A group of about 20 people from the Archdiocese of Louisville, including students from Assumption High School and staff members of Catholic Charities of Louisville, visited lawmakers in Frankfort Feb. 19 to advocate for immigrants and refugees.
Among them was Alinoti Malebo. Malebo is a student and works as a community liaison with Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services. He and his family arrived in Louisville in 2015 from Tanzania. But his family’s journey began long before that.
His family was forced to flee their native Congo in 1999 while his mother was pregnant with him. He was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania and spent his first 15 years in perpetual limbo.
“I think it is like living on someone else’s land. You don’t have freedom of movement,” he said in an interview earlier this week, describing what it feels like to be without a homeland. “You have eyes, but you cannot see. You have ears, but you cannot hear. You have a mouth, but you cannot talk.”
Upon arriving in the U.S. at age 15, Malebo spoke no English but dived into his English as a Second Language classes and constantly worked to improve his language skills. In 2018, he graduated from Iroquois High School in the top 10 percent of his class.
At Catholic Charities, he works to coordinate volunteers and boost the agency’s ability to support newly-resettled refugees, a status he said he knows all too well.
“The work they (Catholic Charities) did for me and my family inspired me to want to give back to the community,” he said. “Where I am today is because of the services and open hearts and welcoming I received as a new arrival.”
Malebo said he hoped to bring a human face to the global refugee crisis to Kentucky lawmakers in Frankfort.
“Most lawmakers only know of refugees from a book or from on the news. I recommend that before they make decisions about refugees, they should understand exactly who is a refugee, what they go through,” he said.
Mark Bouchard, parish engagement coordinator for Catholic Charities, said the purpose of the visit to the state Capitol is to “remind our legislators of the importance to our state and country of the presence of our refugee and immigrant brothers and sisters.”
“How, by our very faith, we are called to treat everyone with dignity. How we treat people at our borders is a pro-life issue,” Bouchard said.
The delegation from Louisville was to include six students from Assumption, accompanied by two teachers. Eleven staff members from Catholic Charities, including Malebo and Bouchard, also planned to spend the day advocating for immigrants and refugees.
Malebo planned to talk with lawmakers in particular about the requirements of the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES). Despite his high grade point average and status as a legal resident, he was unable to qualify for the scholarship because he was not yet a permanent citizen.
“I think if a student qualifies for a KEES scholarship, they should be able to receive it no matter their immigration status,” he said.
Malebo currently attends Jefferson Community and Technical College and plans to transfer to Indiana University Southeast. He is majoring in international relations and wants to work with U.S. and global leaders to make the “best decisions for diverse communities,” he said.
Assumption senior Nicole Shariat said it’s important for lawmakers to hear from constituents that immigrants and refugees have worth and also help to contribute to their communities.
“My father immigrated from the Middle East when he was a young adult and struggled to make it in America. He is now a business owner and contributes to the economy and the job market,” said Shariat, president of Assumption’s Global Outreach Club.
Diane Darst, a theology teacher at Assumption and co-moderator of the Global Outreach Club, noted that immigration is one of the five critical concerns in the advocacy work of the Sisters of Mercy, who sponsor the all-girls’ high school.
“As an educator at a Mercy school, I want to provide the opportunity for our students to advocate in this important area of social justice. We need to speak out in sup
port of those who have have persevered through tremendous adversity and are trying to make a new life for themselves in an unfamiliar land, with both language and cultural barriers. With the privileges and resources we possess, we can help those most in need,” Darst said. Next month, numerous groups, including Catholic Charities, will come together for the annual Immigrant and Refugee Day at the Capitol on March 17.
The day is intended to educate elected officials and others about immigration and the refugee resettlement program, as well as the contributions refugees and immigrants make to our commonwealth, Bouchard said.