Class Act

Brooke Vandever

Imagine landing at KCI as a refugee with your family, in a strange country destined to become home, waiting at the luggage carousel for a tattered 50-pound bag filled with every material possession you collectively own. The faces around you and the language being spoken are unfamiliar, and even the air you’re breathing is different.

Notre Dame de Sion senior Mari Nicolosi knows the trepidation of arriving in a new country—she relocated here at the tender age of 12 from the southern coast of Sicily. Her father is Italian and her mother is American, and Nicolosi and her two sisters moved to KC with their mom for educational opportunities. Although Nicolosi wasn’t a refugee, her compassionate nature serves as an internal GPS, which eventually led her to become a smiling face at KCI for modern-day immigrants.

Last year Nicolosi heard Sister Marilyn Lacey speak passionately about the nonprofit she founded, Mercy Beyond Borders, which helps displaced women and girls in South Sudan and Haiti. Nicolosi was inspired to make a difference, and applied as a refugee ambassador with another organization, Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services. She now accompanies service coordinators and translators to KCI, meeting individuals and families anxious to escape religious, cultural, and political persecution in their homeland.

In addition to greeting families at the airport, Nicolosi helps them acclimate to simple things they might be unaccustomed to: turning on light switches or faucets, brushing teeth, operating an oven or garbage disposal. She participates in an after-school program on Wednesdays, reading books to both refugee youngsters and teens and has held diaper drives to collect the most basics for families with babies.

Fluent in Italian, Nicolosi uses iPhone apps to translate simple words like “Hello” and “Welcome” in Burmese and other native languages of the refugees. But it’s the human spirit that is Nicolosi’s ultimate guide when connecting with the newcomers in a KCI terminal: smiles, hugs, handshakes and reassuring looks while standing at baggage claim, waiting for the 50-pound bundle.
“Many families have waited 20 years or longer for visas to the United States,” says Nicolosi. “It’s a long and sometimes very painful process. This experience makes me take nothing for granted.”

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: “I help friends understand that these refugees are not illegal immigrants—they’re people who have given up everything they own and know to move to a country that offers freedoms unheard of in their countries.”

LIFE SAVINGS: “Each person is given $1,100 by the U.S. government upon their arrival, and Catholic Charities helps them spend that in smart ways. I can’t imagine it lasts very long.”

LAND OF PLENTY: “I have so much living here, both intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. I don’t want to grow up and think I haven’t done anything to help others.”

For information on a Frisbee fund-raising tournament to assist the Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services program being held April 22 at Notre Dame de Sion, contact Mari Nicolosi at

Categories: People