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Texas couple finds peace aiding refugees


Albert and Rebecca Ramirez like to visit the Sarajevo Catholic Cathedral whenever they get a chance. The church offers a place of spiritual respite in the aftermath of war and the imperfect peace that has resulted from the disintegration of Yugoslavia over the past decade.

In the Sarajevo church is a stained glass rendition of Christ on the cross, his torso blown away by shrapnel in 1994. For the Ramirezes this window is a powerful symbol of the shattered peace and the need for healing that they have found in their three years in the Balkans.

The Texas couple, who met as social workers employed in the same Austin psychiatric facility in 1987, have spent the dozen years of their marriage working for humanitarian organizations overseas, the last 10 years with the International Catholic Migration Commission. The commission -- a half-century old this year -- is the Vatican’s chief humanitarian agency, working globally to repatriate, reintegrate and resettle some of the world’s 22 million refugees. NCR learned of their work in the Balkans and visited with them often via the Internet.

Since 1989 the Ramirezes have accepted assignments in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. They have also had two children during their years with the commission -- Alicia, born in Manila in 1993, and Aaron, born in Bangkok in 1996.

Last year Albert Ramirez heard an explosion that rattled his office windows in Sarajevo. He discovered later that day that three little girls playing in a field near his home had accidentally detonated a land mine. All were killed. That same evening when he returned home, he learned of a second mine, detonated by a tractor plowing a field next to his own house -- a field that had been “cleared” two years earlier and one in which children played.

At times like this, the Ramirezes scan the devastation of the neighborhood in which they live, with its leveled homes and yellow “mine-warning” tape that cordons off entire blocks. They think of their own children and ask, “What are we doing here?”

Their children are the same age as two of the children killed by the mine that Ramirez heard explode. “Why are we not in the safety, peace and comfort of our home in Texas, far from this tragic, war-torn country, so full of misery and sadness? Are we doing the right thing?” they wonder. The question knocks louder since the attacks of Sept. 11.

Answers do not come instantly but arrive in the everyday actions that Rebecca takes as program manager, handling the direct oversight in Bosnia of the commission’s economic revitalization and family-return programs, as well as her assistance to extremely vulnerable individuals. For now Albert, too, finds his answer in his role as deputy regional director of the commission’s programs in Bosnia, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Recently the couple helped a group of families return to an area in eastern Bosnia that had been “ethnically cleansed” by Arkan’s Tigers -- a Serbian paramilitary unit “notorious,” Ramirez said, “for inflicting particularly heinous atrocities upon unarmed civilians.” The returnees -- all Muslims -- had lost family members and were “very afraid” to be the first to return to their home community, now completely inhabited by ethnic Serbs.

As they approached the mountain village on foot, a Serb woman cried out from her home toward the group. At first the returnees thought they were in for a hostile welcome. As everyone stood still, the Serb woman came running from her house crying, happy to spot an old friend in the group, whom the couple watched her tearfully embrace.

While there are no guarantees that the village won’t again bear the brunt of nationalist extremism, “we can’t help but feel that our efforts to foster reconciliation family to family are making a difference in rebuilding communities,” Ramirez said.

The couple describes their current work as the most challenging they have ever done. The confluence of ethnicities, religions and cultures, the long history of wars and atrocities, the ebb and flow of nationalist ambitions culminating in the conflicts of the 1990s, have all played a part in shaping the Balkans they inhabit today.

The region is marked by deeply ingrained ethnic hatred, economic decay, high unemployment, the flight of the young and educated and widespread corruption. Recently Balkan mafias have intruded, trafficking in drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, weapons and in women and children whom they force into prostitution.

Many expatriates working in the Balkans believe that were the international community to depart today, fighting would erupt tomorrow. The Ramirezes admit that sometimes they feel the same way.

But amid “this seemingly nightmarish backdrop are ordinary families simply trying to rebuild their lives,” Rebecca said. “Our focus here, as it was in Vietnam, is to help families do just that.” Through their work with the commission, they help families return from exile to their pre-war homes in Bosnia and Croatia.

The International Catholic Migration Commission offers assistance in becoming self-reliant through the establishment of income-generating micro-enterprises. It provides credit to low-income women who cannot access the banking system but who are capable of running a business. It offers loans to families trying to reconstruct their homes.

Rebecca also seeks to ensure that the most vulnerable, the physically and mentally handicapped, the elderly and children in extreme poverty are provided a means for a dignified life in their home communities. The skills she brings to her tasks as a psychiatric social worker were acquired not only working with emotionally disturbed teenage girls in Austin, but also by aiding Vietnamese refugees.

Raised in Vietnam by Baptist missionary parents in the years when the Vietnam War was raging, Rebecca was sent to Bangkok for high school in the early 1970s. There she lived with a Catholic family, began attending Mass and in 1974 became a Catholic. After graduating from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and doing graduate studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin, she longed to return to Vietnam to aid the people.

The Ramirezes began their marriage working with Vietnamese asylum seekers who were held in squalid detention in Hong Kong, classified as economic migrants, denied refugee status and resettlement opportunities in the West. Later they spent two years in the Philippines with Vietnamese refugees who had been accepted for resettlement in the United States. In both cases they found that a significant number of refugees needed help with psychosocial and mental health problems.

Each time they thought of returning to Texas, the couple signed on for another term, working two years in Saigon and two more in Hanoi. “Nothing touched us more deeply than having families that we had seen living in the depths of despair in Hong Kong show us, with such unrestrained joy, the results of improvements in their home community, which we assisted them in gaining,” Albert said.

Whether they were selling vegetables, cutting hair or raising pigs, the pride with which these returned Vietnamese families now live is confirmation, he said, that while counseling has its place in addressing mental health issues, “nothing, short of faith, restores the spirit like having a job.”

It is faith, too, which the couple credit for allowing them to continue to work in some of the most destitute areas of the globe with the most despairing populations. They would like nothing better than to be back in Texas, sitting on their front porch, sipping iced tea and “watching the grass grow,” Rebecca said.

As social workers engaged in humanitarian work overseas, the Ramirezes regard their work “in some way” as a contribution to the reestablishment of peace in the world. “We try to build peace in communities, in families and individuals,” Albert said, noting that their professional roles are “a manifestation of our personal search for peace.”

This search has led them to a place where spiritual renewal “can be found for the asking,” he said. Ramirez describes it as a place of shelter and calm, “founded on the Word and reinforced by the church’s enduring structure and tradition.”

When they attend Mass -- whether in Sarajevo’s cathedral or elsewhere, “we allow

ourselves to be led to this place of serenity. We take comfort in knowing that our prayer that peace be granted to us will not go unanswered.”

The events of Sept. 11 have reminded the couple that “evil does exist in this world and that our search for peace may take us into valleys darker than we have ever known, and that we will face uncertainty and self doubt.” While their children have gained much from their overseas experience, their parents wonder if the world has become too unsafe. They also feel the pull of returning to Texas to contribute in some way to their homeland.

As the Ramirezes approach their mid-40s, they say they are waiting for a clear message that the time is right to return. For today, they continue to do the work they love and to delight in their children who attend a small international school in Sarajevo run by a couple from Navasota, Texas.

“Our search for peace has led us to this crossroads,” Ramirez said. The couple says they pray daily for guidance and trust that God’s plan will unfold as they continue to work in God’s service. “We are relying on our faith and are being led.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002