive director Ricardo Cisneros said the organization will continue supporting the family as they deal with the loss of their father and husband. A special priority, he said, will be to secure counseling for Moo.
He praised the resilience of the refugee community, which he said has grown substantially in Milwaukee over the last few years. Catholic Charities reported serving 80 clients who were Burmese refugees in 2008, he said, and this year they serve 400.
“These families – they have gone through incredible things before getting here. The refugee camps and the lack of home and the lack of food and the lack of everything,” he said. “Many times they are the victims of torture, they are victims of family members being killed. So they are survivors. They come here and they are able to rebuild their life in an incredibly short amount of time.”
Fr. Lewis agreed, stressing the responsibility of Milwaukee’s Catholic community to support these families.
“This is a large part of the Catholic community now in this city, the first generation (immigrants),” he said. “Somehow we have to connect resources for formation, the education and opportunities for them, and employment, and all the other things that go with it. It’s a long-term commitment … when we commit ourselves to support people, we’ve got to be there.”