salesian center offers haven for iraqi, syrian children in Istanbul


Conflict in places like Syria and Iraq has disrupted the education of millions of children. This story looks at one school in Istanbul trying to make a small difference by offering free education in Arabic for about 300 students. 

By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

ISTANBUL (CNS) — Basima Toma teaches English to about 40 children at the Don Bosco youth center.

A young Iraqi boy stands at the chalkboard with a plastic ruler in his hand and spells out the words W-I-N-T-E-R, S-P-R-I-N-G, S-U-M-M-E-R, A-U-T-U-M-N.

Toma and her family have been in Istanbul long enough to see each of these seasons come and go, more than once. In 2012 Toma, her husband and four children left their home in Baghdad.

Toma and her family are Chaldean Catholics. In Baghdad, as Christian-owned businesses were targeted and destroyed, Toma worried more and more for her children’s safety. One of her daughters was the only Christian in her classroom.

“Now I don’t fear for my children,” Toma says. “I put my head on my pillow and am not afraid when they are not with me.”

“Here we don’t ask anyone what religion they are or what political party they belong to,” said Salesian Father Andres Calleja Ruiz, head of the Don Bosco youth center. “We just want to help them.”

The Istanbul center was started 20 years ago as a temporary response to the wave of refugees coming from Iraq. Conflict in the region continues, and new refugees and asylum seekers arrive every day. Today, 300 children, mostly from Iraq and Syria, are enrolled at the center.

The center is primarily funded by donations to the Salesian Mission in Bonn, Germany, and students attend at no cost.

Like Toma, most of the teachers at the center are refugees or asylum seekers. Father Calleja says this helps the youth because the teachers have lived the same situation and understand what the students have suffered. They also speak Arabic.

While the young people study English, math and computing, Father Calleja said, the center is also “a center of joy, where children can play and sing.”

Sarah Mohammed, 14, left her home in Aleppo, Syria, about one year ago. After an explosion near her school, the students were told not to come to class anymore: It was not safe.

“Many of them have never been in school, or they have been very irregular going to school because of the wars,” Father Calleja said. “We try to give them some regularity so that after one, two or three years when they reach some other country, they haven’t lost the continuity of school.”

Sarah said she loves to study. She speaks English and has also learned Turkish. She dreams of being an engineer and attending college.

While Sarah and her younger sister are enrolled at Don Bosco, their 17-year-old brother works 12 hours a day in a bakery to help support the family.

The U.N. Human Rights Council reports that the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey is expected to hit 1.9 million in 2015.

For most refugees and asylum seekers, Turkey is only a stopping point, a purgatory they pass on the way to new lives in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe.

While Toma worries less for her family’s safety, she said she worries more about paying the bills. Compared to Iraq and Syria, Istanbul is an expensive city, with limited work opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers.

After more than two years in Istanbul, she is still not sure where her family will be resettled or when they will go. She said she prays they will be granted asylum in Canada, where most of her relatives are already living.

“I believe God sees us, and that he’s knows what’s best for my family,” Toma said.

She added that her dream is simple: She wants a small house with nice furniture and for her children to attend college.

Father Calleja said he hopes and prays that the wars finish and people can live in peace. Until then, he believes the center serves a critical need.

“The group environment and the environment of joy, freedom and tolerance is already healing many wounds,” Father Calleja said.

high in the andes, peruvian artisans create sacred art



By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

CHACAS, Peru (CNS) — Freddy Cerna is about the same height as the statue he carves from Italian Carrara marble. His backward baseball cap and buggy protective goggles are a sharp contrast to the delicate face he perfects with his carving tools. The statue of Mary, her hands folded in prayer, stares back at him.

“I talk to her all the time,” Cerna says. “I ask her to help me imagine a more beautiful and sweet face.”

Cerna is one of about 650 artisans working across Peru for the Don Bosco cooperative. While many of the artisans build furniture, a handful of them specialize in sacred art. They build church pews and confessionals, create stained-glass windows and sculpt Jesus on the crucifix.

The artisans learn the craft in a free, five-year boarding school started in the Peruvian Andes in 1979 by Italian Salesian Father Ugo De Censi. It’s part of the Operation Mato Grosso, an Italian nongovernmental organization that works to eradicate poverty in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Italian volunteer and designer Mirko Codenotti says that when Father De Censi arrived in Chacas, he was stunned by the innate manual ability of the locals and saw training as a way to create job opportunities.

_RG_7460Many of the boys that apply to the school live in extreme poverty. Some are orphans. About 25 students are admitted each year. The school offers them a core curriculum but also teaches them to paint and work with glass, wood, metal and stone. In the third year of the program, each student chooses his specialty. Upon graduation, the boys receive a box of tools and are invited to join the Don Bosco cooperative.

Cerna chose stonework as his specialty. He says it’s the hardest and slowest to work with but it’s worth it because the pieces last in time. Like Michelangelo, when Cerna looks at a giant block of stone, he says he sees a statue waiting to be discovered. He also sees his future.

Artisans at the cooperative earn according to the number of pieces they finish per month. The average artisan earns 1,200 soles (US$430) but a more experienced or skilled artisan can earn 2,000 soles. That amount is on par with what a teacher or a medical technician earns in the region.

Churches in Peru, Italy and the United States commission a majority of the sacred art, almost exclusively done by hand and usually in silence.

In 2010, Deacon Robert Holgren of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in San Diego, California, was searching for a company to outfit the interior of the church the parish was building.

“So many companies were in it for the money, and there was no spirituality in it,” he says.

When Deacon Holgren discovered the Don Bosco artisans, not only did he like the quality of their work but, in working with them, he believed he was feeding their spirituality.

In October 2013, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was inaugurated. Deacon Holgren says many wept at the beauty of the work.

“The altar looks as if God pulled it up straight from the ground,” Deacon Holgren says.

A concrete pillar driven deep below the church’s foundation supports the altar’s 2,500-pound marble top. The 13-foot crucifix was carved from one block of wood and took three artisans eight months to complete. Deacon Holgren says he is still stunned by the intricacy in the crown of thorns. The baptismal font is a brilliant blue, hand fused from one piece of glass.

“Their work is an offering of love,” Deacon Holgren says. “It’s as if it were made by the hands of God.”

In addition to the San Diego church more than a dozen churches in Maryland have hired Don Bosco artisans. While the profit from sales goes directly back to the artisans, benefactors and hundreds of volunteers like Codenotti support the operational side of the mission. Master sculptors, painters and glassworkers often visit Peru to advise the artisans, sometimes staying for a few days, other times for decades.

Codenotti worked as an architect in Italy before moving to Chacas 10 years ago. He says that, as an architect, it felt strange to be picking specialty tile for a client’s pool while knowing others in the world had so little.
“I’ve always been bothered by economic injustice,” Codenotti says.

Now he leads a simple life, humbled by the artisans he serves. Codenotti works mostly with sacred art and likes to think of his client as God. He says the work must be done with great responsibility, since the goal of the work is to give an image to what cannot be seen.

“Thousands of people come and kneel in front of this work, ” Codenotti says. “It’s bigger than us.”


praying to a would-be saint

By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

LURIN, Peru (CNS) — In 1975, Msgr. Joseph Hirsch spent a month living in Lima’s slums as he backpacked through South America. Now he’s back in Peru, working to prove a man he met that year is a saint.

But proving a man is a saint is no easy job, and it will take years of interviews, investigation, paperwork and prayer.

Father Joseph Walijewski from the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., diocese died in Peru in 2006, after 35 years of serving the country’s poor. On March 19, his sainthood cause was launched in La Crosse.

“Even if it takes 200 years to canonize him, I think his story is something that can impact us today,” said Msgr. Hirsch, who is also from the La Crosse Diocese.

When young Msgr. Hirsch met Father Walijewski, the older priest was working in Villa El Salvador, a Lima slum. He dreamed of starting an orphanage to help the abandoned and abused children he saw daily.

In 1985, Blessed John Paul II visited Villa El Salvador. Father Walijewski shared his dream with the pope, who donated $50,000. Father Walijewski named the orphanage Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II.

The orphanage started with two children, one volunteer and one tutor. Today, Casa Hogar is home to 64 children. They live in a family style modeled after the Boys Town program. The children are divided into eight families, each with their own apartment, mother and father.

Alfredo Inigo, 21, moved to Casa Hogar when he was 8. He said Father Walijewski taught him friendship and kindness that he had never known in his own home. He lived there until he turned 18 and said he still prays to Father Walijewski.
“He was a very humble priest,” Inigo said.

When asked what Father Walijewski was like, almost everyone mentioned this humbleness. They smiled and laughed, remembering his broken Spanish.

“He almost always spoke in the present tense,” Msgr. Hirsch said.

They also talked about his childlike nature and love of singing. One of his favorite tunes was Old MacDonald, and he had perfected the sounds of each animal.

And no one could pronounce his last name. Father Walijewski would joke and tell them to call him “Padre Whiskey.”

Father Walijewski considered the orphanage his greatest work.

“The vision is to be able to transform society by teaching children how to live in families,” said Msgr. Hirsch. “The transformation of a culture happens always within marriage and within the family.”

In July, Msgr. Hirsch took over as executive director of Casa Hogar. He now lives in the house where Father Walijewski once lived.

Msgr. Hirsch said he had dreamed of working as a missionary in Latin America since his high school days. He was ordained in 1986 and patiently waited to be sent to the missions. In the meantime, he led a handful of short mission trips to Casa Hogar. Finally, in 2013, he received his first post abroad, at Holy Cross Parish in Bolivia, a church started by Father Walijewski.

Just five months later, Msgr. Hirsch was sent to Peru, tracing the footsteps of his friend.

In addition to directing Casa Hogar, Msgr. Hirsch was appointed the promoter of justice in the cause of Father Walijewski. He will spend the next five years gathering testimony. One of the first interviews he conducted was about 600 questions long and lasted six hours.

“I look at this as an opportunity to be able to learn not just the life but the spirituality of a very simple and holy priest who gave himself completely,” Msgr. Hirsch said.

Father Walijewski is buried in the hillside overlooking Casa Hogar and the sea. Every Sunday, Msgr. Hirsch takes the families up there to pray. They touch the grave and ask questions about Father Walijewski; some of the younger children never met him. Msgr. Hirsch said he hopes through his stories of Father Walijewski, he can keep his presence alive at Casa Hogar.

Thousands attended Father Walijewski’s funeral in Villa El Salvador. There, Msgr. Hirsch asked several people what it was like to know the priest.

Many told him, “This is the first saint that I’ve ever met.”

Published by Catholic News Service, Nov. 6, 2013

rio host families open homes to world youth day volunteers


By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO (CNS) — In 2011, Luis Martinez, 29, traveled to Madrid, almost by accident. He said it was destiny that took him from his home in Fresnillo, Mexico, as a pilgrim to World Youth Day. Someone could not go at the last minute, and he ended up taking the spot.

James Kelliher, 27, was also there, visiting from London. He said his country can be “aggressively secular,” something that challenges him to think about what he believes and ultimately landed him in Madrid among millions of young Catholics from all over the world.

Both said the pilgrimage changed their lives, so much that they are now volunteering in Rio de Janeiro, preparing for 2 million pilgrims that will arrive in the city July 23-28 for World Youth Day. In addition, Pope Francis will make his first international trip to attend the event.

Martinez arrived in Rio in January, Kelliher in February. Kelliher said he cannot get enough Guarana, one of Brazil’s most popular soft drinks, while Martinez wondered how he ended up “in the only country in the world where they eat avocado with sugar and milk.” He thinks it should be with salt, as served in his beloved guacamole.
About 4,500 international volunteers will contribute to World Youth Day; an additional 55,500 Brazilian volunteers are lending a hand.

Martinez works as the Spanish language volunteer coordinator, a vital role because the majority of international volunteers speak Spanish.

Kelliher works as the social media English coordinator and in May became co-author of “World Youth Day: Inspiring Generations,” a book of testimonies from those who have attended past pilgrimages.

“I was so inspired by the event that I felt I had to do more things with my faith,” Kelliher said. “It can be difficult being a young Catholic these days; I wanted to do something to help young people feel they weren’t alone.”
Martinez said people often look for happiness in places where it cannot be found. He said he has come to realize that happiness is expressed automatically among those who share the same faith.

“I am without words for the people of Rio de Janeiro,” Martinez said. “When they open their doors to you, they open them all the way, not halfway.”

Martinez lives with a young host couple, Leandro and Danielle França, in Vila Isabel, a middle-class neighborhood known for its samba. The couple is one of more than 20,000 families hosting volunteers and pilgrims.

In July, the Franças will welcome five more pilgrims into their two-bedroom apartment. Leandro França said opening the couple’s home is an expression of their Catholic faith and at the same time a rich cultural exchange.
Martinez is learning Portuguese, and the Franças are picking up Spanish, while incorporating Martinez’s guacamole into their diet.

Rio de Janeiro is one of the most expensive cities in the Western Hemisphere, and the cost of hotel rooms in the city has risen 50 percent in the past two years. Inés San Martín, a World Youth Day press officer, said the international event would not be possible without volunteers such as Martinez and Kelliher and host families such as the Franças.

“Host families are particularly important in receiving with open arms pilgrims who, for diverse reasons, travel alone to the event,” San Martín said. “Being received by a family, these pilgrims feel more like part of a group than if they were to stay with already formed groups of friends.”

Martinez and Kelliher have seen less of their host families as they log long hours in the office. Churches across Rio de Janeiro continue to urge members of their parishes to open their doors to pilgrims, as more homes are needed to take on the large number of youth.

Leandro França said while Brazilians are people of faith, he hoped World Youth Day would ignite what he called a “sleeping faith” in the people of Rio.

“We are doing all this work because World Youth Day will leave its mark on our hearts, on the people we’ve come to help, on the pilgrims and, above all, on the city,” he said.

brazilians reflect as papal visit approaches


By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO (CNS) — Carlos Rojas is the keeper of 240 keys at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Vidigal, a hillside slum in south Rio de Janeiro. He opens the church each morning, guards, cleans and closes it each night.
Before the church was built eight years ago, priests celebrated Mass in the street. Wanting their own space, Catholics in the community walked the hillside, going door-to-door, collecting signatures and eventually winning enough support to build their own sanctuary.

Brazil has more Catholics than any country in the world. In 1980 Blessed John Paul II visited the favela, or slum, and left his gold cross-shaped ring there, urging the community to sell it and use the money to better living conditions. Rojas was on the committee that helped to coordinate the visit.


Carlos Rojas, manager of Our Lady of Consolation Church in Vidigal.

In July, another pope will come to Brazil for World Youth Day. While Rojas said he quietly hoped for another papal visit, he said another favela deserves the chance to experience what Vidigal did in 1980. Since Blessed John Paul’s visit to Vidigal, Rojas said the Catholic Church has played a pivotal role in helping the once-dangerous and drug-ridden neighborhood improve.

“The only fight, the only one that the church will serve, is the noble one for truth and justice, the one for the real good, the one where the church is at one with each man,” Blessed John Paul told the people of Vidigal.

In the years that followed the papal visit, Blessed John Paul’s words rang true. His visit and the media attention it generated turned the government’s eyes to the slum. Rojas says the government began to repair streets and put in streetlights.

But for decades, Vidigal has struggled with more than poverty. Its ocean view and proximity to the most exclusive areas of Rio make it coveted real estate. Residents have been threatened by investors and in some cases evicted from their homes. Rojas said the Catholic Church has defended the residents’ rights and helped to protect their land and homes.
Our Lady of Consolation Church built an addition five years ago because it was out of space. Today the neighborhood has sewer, running water and a street named after Blessed John Paul. Hotels have sprung up and real estate prospectors continue to eye the favela, where property values are rising. The neighborhood never sold the gold ring left by the pope: It sits on display in a museum at the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Rojas said he wonders what impact Pope Francis and 2 million young Catholics will have on Rio. Throughout Rio, he said, youth are often seen as troublemakers and thieves, and events like World Youth Day are important in showing that they are not lost, but are the future.

In mid-April on the other side of town, Msgr. Joel Portela, executive secretary of the Local Organizing Committee for World Youth Day, celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Bonsucesso de Inhauma to celebrate the 100-day countdown to the event. Volunteers from dozens of countries have already arrived in Rio to prepare for the pilgrimage. At the Mass, their voices joined in song with residents of the community of Mandela.
Mandela and Vidigal were both recently targeted by police in an effort to clean up the city and rid the favelas of gangs and drug traffickers. World Youth Day in July will be the first of many major events the city will host, followed by the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Olympics in 2016.

Msgr. Portela said while Mandela is a community that has suffered a lot, like Vidigal, it shows signs of life, strength and hope. This is the message he said World Youth Day will send — that the Catholic Church is everywhere and includes everyone.

“Why Mandela? I like to invert the question, why not Mandela?” Msgr. Portela said after celebrating the Mass.
During the homily he reiterated that World Youth Day is for all of Rio de Janeiro. While some of the main events will be hosted in better-known areas of the city, such as on Copacabana beach and at the Christ the Redeemer statue, the archdiocese and the World Youth Day Local Organizing Committee have made sure to offer events citywide.
That’s the attitude that Rojas said he hoped the new pope would bring to Rio and one he says the Catholic Church should follow worldwide.

“Pope Francis says the church has to go where the people are,” Rojas said. “People don’t go to the church, the church must go to them.”



Msgr. Joel Portela, executive secretary of the Local Organizing Committee for World Youth Day.