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Chef Lidia Shares Her Journey from Refugee to Culinary Queen

Posted on March 5, 2019 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Joins Catholic Charities to Inspire Teens at Fordham Prep

Students, spellbound and silent, listened as first famed chef Lidia Bastianich described her childhood as a refugee, then Catholic Charities NY Director of Immigrant Services Mario Russell converted her story into present-day reality at an assembly held last month at Fordham Prep in the Bronx. 

“That little child in need, that was me in 1958,” Chef Lidia told the students, crediting her success overcoming a childhood trapped first behind the Iron Curtain and later in an Italian refugee camp to crucial intervention from Catholic Charities organizations.

The assembly was held as a follow up to Fordham Prep’s Faith and Justice Summit held at the school the chef’s grandson, Ethan attends. This collaborative effort is aimed at forming a community of people committed to a faith that does justice.

 “Being able to listen to her story from 60 years ago and then to hear about the work that Catholic Charities is doing for immigrants and refugees right now offered so many opportunities for students to see themselves and their families in the story,” said Fordham Prep math teacher Arianne Dempsey who helped arrange the assembly.

Ms. Bastianich shared how she was born in Italy right after World War II in an area that was taken over by communist Yugoslavia.  Under communism life changed.  Languages, religions, even names became forbidden.

The good news was she was able to escape at age 10 with her mother and brother across the border to Trieste, Italy. The bad locked news was Italian authorities her family in a refugee camp so wretched that, just over a decade earlier, it had been a Nazi concentration camp.

Finally, two years later, international Catholic Relief Services partnered with Catholic Charities organizations in the United States to sponsor Ms. Bastianich’s family and others like them.  The organizations paid for their flight, found them homes and jobs and gave them the food, clothing and support they needed until they were able to support themselves.

“Now I’m a grandmother and I think back about my mother.  How did she feel, not speaking the language, not knowing anybody, not having a place to put her children to sleep?  How did she feel having to come to this country? And then being welcomed, being welcomed by people, generous people from Catholic Charities."

As the students, all high school juniors like her grandson took in this powerful story, Mario Russell walked to the podium.

“I was just a little older than you when I graduated from college wondering what to do,” Mr. Russell told the students. “I finally realized there was another option, an option that called me to engage, to be part of something a bigger than me…and that’s how I ended up at Catholic Charities.”

He shared with the students true-life stories of immigrants Catholic Charities NY recently represented in court:

  • A father from Indonesia who entered the U.S. legally during regulations in place during the George W. Bush administration suddenly arrested last year and facing deportation, leaving his family and young son with Down Syndrome without a breadwinner to support them.
  • A toddler taken at the border from his father; the little boy flown by Homeland Security to institutions in New York City; the dad jailed at the border in federal Homeland Security facilities.
  • A mom pregnant with her second child in China in violation, at the time, of China’s one-child policy but determined to keep her baby.

Reflecting on the impact Mr. Russell and Ms. Bastianich made on the students, Ms. Dempsey said " Seeing all the ways Catholic Charities has continued to fight for the dignity of all people, from Lidia's story to the work it is doing right now, was also quite a lesson. I can’t imagine a better pairing, the mix of perspectives and contexts opened such powerful discussions about what challenges exist and what we can do to help. “