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Immigrants share their stories on World Day of Migrants and Refugees

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When Hekmatullah Latifi, his wife, Nafisa, and their four children arrived at Dulles International Airport in 2016, he said they were greeted by an “angel of light,” also known as their Catholic Charities case manager. She welcomed the Afghan family and brought them to a new home with a refrigerator filled with familiar foods. In the coming months, she would help the couple find employment, enroll their children in school and slowly make this country their home. 

“It was such an emotional day for me,” said Hekmatullah. “It’s kind of difficult to leave all your brothers and sisters and the life you made behind. But here you find your new friends, your new family, a new person who never met you but she’s eager to help you. Suddenly out of nowhere, God sends help.”

Hekmatullah shared his story with Bishop Michael F. Burbidge at St. Ann Church in Arlington Sept. 27, the 106th World Day for Migrants and Refugees. That morning during Mass, Bishop Burbidge spoke about Christ’s own experience as a refugee. 

“The theme that Pope Francis has chosen for this year’s observance of the World Day for Migrants and Refugees is this — ‘Forced Like Jesus (Christ) to Flee.’ Mary and Joseph, like millions of internally displaced persons, had to take Jesus and flee because it was unsafe due to the threats of Herod,” he said. 

All around the world, people experiencing war, hunger and persecution are leaving their homes in search of security and a dignified life, said Bishop Burbidge. “Today, as a church and as a diocese, we not only renew our commitment to pray for migrants and refugees, but to do our part in welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating internally displaced persons,” he said. “What we do for them, we do for Christ.”

After Mass, Bishop Burbidge spoke with Hekmatullah, Nafisa and another family who had been served by diocesan Catholic Charities Immigrant and Refugee Services. The program helps immigrants in a number of ways, including offering legal immigration services, citizenship application assistance, English classes and workforce training. This year, Catholic Charities reached its goal of helping more than 500 refugees find jobs, said Jessica Estrada, director of newcomer services.

Hekmatullah Latifi and his wife, Nafisa, refugees from Afghanistan, speak with Bishop Michael F. Burbidge on World Day of Migrants and Refugees at St. Ann Church in Arlington Sept. 27. ZOEY MARAIST  |  CATHOLIC HERALD

vert refugeeBack in Afghanistan, Hekmatullah often worked with the U.S. government, including the U.S. Embassy. That ultimately made him enemies who harassed him and his family with threatening letters and phone calls. “We coped for a year or two and then we decided it's not possible to stay any more because we didn’t feel safe,” he said. “I used to work for a mission that was funded by the U.S., so I applied for an asylee visa, a Special Immigrant Visa, and thank God we have been granted a visa.”

When he first arrived, Hekmatullah worked in retail. Now he has his “dream job” with Catholic Charities. “(I’m) an immigrant who received all those services and today I’m helping those families who need that help and I’m very proud of it,” he said. 

Bishop Burbidge also heard from Maria Guardado, who came to the United States from El Salvador in 2017 after her father in the U.S. worked with diocesan Catholic Charities to apply for the Central American Minors program on her behalf. Guardado was excited to be reunited with her father, but it was difficult to leave her mother behind. “I was happy to see him but I was sad because of my mom,” she said. Fortunately, a few weeks ago her mother was able to join much of the family, including Guardado’s two brothers, in the United States. “I didn’t see her for four years. But finally I’m with her again,” she said, tearing up.

Through Catholic Charities, Guardado was able to enroll in a 16-week culinary training program called La Cocina. She worked for Chipotle, then in a Westin Hotel. She was laid off due to the pandemic, but recently found work cooking at Sunrise Assisted Living. She dreams of one day being head chef of her own restaurant. 

At the end of the conversation, Bishop Burbidge thanked the families for sharing their stories. “Pope Francis often tells us that as brothers and sisters, we are not only here to help one another, but we’re also here to listen to one another, to acknowledge the contributions that you all make to make our country even better. We have to uplift that and thank you for that,” he said. “I am very touched and inspired to meet all of you today.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020