Give Light: Of Refugees And My Profession

{This is a chapter in a Memoir, “GIVE LIGHT…” of the six decades the author has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.}

These two topics are not connected, but with both in the news, I am moved to reflect on each.

In 1956, when Hungarians staged an abortive uprising against the Soviet Union, some refugees from that Central European nation made their way to the United States. During this Cold War period – in which I had just begun my 20-year motherhood phase of working at home using the telephone and manual typewriter – American sympathy was aroused by the brave little nation.
Involved as I still was with covering the activities of the city’s ecumenical Roanoke Ministers Conference, I reported for the daily evening paper that the conference voted to help sponsor four young Hungarian men who arrived in the city the winter after the rebellion was brutally crushed.
Several of the clergy, especially those from denominations like the Church of the Brethren with its close ties to Germany and values of peace, actively helped find lodgings, clothing and starter meals for the young men. At least one remained in the area and married. Soon they, like the rebellion, passed from attention. It would be 25 more years before the Soviet Union collapsed.
By that time a new wave of refugees were making history in the valley. With the close of hostilities in the long Vietnam conflict, individuals and families from Laos, Cambodia, and other areas affected by the war arrived to begin new lives.
This time, newsman husband Charlie and I had more active involvement. Our small church assisted a couple with limited resources themselves who had been contracted to help a young family settle on the north side of Roanoke. The Thammavongs from Laos came with a young daughter, Vilay, and moved in with the sponsoring couple. They spoke limited English and had only the clothes on their backs. The young husband took English classes; on several evenings I drove him to Lucy Addison High School for basic instruction and later to an entry-level job he held in evenings. Soon his wife became pregnant with a son; he was baptized at our church a year later where their daughter soon became proficient in American speech. Tragically, the young mother died of cancer a few years later, and the experience became a memory.
Lately, I’ve learned more of refugees from a semi-retired Presbyterian minister, Russ Merritt, who shared jobs with a Roanoke congregation and as director of the local Refugee and Immigration Service. Merritt always pointed out that one must make a distinction between a refugee and an immigrant. Refugees have fled their homeland because of fear of active persecution or their lives while immigrants come for a specific reason, not necessarily out of need.
Over the years, many congregations have taken specific households under their wing, have assisted with finding the breadwinner a job, arranged for the children’s schooling and offered continuing help. Currently, Catholic Commonwealth Charities is a leader in helping resettle refugees; last year an effort was begun for Salem Area Ecumenical Ministries to take on such a project, but nothing appears to have come of the idea. The Poarch Law Firm in Salem specializes in issues relevant to refugees and immigrants.
Newsletters reveal that St. John Lutheran, Covenant Presbyterian and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic are among the congregations with a background in active work with resettlement.

Concerning the recent murder of five persons who worked for the” Capital Gazette” newspaper in Annapolis, Md., I can’t say anything that wasn’t said better by local ”Roanoke Times” columnist Dan Casey and syndicated ”Miami Herald” columnist Leonard Pitts as well as others throughout the nation.
But I remember the years in the 1950s and later from 1976 to 1996 when my late husband and myself occupied desks on the third floor of the Times-World Building in downtown Roanoke. Even today it gives me chills to think of a deranged person with a loaded gun taking the elevator up, and with its door closing behind him or her…firing away, having barred escape routes. My desk at times was a few feet from that elevator.
The frequent nasty attacks on the profession of journalism– print, broadcast or other forms of legitimate and balanced dissemination of news –cause me to wonder if the one good thing that comes from the senseless ravings of the current president is an appreciation of what this means in a free country.
The same holds true of the deception in facts and low moral tone displayed daily by so many national political leaders. Voters have to see how important it has always been for those elected to power to be people of integrity and honor. We have to see it to oppose it.
A free press sets the standard; those who dig out and reveal the rottenness are only doing their job. I’ve never wanted to be an investigative reporter, but, as the title of this Memoir indicates: ”Give Light…and the People will Find Their Own Way.”

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