Seven students from refugee families are receiving scholarships to attend Catholic schools in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville this school year. Those new students are among the more than 14,000 children who are attending Catholic grade schools.
Five of the children are attending St. James School; two students are enrolled at St. Francis of Assisi School. St. Agnes School welcomed one such student last year who is returning this year as a first-grader.
Tom Schmitt, the principal of St. James, said that welcoming these children is a part of the school’s mission.
“We provide a quality education for children of different cultures — that’s part of our mission statement,” he noted during an interview at the school last week. “This is a tremendous opportunity for our school. We have the opportunity to have people from different cultures, and we love it.”
The children attending St. James range in age from 3 to 12. Two are in preschool, two are in kindergarten and one boy is in seventh grade. Their tuition is being paid by an anonymous donor.
Their parents, who gathered for an interview at St. James last week, said they are grateful for the opportunity to attend Catholic schools and look forward to being involved in their school community.
Gulalai Wali-Khan, the mother of seventh-grader Jibraan, came to the United States from Pakistan with her three sons about a year ago.
She said that bringing her son to St. James was “like coming home.”
“For me, it means a great deal. I myself spent eight years in a Catholic school,” she said, noting that she was educated by nuns in Pakistan. “I am not a Catholic, but the values have stayed with me. I love that my son will grow up with these values. I’m so grateful for this — an opportunity of a lifetime.”
St. James connected with Jibraan and the other students through Catholic Charities, which is hoping to get more parishes involved with helping refugees.
Chris Clements, community resource developer at Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, works with refugees from the moment they arrive at the airport. He helps them to find housing, furniture, jobs and mentors — to teach them about life in Louisville. He’s adding education to that list now, and St. James, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Agnes parishes are the first to sign on.
“I hope other churches will follow in their footsteps,” said Clements during the interview last week. “We want the (refugee children) to have every opportunity to succeed and excel.”
Paula Watkins, principal of St. Francis of Assisi, said during a phone interview that her school and parish have been involved with Catholic Charities for several years. In fact, she noted, this isn’t the first time a refugee has attended the school. Abdullahi Abdullahi, a 17-year-old student from Kenya who attends Trinity High School now, graduated from St. Francis of Assisi.
“Our parish has had a long-standing tradition of working closely with Catholic Charities and the immigrant population,” Watkins said. “We’ve had an opportunity to connect and establish relationships with these families.
“Father Lou Meiman (pastor of St. Francis of Assisi) thought this was a way to answer God’s call to support those in need of assistance,” she said, noting that the school has benefitted, too. “These families are enriching our lives to a great extent.”
St. Francis has welcomed a girl from Iraq who is in kindergarten and a boy from Nepal who is in fourth grade.
Their tuition is being paid by anonymous donations and by the school’s Committee on Conscience, a student-led group that holds fundraising events throughout the year. The families also are applying for tuition assistance from the Catholic Education Foundation, Watkins said.
Clements of Catholic Charities noted that all of these new school families “are going to be engaged with the community. They’re ready to volunteer and give back.”
Tika Adhikari, a refugee from Nepal, said he and the other families at St. James are looking forward to being involved in the school. He’s the father of 3-year-old Anup, who’s in preschool, and he has a nephew, 6-year-old Sishir, who is a kindergartner at the school.
“I want my kids to be culturally diversified and become good men. We have a lot to learn,” he said. “Hopefully, all of our teamwork — all of us here — will help them to build a better future.”
Six-year-old Dharti, a kindergartner at St. James, already looked to be at home in the school during the interview last week. She started attending the school in the middle of last year, and she’s been thriving, said Schmitt, her principal.
Kharel and Dharti came to Louisville from Nepal three and a half years ago. Kharel said she’s thankful for the opportunity.
She’s also thankful for something else. She was reunited in June with her husband and her youngest child, Hridaya, who was just two and a half months old when she left Nepal. Hridaya, who’s a little shy, is attending preschool at St. James.
by Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor