Students share spirit of Christmas with refugees

Tue, 01/30/2007 (All day)

Courtesy of the Mobile Press-Register
Wednesday, December 06, 2006

By GRETA SHARP
Correspondent

It's the season of spreading joy, of a little extra kindness and goodwill to all. For students at Spring Hill College, this includes the annual tradition of "Christmas on the Hill -- Sharing the Spirit of the Season" and presenting gifts and necessities to Catholic Social Services refugee families.

On Nov. 29, groups of students armed with gift baskets and maps headed to the refugees' homes. Each family received a fruit basket donated by Aramark, new and used age-appropriate books and a gift card to Wal-Mart. Students, faculty and staff members participated by making monetary and book donations.

More than 30 Spring Hill students were involved in the program, from decorating the cafeteria for the campus lunch to wrapping the gifts for the families to delivering Christmas joy. Director of Campus Ministry Maureen Bergan explained that the students who are helping are volunteers.

"I just like to spread joy," said Spring Hill student Burt Rabby. "Make someone's Christmas a little better. It's what the season's about."

Another Spring Hill undergrad, Camille Breaux, has been involved in the project for two years. Due to a hectic finals schedule, she helped out beforehand with decorating and wrapping, but was unable to take part in the delivery.

"The students love it," she said. "It's a Spring Hill College tradition. Because Spring Hill is so into Jesuit social justice, it fits with Spring Hill. It's a good program."

Jana Curran is the resettlement director for Catholic Social Services' Refugee Resettlement Program. The program provides basic services when the refugees arrive, including assistance with housing, applying for Social Security cards, finding employment, registering children in school, referring to medical screening and in general help to settle and acclimate the new residents.

"These are people who have left their home country because of well-founded fears of persecution based on race, nationality, religion, social group or political opinion," said Curran. "It's different than an immigrant. They don't just come here to be economically better. They had to leave. They have refugee status."

She explained they are here legally, and have been subjected to significant interviews and security checks.

Curran said involvement in the program is not dictated by the refugees' religion. For those who do not celebrate Christmas, she explained that they just "go with the flow" and accept it as part of the culture. Of the 12 families, 10 are Meskhetian Turk, one is Sudanese and one is Cuban.

"This is a Christian holiday," explained Sister Patty Huffman of Spring Hill's Campus Ministry department. "Muslims don't celebrate Christmas. Many of these families are Muslim, but we're sharing our spirit of Christmas just as they would share a festivity they might have."

Curran said the program began in 1975 in Mobile helping mainly Southeast Asians, but has grown to include those from African nations, Cuba and Meskhetian Turks from Russia. With a limited staff, she continued, Catholic Social Services relies on the community for supplies and involvement through community groups and volunteers.

"They are grateful and excited that someone would do that for them," Curran said. "It's a nice, warm, welcoming sort of activity. They are very grateful and feel appreciation."

Alli Hyde and Ally Slivka delivered the gifts to the Karamov families.

"Because our theme is 'Weaving the Social Fabric,' this helps others, no matter what ethnicity," said Slivka, explaining the importance of the program. "This is to welcome them, to let them know we support them 100 percent."

Hyde participated in a similar program with her church and recalled walking into the recipients' house and seeing their faces light up.

"I was young when I did that, but it's a distinct memory," Hyde recalled.

With the help of Catholic Social Services interpreter Ilona Smith, the two young women visited with brothers Nasir and Idris Karamov and their families. The brothers explained that while Christmas is not as popular in Russia, they know about Christmas in America and how it is celebrated. Idris Karamov said he has explained to his children that Christmas is the birth of Christ and it is also when Santa Claus comes and brings gifts.

Imran Karamov, 1, quickly found the chocolate bars stashed in the
gift basket and brought it to his mother, Elena, to open it.

"Thank you very much that you brought this," said Elena Karamova.

Nasir Karamov said that most Russians celebrate Jan. 7, which is the Orthodox Christmas. New Year's is also a major celebration in that country, similar to an American Christmas, when gifts are exchanged. Idris Karamov explained that most of what he knew about American Christmases came through American movies he saw in Russia, but now, he said, he sees it is real and that it is beautiful.

Nasir Karamov recalled a New Year's long ago in Russia when young people went door to door handing out balloons. He thought it was so nice that someone was sharing the celebration in this fashion.

"They couldn't bring much, but they brought balloons," he said. "If young people still think like that, there is a future for this country. If you're thinking about refugees, America has a great future."

He went on to tell the students that he learned from their example, wanting to do good things for others, but all he could offer were lessons in Russian. Both brothers are learning English. Idris Karamov is teaching Russian to his supervisor at work.

Through the help of Smith, the Karamovs asked about the students' schoolwork, future plans and sports. Both students shared Christmas memories with the families. Slivka talked about going to a Christmas tree farm and choosing a tree in northern Alabama. Hyde spoke of Christmas Eve shopping with her father in Baton Rouge, La.

"We wish you health and prosperity in all your life," said Idris Karamov to the two students. "And that you develop into all you want to be."

Both brothers expressed gratitude to the openness of Mobilians to make them feel welcome. In Russia, Nasir Karamov said, they were not always accepted.

"We feel like we're at home here," he said. "We were used to constant discrimination."

Here, he said, "We feel at home. That's why we are very thankful to the American people. We can live here freely."

Idris Karamov thanked all the people at Catholic Social Services for helping the families resettle in Mobile. He compared his family's travels to Moses in the desert, leading his people to the Promised Land. Now he said, they are making Mobile their home.

"We feel very happy and peaceful about the future of our family and our children. We're thankful to the president and to all the people of the United States. People here are very kind."