On an unseasonably warm Saturday evening in December, 43 Burmese children and their mothers gather in what is either an unfinished or extremely rundown clubhouse at the Newport Landing apartments on Walnut Hill. Catherine Ogie-Lucas, a woman of Nigerian descent, hurries around the room, laying down carpet so the children have a place to sit, carrying in bags of food donated by the neighborhood Chick-fil-A, and employing helpers (namely her 9-year-old daughter, Princess) to line a table with the 40-some gift bags she filled with clothing, hygiene products and other donations the previous night.
Catherine and husband Darren Lucas, founders of Rock Haven Ministries, and Princess have been hosting get-togethers for this group of people since last May, when they held a back-to-school rally.
An estimated 500,000 political refugees have been driven from their homes in Burma, an Asian country of 54 million, according to the office of Refugee Resettlement. Texas is home to the largest number of refugees, and Dallas is the second largest destination behind Houston.
A huge number of refugees from Burma, Bhutan and Iraq live in the Park Lane/Vickery Meadow area, but a large percentage of Burmese refugees have moved to the Lake Highlands area.
Most of the children in the group mothered by Ogie-Lucas attend Lake Highlands’ Wallace Elementary.
This gathering and the others — religious yet not proselytizing — are about building relationships, Catherine says. The idea is to eventually offer English and life-skills classes to the parents and help them gain American citizenship. Her dream, she says, is to form a coalition of refugee-aid programs called “Willing Workers.”
“My desire is to build a collaborative effort by the groups who are already helping,” she says. “First we need to make sure we are effective as possible in our efforts, reaching the neediest and most-recent refugees, making sure everyone is touched and no one is left behind. Once we are working together we can stop duplicating one another’s efforts, pool our resources and get an efficient system down.”
These refugees, she says, are coming from a different culture, they speak a different language and something such as using our public transportation system can be extremely confusing. In the group at the December event, only one of the Burmese parents speaks English. However, notes Ogie-Lucas, the children help with the interpretation and, she adds, “The language of love is universal. When you love people, it is easy to make them understand.”
As his wife works, Darren Lucas explains how they got involved with the Burmese community. She had a dream one night about helping a large community of Asian people. She woke up and asked herself, what does it all mean?
Through their church, Covenant in North Dallas, and Catherine’s job, where she works with large numbers of Asian immigrants, they were led to this group, which Darren agrees is in enormous need of support.
“They come here and, often living in low-income, crime inhabited apartment communities, they are vulnerable to all of the ills of our culture — drugs, crime, violence. They desperately need someone to help them acclimate,” he says.
He calls his wife the “energizer bunny.”
“We hosted a Thanksgiving dinner where she cooked for all of them. The Friday after Thanksgiving I was ready for an easy day off — go see a movie, you know? But she wasn’t hearing it. We took food to the apartments. I was instructed to load the car,” he says with a laugh. “It turned out to be better than any movie,” he admits.
In the old clubhouse, once the children all settle on the rug, Darren, a preacher, tells stories that have the kids rolling in laughter. The parents, though they don’t understand his story, smile broadly as they observe their children’s joy. Catherine prays for each child individually.
Her daughter Princess good-naturedly rolls her eyes and warns, “This part will take forever.”
Catherine calls this a dedication ceremony.
She is not forcing religion on the children, she says, but letting them know God loves them.