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Vietnamese Nuns Aid Katrina Victims

A small group of Vietnamese nuns in Houston, Texas, is providing shelter and aid to Vietnamese-Americans evacuated from hurricane-devastated New Orleans. We speak with one of these nuns -- herself a refugee from Vietnam -- and have her story in this edition of New American Voices.

Sister Anna Pauline is one of about forty Vietnamese Dominican nuns living in the order's mother house -- Saint Catherine's Convent -- in Houston, Texas. As soon as the hurricane hit, the convent opened its doors to needy evacuees from New Orleans, the coastal city that's about 500 kilometers to the east. The Mother Superior made the offer on local Vietnamese-language radio, the news spread by word of mouth, and soon more than 200 Vietnamese-Americans were quartered in the convent's large hall.

"We have some cots, just twenty or so cots, but mostly we have sleeping bags, and bed sheets and blankets," Sister Anna Pauline explains. "So most of them sleep on the ground. And all the activities are also in that hall. Like, we have about 45 children, and there's an area for them to play, but all of the activities are in this area, in the hall."

Most of the people who have taken shelter in St. Catherine's Convent were evacuated from New Orleans in advance of the storm. As Sister Anna Pauline says, they left with a few dollars and perhaps a change of clothing, fully expecting to return to their homes as soon as the hurricane had passed. Now their entire lives have been swept away. And so the nuns provide accommodations, food, and other basic necessities. They registered the children in local schools, and helped the older Vietnamese fill out paperwork to apply for federal aid, whether for housing, or food stamps, or health care. And they have provided something else, as well.

"We try to do our best to support the adults as well as the children in a spiritual way," Sister Anna Paulina says. "I think they need a lot of encouragement during this time. And so sometimes in the evening we have prayer, or we sing praise and worship songs, we have little magic tricks or shows or just things to lift up their spirits as much as we can. And they can attend Mass, and they can pray, and that helps a lot. Right now I think they need spiritual strength, for it's a shock for them that all of a sudden they don't have anything left, and now they have to start making… you know, starting life again."

Sister Anna Pauline says that a number of the evacuees have told her they won't be going back to New Orleans, but will remain in Houston, where there is a large Vietnamese-American community, and where the prospects of finding a job are at least somewhat better. But they know it won't be easy.

"I've been talking to some of them, and some of the ladies who were with me this morning when I drove their kids to school, Sister Anna Pauline says. "I asked them, 'Were you able to sleep at night?' because I was thinking, it would be very noisy, with 200 people, very noisy, and one of the ladies told me, 'Sister, about 12 o'clock, one o'clock at night, when it's very quiet, the kids all sleep, but we can't sleep at all because we're very worried. What will we do next? How are we going to start over again?"

Many of these Vietnamese-Americans had already started life all over again when they arrived in the United States as refugees 30 or more years ago. Among these refugees were Sister Anna Pauline's parents. Although she herself was only two years old when the family resettled in Houston, she says her parents shared their experiences as refugees.

The Domincan nun recalls, "My parents would always tell me, 'Be grateful for what you have right now, because in the beginning, when we first came here, we had nothing. Nothing. We didn't know whether we would be able to survive until the next day. Because we came to a land where we didn't know the people, we didn't speak the language, we didn't know what it would be like tomorrow.'

Sister Anna Pauline's father eventually found work in a printing shop, her mother in a sewing factory. Growing up, she says, she and her seven siblings understood that their parents' life was hard. "I could see that. When we were going to school, I knew that compared to the other kids we were very poor, we didn't have anything. But I loved my parents for that, because they tried so hard and they worked really hard so they could have something for us, they could buy something for us," she recalled. "So I was grateful. I knew that they were struggling, and we couldn't have everything we wanted. You know, kids, they want toys and things, and we never had that. But then we gradually accepted that, my brothers and sisters, and we said, we will do as much as we can to help our parents by not complaining, or not wanting too many things. We tried our best."

Perhaps it is these early childhood experiences, as well as her faith, that allow Sister Anna Pauline to see a positive side to all the suffering, privation and uncertainty around her now.

"I realize that during events like this, and during circumstances like this, people have been very generous," she says. "They've opened up their houses, and they've given money. They've been very generous. And for myself, I come to appreciate what God has given me. You know, I have a house to stay in, and everything, while people have nothing left. And I see Christ in them, for although they've lost everything, they can still smile, and they can still be so hopeful. These people are very optimistic. And although they're suffering, there's hope," says Sister Anna Pauline, one of a group of Vietnamese Dominican nuns in Texas who have opened their convent -- and their hearts - to Vietnamese refugees made refugees again by Hurricane Katrina.