Parishioner says her church helped her heal after seeking asylum

Selma Domingos touched a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in St. Bernadette Church June 6. Domingos, a member of the Prospect, Ky., parish, fled persecution in her native Angola, a country in southern Africa. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Selma Domingos, a single mother of three, was threatened for speaking about human dignity and survived a kidnapping before she fled Angola in search of asylum nine years ago.

Now the St. Bernadette Church parishioner makes her livelihood 7,000 miles away as a speaker and author, sharing her story and offering tips to other immigrants.

“When I moved to the U.S., I felt like I’d lost part of myself, my soul, my spirit, my connection. I didn’t feel whole,” she said during a recent interview at St. Bernadette. 

Her Catholic faith and her parish community helped her heal, she told members of her parish this spring.

She shared her experiences at a parish event that grew from “Moving Towards Oneness,” an initiative of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry that aims to improve race relations by building relationships among Catholic parishes and parishioners. Parishioners who completed the program now host events, such as Domingos’ talk to help educate the wider parish community. 

Domingos said she was a professional woman, a mother of three and an outspoken Catholic when she had to flee Angola, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of southern Africa. It has dealt with instability and mismanagement since 2002, when it emerged from 27 years of civil war, Catholic News Service reported in 2021. 

She said women are often powerless to make decisions about their lives and are led to believe they exist to serve, she said.

Thanks to her Catholic faith and the Dominican priests and religious sisters who helped to form her as a child, she managed to chart a different course, she said.

“Growing up, I worked in the church and I witnessed them (priests and sisters) talk about God, human rights and women’s rights. I came from this formation,” she said. 

In 2000, when she was 20 years old, she earned a scholarship to study at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in social sciences and remained in Italy for 10 years. She returned to Angola, thinking she could make a difference.

She quickly realized that wouldn’t be easy, she said.

“My hope was to make a difference as a person of faith and a Catholic,” she explained. 

She served as a university professor and was outspoken about her Catholic faith, human dignity and the rights of women, she said.

But male students, who were members of the military, began trying to intimidate her, she said.

They brought their guns to the classroom, and eventually, Domingos said, she was kidnapped at gunpoint and driven around “with a gun to my head for four hours.” 

“ ‘You speak too much. You should be quiet,’ ” she said they told her. “I had to prove myself every day. If I didn’t have a strong faith, I don’t think I would have made it.

“I was screaming for help and everyone just said ‘sorry,’ ” she said. 

She lost her job and doors began to close to her, she said. She knew it was time to leave. With her three children, then ages 12, 10 and 7, she came to Louisville and filed for political asylum for which she is still waiting on a decision.

“It’s not easy to just pack yourself up and leave. I had no English background. I just believed and had hope that God was in front of me and that he’d give me the courage to move and start from scratch,” said Domingos. “I was willing to listen to God, and the community took me in and helped me.” 

Domingos said leaving was the best thing to do, but she wrestled with guilt. 

“I felt so guilty leaving other women behind,” she said. “I wish I could bring all those women with me.”

Now she takes every opportunity to speak about her struggles in hopes of encouraging others. She wants people to know, “There is still hope, and when you believe that, it opens so many doors,” she said. “When you have hope, you’re excited about life.”    

Domingos has built a business here called SUN (Selma Unlimited Network) through which she offers her skills as a speaker. She is the author of the self-published book, “How to Make it Big in the USA.” Published in 2022, it’s the first in a series of books aimed at guiding immigrants in finding success in this country. 

The book’s overarching message is, “You have to have faith in everything you do. Find the light and believe you can make a difference,” she said.

Ruby Thomas
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Ruby Thomas
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