USA: New York City Students Hit the Road to Help Refugees

01 November 2016|Sean Lengell, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

About 100 catechism students and chaperones from Most Precious Blood Catholic Church in Queens, N.Y. took part in a four-mile charity walk earlier this year to raise money for refugees. (Most Precious Blood Catholic Church)

When Pope Francis declared that 2016 would be a “Year of Mercy,” asking the world to reach out and help the vulnerable, a group of students in Queens, N.Y., listened closely and took heart. After learning about the plight of Syrian refugees and other forcibly displaced people, catechism students at Most Precious Blood Catholic Church in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., decided to put their faith into action and embark on a four-mile charity walk earlier this year. The group took no water and walked at a fast clip as a way of replicating the harsh conditions refugees typically face.

The students raised money through sponsors and by collecting donations at the end of masses in the weeks prior to the walk, eventually collecting $2,537, which they donated to Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. “At least we knew that when we got to (the end) that we would be able to drink and eat some sandwiches. But the people that we’re trying to help don’t have that luxury,” said Rosa Gonzalez, a catechism teacher at Most Precious Blood who helped organize the May event. “We wanted our students to really feel what our point was.”

Her daughter, Isabella Alvarez, 12, said she was eager to take part in the walk because refugees “are struggling, and here we have many things.”

“We kind of take things for granted (in the United States) and this kind of opened my eyes to the world around us and that there’s more stuff happening outside of New York,” she said. “I wanted to help so I feel better so I don’t feel like some spoiled little princess. I wanted to go out and help others to make a difference.” Italo Peralta, 13, said that after learning about the Syrian refugee crisis in school and from TV news, he wanted to find a way to help.

“That was about the time that Miss Rosa presented the idea. That’s why I rose my hand and said, sure, let’s help this war to end, or help the people escape from the war,” he said. “Knowing that we helped at least a few, and saved their lives probably, it’s actually a great thing we did.”

Brayn Zhao, 13, who also participated in the walk, said that while the majority of Syrian refugees aren’t Christian, like himself, it would be “selfish” not to help people of different faiths. “Let’s say they’re Muslim or Hindu – it doesn’t matter. We all are a community,” he said. “Everybody needs to help one another, and we need to help everybody in our community… We can’t let them die. It’s partly our fault if they die” and we don’t help.

Everybody needs to help one another, and we need to help everybody in our community. We can’t let them die. It’s partly our fault if they die.
Brayn Zhao

During six-hour pilgrimage through Astoria the students visited three parishes; St. Patrick’s, St. Rita’s and finally ending at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Because of the group’s size and the banners they carried, the students were easily distinguishable from other pedestrians. And because passersby, at least at first, didn’t know what to make of the group, the group said they felt they were singled out in a sense – like refugees.

“I think the children felt – not a stigma – but identified,” said another teacher who participated in the walk. “It’s similar to being like a refugee. People are identifying you and not knowing what to do with you… It was a very interesting experience for them to wear their faith so obviously.”

Elia Disaverio, 13, said that, at first, she wasn’t sure if he’d get anything out of the experience. “I remember the first block I was so tired and thought, what am I doing here?” she said. “Then when I really thought about what we were doing, I was really proud of myself that I took the day and helped other people. That really made me feel good that I was showing my faith.”