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Once a stranger, now a friend

Merida Ntirampeba’s first impression of St. Francis Xavier Church in Winooski was one of welcome.
She had left her native Berundi in 1993 and came to Vermont in 2004 after 11 years in an overcrowded refugee camp in Tanzania where threats and violence were not uncommon.
So after settling into an apartment in Winooski with her family, she wanted to go to church and was directed to the two-spired brick church on St. Peter St. “The first time I went to the church the community was welcoming. Everyone I met was so kind,” she said in Kirundi, her 24-year-old daughter, Claudine Nkurinziza, translating for her. Someone gave Ntirampeba money to help set up her new family home, another person offered her rides from church, and others helped her family with needed items like school backpacks.
Refugees bring to the parish an opportunity for grace, said Msgr. Richard Lavalley, pastor. They give members of the community the opportunity “to discover Christ in a new manner, an opportunity to see Christ — in a very real way — in need.”
In addition to helping this woman from Burundi, St. Francis Xavier Parish helps refugees and children of refugees in myriad ways from providing food and clothing, finding a place to live and engaging legal and interpreter services to providing scholarship assistance for children to attend Catholic schools and a cemetery plot for a dying man to ease his anxiety about where he would be buried.
It also supports the Catholic CARES Network.
“I do whatever I feel I am capable of doing,” said St. Francis parishioner Diane Potvin, the executive assistant to the pastor.
Clearly, she has extraordinarily capabilities as she escorts refugees — mostly from Africa — through their needs and requirements until they can function here on their own. She works closely with other agencies that are helping them.
“We do anything that makes them have a sense of self worth and that they are not alone,” Msgr. Lavalley said.
And the assistance is offered to Catholics and non Catholics alike. “The Gospel doesn’t say just take care of your own,” said Msgr. Lavalley, who was seen in local hip-hop trio A2VT’s video for their song "Winooski, My Town." (It is a tribute to the new home of three young refugees from Africa.)
There are about eight African families in St. Francis Xavier Parish, and numerous children have attended St. Francis Xavier School. Currently four Catholic students from refugee families are enrolled.
“Our Catholic values extend to everything we do, and the importance of charity and humility that comes with our faith is evident,” said Principal Eric Becker. “It’s important for us to be members of our Winooski community and see all the issues [refugees] are facing. We want to be good neighbors.”
Ntirampeba, 59, has given birth to 10 children; seven are still living — four in the United States and three in Burundi. She praises her parish for the help she and her family have received, both physical and spiritual assistance. This includes food, financial help, clothing and scholarships for St. Francis Xavier School and South Burlington’s Rice Memorial High School. Msgr. Lavalley baptized three of her children together.
“Only God knows how much the church and Msgr. Lavalley have done for me,” Ntirampeba said. “He is like a parent to me.”
She did not expect people here to be “so nice,” she continued. “I feel grateful and cared about. It’s supernatural for so much love.”
Her daughter, too, is grateful. Now working as an instructional aid at J.F. Kennedy Elementary School in Winooski, tries to “give back in any way I can.” Often that is by translating for new Americans and assisting with programs of Catholic CARES Network. “I never say no to them because they’ve done so much for us,” she said.
Her faith influences this attitude, and she cites the Gospel of Matthew: "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
Her motto, she added, is “treat everyone the way you want to be treated.”
Ntirampeba offered her gratitude to the people of St. Francis Xavier Parish “because they do so much for so many people.”
St. Francis Xavier Parish, once mostly populated by Winooski’s French Canadian immigrants and their families, “is not Winooski anymore,” Msgr. Lavalley said. “People come from all around.”
And they are embraced.

Refugees find homes in Vermont

According to the Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration from Oct. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2016, 386 refugees arrived in Vermont. The largest numbers came from Bhutan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.
Merida Ntirampeba was alone with a six-month-old baby while the terror of the Berundi war exploded around them. She had already placed her three older children in what she hoped were safe places then went into hiding with her young daughter.
Her fear was exacerbated when the child got a cold and her coughing could give away their location. Ntirampeba knew the soldiers were looking to kill them.
But God blessed them with a woman who hid them in her home, gave Ntirampeba  her own clothing so she would not be recognized and saved their lives.
“She was doing it for the love of God, and I want to repay God” for such life-saving assistance, said Ntirampeba, now of Winooski who attends St. Francis Xavier Church.  “Many people would have just saved themselves.”
Now Ntirampeba volunteers with the CARES Catholic Network. “My life is to help somebody,” she said.
Dan Nguyen was born in 1937 and baptized in her native North Vietnam. But in 1952 her family moved to South Vietnam, and lived in a village there during the war.
She and members of her family – including her nine children – left Vietnam for the Thailand in 1979, arriving in Montpelier the following year, with the help of Catholic and other church organizations.
“It was a nightmare in Vietnam,” she said solemnly.
She escaped in a boat with 65 other people aboard, nothing to eat. “We kept praying and praying,” she said, noting that for most of the five days she was onboard all there was was “heaven and water, nothing else to see.”
Except for the pirates that robbed the refugees. “Thank God they did not do anything with the women,” she said. “God helped us, and we got through that.”
She is thankful to live in Montpelier, a parishioner of St. Augustine Church. “I thank God for everything I have,” she said, and she shows that gratitude by going to Mass, attending a prayer group and volunteer to serve a lunch at the church for people in need.
“The church helped me a lot,” she said. That included seven of her children attending Catholic school at no cost to her and Thanksgiving baskets when food was not plentiful. She sees such assistance as miracles.
“People here are very loving. They treat me like family,” Nguyen said.
Aline Mukiza was born in Burundi and twice fled the civil war there, first in 1993 and again in 1996. Both times she went to Tanzania; she arrived in Vermont in 2009.
Born and raised Catholic, the parishioner of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington said her faith has helped her throughout her life, especially when she was facing the horrors of civil war.
She remembers when she was nine, being alone with her 5-year-old brother, wondering what was going to happen to them but having the hope that God was always with her. “I had no idea where I was going, but I always thought Jesus never forsakes people and God sees us wherever we are,” she said.
With a personal devotion to the Blessed Mother, she often prayed the Hail Mary and the rosary. “Mary help us,” was a frequent prayer. “Just the name of Mary and Jesus is really strong. That belief helped us survive.”
With an unwavering faith, Mukiza said that after years in a refugee camp she feels free and accepted as a citizen here.
And she considers her life in Vermont part of God’s plan for her. “God has something He wants me to do,” she said.
She sends money to extended family in Burundi where $20 or $50 goes a long way in providing food. “I feel like they eat that day because I’m here,” she said. “Whatever I have here, it’s good to share with others.”
  • Published in Diocesan
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