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Professor, graduate speak about refugees

Liz Harter | Thursday, November 15, 2007

Refugees need to be able to tell their stories and to feel like they can contribute to society, 1984 Saint Mary’s graduate Laurie Pintor said during Wednesday’s Theology on Fire discussion at the College’s student center.

Pintor joined Saint Mary’s philosophy professor Kevin McDonnell in talking about their experience as refugee sponsors at their parish in South Bend.

“[Being a sponsor] has put so much into perspective in that it’s about relationships and it’s about their story and learning so much about people through that story,” Pintor said.

Pintor became involved in sponsoring refugees from countries such as Bosnia, Rwanda and Vietnam through her church. St. Joseph Parish sponsored its first refugee family in 1979 when McDonnell and his family took in seven Vietnamese refugees.

“It’s much like taking a young teenager through early adulthood in two months,” McDonnell said. “That’s what sponsorship is.”

The refugees that come to America are completely mature in their own culture and society, McDonnell said, but they aren’t in the United States, so they have to reach cultural adulthood in the short time that sponsors aid them.

In addition to the shelter that a sponsor provides, refugees need food, clothing, medical and dental care, schooling, employment and most importantly, to learn English, McDonnell said.

“They need jobs and they need schooling,” he said. “To get a job they need English.”

He said the South Bend public school system has an excellent English and second language program that helps refugees get a good education.

The family that McDonnell sponsored moved out of his home and into their own in South Bend after they adjusted to life in the U.S. The father works at Notre Dame, and the mother works in building services at Saint Mary’s.

“Why do the Vietnamese stay here? It’s the weather,” McDonnell joked. “No, they’ve been welcomed here.”

The Vietnamese refugees have created a community in South Bend, he said.

“South Bend is a very good town for these people,” McDonnell said. “There are enough people who have stayed in South Bend to make it a real community of people. You’ve got to have enough people here that they can feel some sense of continuity with other people.”