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November 15, 2016, Oakland, California – Sister Elisabeth Lang, OP, a Dominican Sister of Vietnam and an Adrian Dominican Associate, received a Lifetime Achievement Award for about 40 years of service in resettling refugees.
The award was presented October 21 to Sister Elisabeth during a Grant Awards Luncheon hosted by the Diocese of Oakland’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) at the parish hall of St. Columba Church in Oakland.
“I was very surprised but I’m very humbled by their giving me an award,” Sister Elisabeth said. “I credit it all to the staff who have been working in the [refugee resettlement] program. They’re making everything possible.”
Sister Elisabeth was one of four Vietnamese Dominican Sisters who came to Adrian, Michigan, in 1968 to study at Siena Heights College (now University). She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in education.
Sister Elisabeth had been in Adrian for about five years when Sister Rosemary Ferguson, OP – then Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Sisters – suggested that she minister temporarily with the Vietnamese refugees. “I asked if I could go to the local agency here [in Oakland]. A limited number of people could speak Vietnamese.” What had originally been a temporary assignment of a few months stretched into nearly 40 years of ministry to refugees from numerous nations.
Sister Elisabeth was first able to return to her Congregation in Vietnam in 1991 to celebrate her Silver Jubilee. When she returned to the United States Sister Donna Markham, OP, then on the General Council, suggested that Sister Elisabeth become an Adrian Dominican Associate. She has recently celebrated her Golden Jubilee with her Vietnamese community and her Silver Jubilee as an Adrian Dominican Associate.
Now Director of Refugee Resettlement for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, Sister Elisabeth spent her first years helping to resettle refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other Indochinese countries. About 10 years ago, she said, the Vietnamese coming to the U.S. were regarded as immigrants rather than refugees. In recent years, Sister Elisabeth said, the largest number of refugees who are processed through her office come from Afghanistan – many of them translators and interpreters who had helped the U.S. military in their country.
Sister Elisabeth’s office is one of several Catholic agencies that work with the U.S. government to resettle refugees. Each year, Sister Elisabeth explained, the federal government agrees to take in a certain number of refugees and agencies are assigned a certain number of refugees.
“This year, beginning October 1, we were projected to receive 175 refugees,” Sister Elisabeth said. “In October alone, we worked with 43 people.” Last year, she added, Catholic Charities of the East Bay committed to resettling 150 refugees but instead worked with 173.
Sister Elisabeth’s office works with 18 parishes in the Diocese of Oakland. The parish teams are given very short notice – from one to three weeks – to find a suitable apartment for the family, furnish it, and drive to the airport to pick them up. Refugees also receive orientation to the U.S. culture, assistance in finding employment, help in enrolling in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, health care, and immunization for their children.
“Some refugees who don’t speak English at all need a lot of encouragement,” Sister Elisabeth said. “If they put heart and soul into it, they make great progress.” Other refugees – those who had professional careers as doctors or nurses, for example – need to be recertified in their professions before they can resume work in their field.
Sister Elisabeth is heartened by the many success stories among the refugees. “I love the work I’m doing,” she said. “You see the people coming in exhausted and worried, but we’re here to walk with the people and help them to get the resources they need to feel comfortable in going to school, learning English, and finding jobs.”
Among the success stories are members of Sister Elisabeth’s staff. “We have a staff that speaks different languages and in many cases were refugees themselves,” she said. “They experienced being a refugee themselves, so they can help empower the refugees to go through the same process.”
“I never thought I would spend my whole life out here, but I love the work I’m doing and it’s a challenge, too,” Sister Elisabeth reflected. “Seeing a lot of successful families and individual people is very encouraging. I feel honored to work with and serve them, to walk with them and help them in whatever way I can.”
Read a related article in The Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Diocese of Oakland.
Feature photo: Bishop Emeritus John S. Cummins presents Sister Elisabeth Lang, OP, with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo by Albert C. Pacciorini, Courtesy of The Catholic Voice