Some came to U.S. with only God as luggage
Eastern European students get touch of life in America
By Joanne Flemming
Eastern European students participating in the 2001-02 Global Outreach expect their faith to grow from their experiences in American Catholic high schools.
For some, that growth began in July at the Global Outreach camp in Hungary, where they participated in English Masses for the first time. They discussed the camp and their expectations at a recent orientation at Mt. Tabor Retreat Center in Menasha.
Reka-Izabella Banyai from Deva, Rumania, could not stop talking about the hugging during the sign of peace.
"Everybody stood up and started to hug," said Banyai, who had never seen anything like it. "It was a very, very good feeling. I felt that we're family, we're close. We have something in common -- language, religion, experience, maybe future for me."
The hugging also impressed Laura Uzulniece from Riga, Latvia, and Jana Neupaverova from Nova Dubnich, Slovakia.
Neupaverova, who attends high school in St. Paul, said, "I will remember forever the huggings.... When you hug somebody, you have to really forgive him everything. If you don't, you can't hug. You have to forgive him; he has to forgive you," she continued. "When you are hugging, you just feel you are friends."
The students say that growing in their faith has top priority.
Banyai, who attends St. Mary Central High School in Neenah, said she applied to Global Outreach because "it is a student exchange program like many student exchange programs, but with one difference, it is Christian Catholic."
Neupaverova said Catholic faith is especially important to her. "I am here alone," she said, adding that only God had come with her from Slovakia.
The students described the faith of the people in their respective countries as traditional.
"Sometimes it's hard to bring people to God," said Neupaverova. She added that changes are occurring in the Slovakian church. "We have Gospel festivals for young people." But still, she continued, somehow the faith has to be modernized.
Uzulniece, who attends Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, said the songs sung during Masses in Latvia are "not so happy. American music is very happy."
She said Latvian Catholics "are scared of anything new" -- an attitude that is a holdover from the years her country was under Communist rule.
Jakub Tucek from Brno, Czech Republic, said decades of Communism also left many people in his country with a "closed" attitude, including his parish priest, who he described as "a very clever man. People say he is a mystic. He's a good parish priest; he cares about the people."
Neupaverova said one reason she applied to Global Outreach is that it provides an opportunity to participate in community programs.
"Here in America, you don't just go to church and Christian school, but (you are) involved in activities and organizations.... I like that and will be able to come back home and help people there," she said.
The other students agreed with her. When they return home and to their European schools in 2002, they want to share their experiences with their family, friends and school mates.
"I want to bring all the information to them I receive," said Gediminas Minkus from Kaunas, Lithuania, who attends high school in Milwaukee.
The students said they hope this year to become more open, like Americans are, and to develop maturity and self-confidence.
They said they had seen these traits in the 2000-01 Global Outreach alumni who had attended the Hungarian camp with them. The students said the returnees had tried to prepare them for their year in the United States.
Uzulniece said a Global Outreach alumnus advised her, "If you want to grow in many ways and if you want to know yourself, go to America."
All agreed that they will grow in many ways in the coming year.
For Tucek, participating in Global Outreach is a chance "to see my life in Europe from the outside, to stop everything, go somewhere else, see how they are doing it here, and compare it to what I want to do in Europe."