Iowa’s History of Welcoming Refugees

For decades the state has welcomed immigrants. While they used to be named Murphy or Smith, now they’re Hernandez and Chang.

DES MOINES, Iowa — When they came and just kept coming more than a century ago, the land was flat, running all the way to a horizon that sometimes felt like a distant Heaven because even with the obstacles of weather, wind and the weariness of leaving families behind it seemed as if a person could plant opportunity here and watch it grow. So they arrived and settled and built railways and churches, coaxed wealth from the soil, survived dust storms, a depression, brutal winters, steaming summers, all of it because of their faith, their families and a belief that America would provide.

Now, Martin Flaherty was standing in the vestibule at the entry to St. Ambrose Cathedral. The 10:30 Sunday morning Mass was over and several people waited to speak with him.

“Here, take this and look it over,” Martin Flaherty said as he handed a small booklet to a man and a woman who were holding the hands of two small children. “Then call me and we can talk about this fall.”

Flaherty is the 45 year old principal of Holy Family Catholic School here. The school population is the opposite of the political caucuses taking place Monday all over Iowa. Then, both Republicans and Democrats will gather in various locations that will be hugely Caucasian and could easily be mistaken for a meeting of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

“It’s the most diverse school in Iowa,” Flaherty pointed out. “And we’re very proud of that fact.

“We have 240 kids, K through 8. We have children from 15 different countries and they speak 16 different languages. They have come here from The Sudan, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, El Salvador, Honduras, Ghana, all over.”

Tuition at Holy Family is $2900 a year, a sum that many families struggle to meet. A separate foundation was established to provide aid for parents who have difficulty paying the bill. There is nearly $7 million dollars in the foundation.

There were two collections at yesterday’s 10:30 Mass. The Cathedral was full with perhaps 500 parishioners. Many were clearly and visibly not natives of Des Moines and as the basket passed from pew to pew there were several different skin complexions to hands that dropped a dollar bill, a five, some change into the collection basket, the money going only for good things.

A young woman played piano as Communion began. A tenor sang and the line moved slowly to the front of the church where the faithful received the Eucharist. They were young, old, of every size, shape, color and background. And many of them represented people one political party has targeted as a threat to a way of life: immigrants.

For weeks now and nearly every day as people finally begin to vote, the one common thread that has united Republicans has been the fear that immigrants are destroying the country, standing in the way of America’s own children from landing lucrative positions like cleaning offices, emptying hospital bed pans, toweling off a Lexus at the car wash, mowing lawns and picking up lunch trays at Panera Bread.

“It used to be the Flahertys, the Murphys, the Smiths coming here,” the school principal was saying. “Now it’s Laan, Oghissa, Hernandez and Chang.”

“Why Des Moines?” Martin Flaherty was asked.

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“That’s a good question,” he replied. “That’s a very good question. You should ask her, Sister Pat. She is a living Saint. She’d know.”

He was pointing to an elderly woman who was walking slowly from a pew by the altar at the front of the beautiful Cathedral, built nearly a century ago and renovated in 1978. Her name is Sister Pat Scherer. She is an 82 year old nun from the Dominican Order who was born in Aurora, Illinois and has devoted her life to working with refugees from around the world.

“I always wanted to be a missionary, to go to them” Sister Pat said. “But look what happened. I came here to Des Moines a long time ago to teach and the refugees came to me.

“They come for many reasons,” she said. “Stability. Peace. Opportunity. Many of the same reasons our parents and grandparents came.”

For decades Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services have been an instrument of salvation for millions caught in countries where war never ends, terror never ceases and hope means simply being able to dream of escape.

At 82, Sister Pat is still working, still holding the door open to strangers from distant lands while the political process in her own country is filled with public people intent on slamming that same door shut. And it bothers her.

“I read in the papers that Catholics might vote for Cruz. Or for Rubio. Catholics! I can’t believe it,” she was saying. “I’d like to take that young Marco Rubio by the ear and tell him, ‘Listen here fella. I brought poor Cubans to this country. Not rich ones like the ones you are close to. You should remember who you are and where you came from and how and why you came here. Boy, he gets me angry.”

“And Cruz?”

“Oh. Forget about him. Hopeless.”

On Monday, she intends to go to a caucus where she will support a candidate for President of the United States: Hillary Clinton. And, Monday and all the days stretching out ahead, the people she has helped find a foot-hold here will work hard to overcome the same obstacles others hurdled years and years ago. They will do it because they have a faith similar to that defined by hard work and history, that America will provide.