BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) — Meghan Matt didn’t plan to go to the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport when she woke up Feb. 11.
However, after striking up a conversation with a woman buying flowers at Trader Joe’s grocery store earlier that morning, she knew she and her family had to go.
“I’m here because I met this woman from St. Aloysius (Parish in Baton Rouge), and when I found out she was coming to welcome a refugee family, I felt it was important to be here,” Matt said, balancing her year-old daughter on her hip while her husband and three other daughters looked on.
Matt and her family were part of a welcoming committee, which swelled to about 50 people, many carrying homemade signs, flowers, food and gifts, as they prepared to greet a refugee family from Iraq.
While specific details about the Iraqi family of five are confidential, officials with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge said in a statement the family fled their native country because they were receiving death threats and had no other choice.
“Their lives and the lives of their children were in danger. They acted to seek safety for their family, just as any good parent would do,” said David Aguillard, Catholic Charities’ executive director.
The Iraqi family was living in Turkey before finally completing a two-year vetting process, which included rigorous scrutiny from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Defense and other agencies, according to Catholic Charities, which has been assisting the family in joining other relatives who resettled here last year.
“The Catholic Church has a long-standing tradition of helping refugees and immigrants as a matter of human rights,” Aguillard noted.
Aguillard, who also was part of the welcoming committee, shared his excitement with others, including many from St. Aloysius, as they waited for the family to arrive.
Ann Dunn, a parishioner at St. Aloysius, held a printed sign that had the word “Welcome” written in both English and Arabic.
Dunn said many members from her “Just Faith” group, a ministry prayer group, had come to the airport to make sure the family knew they were welcomed in their new home.
“Our group is steeped in Catholic social justice,” she told The Catholic Commentator, Baton Rouge’s diocesan newspaper.
Mary-Ellen Slayter, who is Unitarian, and her family also were at the airport. She said a member of St. Aloysius invited them to come.
“We just felt given the atmosphere today, this was just a little gesture to make someone feel at home,” she said, adding, “I’m not Catholic, but I am catholic with a little ‘c’.”
As the time grew close for the Iraqi family to enter the airport, Mohammed Kamil and his family, holding “Welcome” signs and flowers, smiled with excited anticipation against a background of music and conversation. He was waiting to see his sister and her family for the first time in 11 months.
“I am so happy,” he said, adding that his native country has become very dangerous and he is glad to know that his sister and her family will now be safe.
He added he is grateful to have the support of so many people in Baton Rouge since he resettled here almost a year ago.
“The people in Baton Rouge are angels,” he said.
Smith is a staff writer for The Catholic Commentator, newspaper of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.