For almost five decades, the Catholic Church in the United States has celebrated National Migration Week, which is an opportunity for the Church to reflect on the circumstances confronting migrants, including immigrants, refugees, children, and victims and survivors of human trafficking.
Last week, the Center for Cultural Engagement, Campus Ministry, and the student organization Migrant Rights Coalition, organized a series of events based on Pope Francis’ message about "Building the Future with Migrants and Refugees" for the 108th International Day of Migrants and Refugees.
Several Catholic University current and former students who are immigrants or refugees shared how they found an environment of welcome on campus that helped them find their place as members of the Cardinal community.
Ghada Ghazal, a practicing Muslim refugee from Syria and doctoral candidate in religion and culture, shared her story as a religious minority on campus during an interfaith dialogue on immigration hosted by the Center for Cultural Engagement. She has lived in the United States for six years with a pending refugee status, meaning she is authorized to stay as she waits for the outcome of her application.
After being forced to flee her homeland out of fear for her life, she said “now being here I have a chance to work, study, and be here on campus…I feel so welcomed.”
Ghazal said she initially felt self-conscious at Catholic University because she did not know if it would be appropriate to ask for a place to pray salah, which are five daily prayers that are standard for Muslims. She said one of her colleagues noticed her praying in a corridor and advocated for Ghazal to have a room assigned to her.
“I was really touched to find support from a colleague who is from a different religion and culture. I feel more powerful and emotionally more connected. I think it’s the power of giving and helping and advocating that creates an atmosphere of love and peace,” said Ghazal.
Another member of the Cardinal community José Castellón Gutiérrez, B.A. 2020, shared in an event the following day on undocumented migrants about how he found the support at Catholic University to publicly share his immigration status after years of living in fear.
He was brought to the U.S. as a child after the cut-off for DACA (Deferred Action for Child Arrivals), which means many doors are closed to him.
As a high school student he remembers his teachers saying, "‘You are such a good student, you should be applying for scholarships,’” but he was scared to tell them why he would not qualify.
“When they did know, they didn’t know how to help,” said Castellón Gutiérrez.
Castellón Gutiérrez received substantial academic scholarships from Catholic University, which like many higher education institutions does not consider immigration status as part of the admission process. Because of his status, he did not qualify for federal financial aid so he worked five days a week as a janitor to pay for college yet still graduated in three years. He paid taxes for his work and even received an IRS refund, but despite following the rules as best he could not escape being considered by the law “illegal.”
Castellón Gutiérrez said he revealed his status to Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement Javier Bustamante, who offered support and encouraged him to share his story to help others. Castellón Gutiérrez announced his status publicly in his senior year at a panel discussion titled “Undocumented and Unafraid,” saying at the time “I decided to do the panel because I have a voice and I have to be willing to use it in order for things to change.”
His immigration case is currently “administratively closed,” which means that legal proceedings are halted but remain unresolved. Despite his hard work and best efforts, Castellón Gutiérrez cannot plan for the future as there is no clear avenue for him to join the workforce.
He’s currently a doctoral student in history at the University of Maryland. Yet now his merit scholarships are in jeopardy because he doesn’t qualify for DACA. He said the university administration is “tied legally” and working to help, but for Castellón Gutiérrez this is another example of the constant uncertainties he faces and has no power to resolve.
“I hope that my going through these systems will help them learn how to deal with non-DACA students,” said Castellón Gutiérrez. The legality of DACA, created by an executive order from President Barack Obama, is currently being evaluated by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals with a ruling expected soon.
The U.S. bishops endorse DACA as another step toward much-needed comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes the dignity and contributions of migrants and refugees. For this year’s National Migration Week, the USCCB encouraged Catholics to contact Congress to make these and other protections for displaced peoples law.
Chair of the USCCB Committee on Migration Mario Dorsonville, auxiliary bishop of Washington who is a native of Colombia, said that scripture passages such as Matthew 25 are clear commands to Christians to “welcome the stranger” and “embrace those who suffer.” He is also an alumnus of Catholic University.
“For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
— Matthew 25:35
“For more than 200 years, the U.S. bishops have been fighting for immigrant rights…[we are] pioneers in welcoming refugees and migrants,” said Bishop Dorsonville, emphasizing that each can and should play an important role in contributing to the common good. “Our migrants and refugees have a strong role in the future of the nation and the whole world.”
Bishop Dorsonville said that the numbers of refugees and migrants have grown tremendously over the past 20 years, pointing to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border as a particularly prominent illustration of the need and challenges that must be addressed through comprehensive immigration reform.
“Men and women of goodwill can build up the voice of migrants and refugees that is so needed in today’s world,” he said of the importance of interfaith collaboration.
Ghada Ghazal, after sharing her personal story of her journey to the U.S., pointed to the flight of Muhammad’s followers to Abyssinia to successfully seek refuge in the Christian Kingdom of Aksum as an example of interfaith cooperation that recognizes the common humanity of each person.
She said when speaking about migrants and refugees it is important to “remember they are human and they have the right to leave.” Ghazal also asked those who wish to offer aid to migrants and refugees, to remember that part of treating them as true equals as created by God includes making efforts to not make them feel inferior because they are in need.
“We have to work hard to not make the other person feel less because we are helping them…we must treat them as equal in a real sense,” said Ghazal. “The moment they feel welcome can change their lives.”
Andrew Gross, associate professor and chair of the department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages, said that observing the faith of his Jewish immigrant ancestors means reliving the Exodus from Egypt and being reminded of the obligation to care for those similarly searching for a land to call their own.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the natives born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."
— Leviticus 19:34
“We have an obligation to treat others as we would have wished our ancestors would have been treated,” said Gross.
University associate chaplains Rev. Joseph Martin Hagan, O.P. and Rev. Teodosio “Teo” Brea led a prayer service on Wednesday Sept. 21 for the intentions and needs of all who migrate. The group gathered around the ‘Angels Unawares’ sculpture near Fr. O’Connell Hall, which depicts immigrants throughout history including the Holy Family on a ship sojourning to much-hoped for safety.
Cultural Day, which attracted hundreds of students in a celebration of the cultural diversity present on our campus. The event featured a jazz band, lion dancers, and steel drummers, as well as Hispanic foods and interactive activities organized by the various student cultural organizations.