Friday, February 25, 2011

Free to Worship: Asylee from Burma cherishes one of our most sacred rights

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When Chhuingi La Hming lived in Burma, the military would monitor her practically non-stop, keeping tabs on her comings and goings and brashly questioning visitors to her home.  Today, La Hming is a client with our Immigration Legal Services program, working to secure her asylum status and living a far freer life than she did before. The government in Burma keeps strict control over its citizens, even where they eat and sleep.  They're not allowed to worship freely, either. 

But it's hard to turn your back on your beliefs. And the intrepid La Hming broke the law numerous times by secretly teaching Sunday school in a back room at her home.  After her first arrest, she swore never to teach again, but quickly broke her promise.  That meant she would face the wrath of the military government and more jail time, or worse.  So La Hming sought refuge in the United States and came to Catholic Charities for help.

When I met La Hming at our offices in Washington a few weeks ago, she gave me a friendly smile and announced that she'd lived in the United States for over two years. She still teaches Sunday school and volunteers regularly at her church in Gaithersburg, Md.  She also holds down a steady job as a waitress in the District.  But the most important change in her life? She no longer fears being arrested for sharing her beliefs with others.

For about two years, she's been working closely with David Cleveland, an attorney who graciously volunteers full-time with our Immigration Legal Services program.  Their goal is to obtain asylee status for La Hming and her sister so they can stay in the United States permanently. 

That means David and La Hming have to describe in detail the persecution and humiliation La Hming endured so that she could teach others about her religion.  Then a judge will decide whether or not she and her sister have a legitimate reason to stay.

La Hming said that if she can't remain here, she'd just go back to jail in Burma rather than turn her back on what she believes.  "I came for religious freedom," she explained.  But the courts are slow, and she will still have to wait to hear whether or not her case is approved.

In the meantime, the work of our Immigration Legal Services department has helped La Hming and her sister start a better life by ensuring they can remain in the country while petitioning for permanent residency in the United States.  They enjoy volunteering and taking trips to the beach when they're not working--and they attend church every Sunday.

"We are very pleased and thankful to the government and Catholic Charities, but even more thankful to David Cleveland for all his help," La Hming added. 

Our Immigration Legal team deals with hundreds of cases just like this every single year, and they help many, many refugees and asylees gain the freedom to worship when and how they choose.  You guys do some awesome work, and we're grateful for all you do!

Practicing attorneys interested in inspiring and rewarding pro bono work with Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services’ clients should contact Debi Sanders at

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A room with a view: Grandmother of five moves into new apartment she can afford

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Yesterday morning during a photoshoot for our upcoming annual report at Catholic Charities’ The Summit at St. Martin’s, I had the pleasure of meeting Laverne Cuthbertson, one of the building’s newest residents.  I watched as Laverne used her new set of keys to open the door to her very own apartment, and shared the joy of the moment with her as she screamed at the top of her lungs and burst into tears, surveying her new view of the District skyline. Laverne now occupies one of the 50 units Catholic Charities reserves for District residents earning 30 percent or less median area income.  The second-floor unit provides the perfect vantage point for watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.

However, she’s most excited about having five special guests visit and stay the night—her grandchildren.

“They’re going be over here Saturday night,” she said excitedly. “I really have a place that’s mine.  Now I don’t have to explain to my grandbabies why they can’t stay over with me.” Until she moved to The Summit, she had lived at a local transitional housing shelter where guests could not stay.

A retired federal employee, Laverne has been living at the shelter for the past two and a half years, ever since bad knees and a limp forced her into early retirement.  Without a stable cash flow, Laverne realized that disability payments couldn’t provide enough income for her to pay her own rent. When she saw that The Summit was holding 50 brand new apartments for low-income adults, she decided to apply.

That was two weeks ago.  She received her official acceptance letter in the mail last Wednesday.

The Summit boasts impressive amenities for families and youngsters: a rooftop playground, an expansive, grassy courtyard and free wifi café (for the digitally savvy with laptops or smartphones) mean there will be no shortage of activities for Laverne and her five grandchildren.

“God has been good to me,” she said finally, after admiring the new apartment, especially impressed with the vista outside.

That’s what I call a true miracle.  Now, 178 families and individuals just like Laverne have the opportunity to live in clean, secure housing that is affordable.  While these families may have experienced difficulties finding a good place to live in the past, they can now be proud to have a place they can call their own.

Thanks Laverne, and God Bless!

Photo caption: A joyful Laverne poses with her cousin, Alveria Ford (left), on The Summit's rooftop patio.

Read "The Miracle at the Summit," The Open Door blog's recap of The Summit's October grand opening ribbon cutting ceremony.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Local second-grade class (and their teddy) help raise money for Catholic Charities

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Even if Christmas is the prime time for celebrating the spirit of giving, at Catholic Charities we recognize that "giving" is a year-round event--and a very hands-on process.  And many of our youngest supporters agree.

Case in point: Mary Martin's truly impressive second-grade class at Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, Md. Ms. Martin has spent the past 15 years teaching kids that giving is way more important than getting. "Students and teachers don't exchange gifts here at Christmas," she said.  "We ask for donations to Catholic Charities instead."

For example, rather than teaching her kids to focus on writing to Santa with litanies of requests for the newest toys, Ms. Martin gently tells her class that they're going to sacrifice a small present and give up some of their recess time to help others less fortunate than themselves. This year Ms. Martin bought an oversized stuffed teddy (check out the picture) and told her class that they would spend recess sitting in the lobby of the school, selling "chances" for other students wanting to take a shot at winning the bear—and help others in the process by giving the money to Catholic Charities. "They get really excited when they learn they're really making a difference," Ms. Martin said.

And their sacrifices paid off: the 29 kids in Ms. Martin's class banded together and sold nearly $600 worth of tickets!  In a school of 230 students, that means most kids dug deep into their pockets and bought more than two tickets each to help benefit Catholic Charities. Some kids bought even more. "I'd say just about the whole school got involved," Ms. Martin explained. "Everyone pitched in."

Even parents showed their unwavering support--and often they got more excited than their kids did.  "It's very important to us to teach our children the spirit and importance of giving to others and sharing our blessings," one couple said.

"We try to stress the idea that service is very important--not just during the holiday season--but year-round, too," Ms. Martin added.  And while most of her kids admittedly weren't familiar with many of the programs Catholic Charities offers, they understood that they’re part of Catholic Charities’ work—to help others.

When a first-grader won the raffle this year, everyone cheered and clapped. Helping others who aren’t as blessed as we are is indeed an exciting, rewarding process.  It’s something we should all aspire to.

And Ms. Martin's done a great job teaching this important lesson.

Thank you to Mary Martin's second-grade class and the students at Our Lady of Mercy for your support for Catholic Charities!

Pictured (top right): First grader Haley Summers of Our Lady Of Mercy School poses proudly with the teddy bear she won at the second-grade auction to benefit Catholic Charities.