By Francis Stebbins
With news of the arrival in Roanoke of some refugees from the distressed nation of Afghanistan, I’m reminded that this is the fourth time in my lifetime that this has occurred.
(A refugee, it’s been pointed out, is a person who has left his/her native country because of fear of persecution. An immigrant has left voluntarily in the hope of bettering a life situation elsewhere.)
Those who came around 1946 were of the latter type. The year that I finished high school in Orange, Va., and prepared to enter the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) was the first year fully post-World War II. Europe was still devastated by active fighting and the Holocaust. Countless people had been displaced and humanitarian agencies like Church World Service (CWS) made possible resettlement.
Our St. Thomas Episcopal Church, working with others in the closely knit town, brought several Polish citizens to our semi-rural Piedmont community. My mother, an independent poultry farmer, engaged one young man to help her with some especially hard job. He brought with him his small son who sat on our woodpile and waited for his father. The man thanked my mother profusely; she was touched.
I suppose they were resettled on one of the large farms that make up much of the county. I had many more things to think about.
A decade later, shortly after the birth of our first child, four young men arrived in Roanoke following the abortive Hungarian rebellion against the oppressive Soviet Union. They got a lot of attention in the daily papers for which we were working. To set them up in boarding houses or apartments, they needed household essentials. I recall taking some unneeded baby furniture to a warehouse downtown. Soon, a few family units came, and some remained permanently. The poor rebelling Hungarians were soon crushed; it would be 30 more years before the Soviet Union crumbled though dissidents, like the daughter of dictator Josef Stalin, made news later as an affluent refugee .
My closest association with refugees came around 1976 after the inconclusive Vietnam conflict finally came to an end. The small Williamson Road area parish I was then attending, St. James Episcopal, took on the responsibility of resettling a family from Laos. When they arrived, Linthong Thammavong, his wife and a young daughter, Vilay, were put up in a house nearby. They, and the owner of the house, began attending the sponsoring church. We members were encouraged to help them with basic needs.
They spoke no English, but pre-schooler Vilay picked up some words quickly. Her father was placed in a cleaning job at a shopping mall across the city and he needed a way to get there. I drove him a number of mornings, and someone else brought him home. No communication but gestures.
In a year or two , the family increased with the birth of a son, but tragically, the young Laotian mother succumbed to cancer a few years later. I suspect the family stayed in Roanoke, but I never heard of them again.
In years following, the folk at St. James Church have had a ministry to a group of displaced people from the African nation of Sudan who have had a weekly Sunday afternoon service and participating in some parish events. And in Salem some efforts have been made to assist refugees through the Salem Area Ecumenical Ministries (SAEM) cooperative church group.
Always, churches have taken a lead in helping strangers from oppressive or impoverished lands find a new home in our area. Commonwealth Catholic Charities is well known as a central coordinating point since many refugees come from nations where that church is deeply embedded in the culture.
My newsletters from Baptist, United Methodist, Church of the Brethren and Episcopal congregations in the past month have carried articles on the need to help in the resettlement of Afghan folk into the community.