The Handmaids of the Sacred Heart are a group of eight Sisters living in Buenos Aires, Argentine. Like many of us, they watched in horror as the war broke out in Syria in 2011. Like many of us, they cried as they saw the images of thousands and thousands of refugees pouring out of Syria. Like many of us, they thought there was nothing they could do except pray.
But then they did something many of us would not have dared to do. They took in a Syrian refugee family. As Sister Marialis Etchegaray explains, “We wanted to do more than just cry watching the news on TV.” They were also touched by Pope Francis’ message asking those in religious life, wherever possible, to open the doors of their institutions to those seeking refuge. The Sisters fixed up an apartment on the fifth floor of their school and petitioned to sponsor a family. And they got one.
“Their” family consists of Fadi Ali, 38, his wife Hanan, their two children, and Hanan’s sister. Prior to the war Ali was an agricultural engineer and his wife worked for a multinational telephone company. They were living a comfortable upper-middle class life. Then the war came. Though they lived in a “safe city,” no city was really safe from the war. For six years millions of Syrians have lived without water, electricity, gas, fuel, or medicine. When his job disappeared, Ali volunteered to help resettle displaced Syrians. He also represented his city during negotiations with the fighting factions. But eventually he sought a better and safer life for his family beyond Syrian borders.
Ali and his family arrived in Buenos Aires in March 2015. The adjustment was not easy. The realization that they were 8,000 miles from the rest of their family and their friends made them weep. For several months, Hanan refused to leave the apartment. She was terrified that bombs were going to rain down upon her and her family if she stepped outside. The Sisters patiently and lovingly helped the family through this major adjustment.
Ali eventually got a job with a government department devoted to creating public policy for aid to Syrian programs. The fact that he speaks Arabic, English, and Spanish helps him greatly in his work. Argentina is a country of many immigrants. As such, it tends to be more welcoming of refugees than many other countries.
Of the Sisters, Ali says, “They treat us as friends, not as refugees.” Though he and his family are Muslim, he asked to pray in the same chapel where the Sisters had prayed for his family before they arrived in Buenos Aires. The Sisters, he says, “are the best followers of Jesus.”
Sister Constanza Di Primio says that refugees like Ali and his family are “living tragedies they did not choose.” She added, “They are not the war’s playwrights. The playwrights are the influential, who have economic or political interests, who expose human beings to a high risk of not just life or death, but of living in fear.”
Sister Constanza said that sponsoring a refugee family “turned out to be a fairly uncomplicated gesture…I want people to know that taking in a family is really within their grasp.”
Why did this small group of Sisters sponsor a Syrian refugee family? Says Sister Constanza, “I feel that God entrusted us, as a congregation, to be his innkeepers, to be the ones who say, “’Come, we have room.’”
I’d like to conclude this reflection with a pray that Ali composed and gave to the Sisters:
I based this reflection on an article by Soli Salgado in the “Global Sisters Report.” You can read the full article and other inspiring articles at: globalsistersreport.org.
The song is Marty Haugen’s “All Are Welcome.” Becoming a welcoming individual, a welcoming family, a welcoming parish, a welcoming nation is certainly a goal we strive for as we journey through life:
What do you think of this story and/or this group of sisters?
Do you know anyone or any group that has sponsored a refugee family?
I welcome your responses. They enrich my blog!