SHAFAQNA -Â Essa Nahshal, the seven-year-old son of Muslim parents from Yemen, is one of 24 school pupils picked to meet the pope in New York next month and he couldn’t be happier.
“I’m not nervous at all,” he grinned in an interview with AFP ahead of the pontiff’s arrival in the Big Apple on September 24-25, the second leg of his inaugural US tour. “I’m just happy.”
In New York, Pope Francis will visit the United Nations, lead mass at Madison Square Garden and visit the 9/11 Memorial.
He will also visit a Catholic school in East Harlem, where he will talk to officials, and meet pupils from four schools and unaccompanied immigrant children supported by Catholic charities.
Schools run by the New York archdiocese claim to among the most diverse in the United States: 45 percent of pupils are white, 29 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African American and five percent each Asian and multi-racial.
Twenty-three percent are non-Catholic. Essa is one of them but that doesn’t stop him from having a high opinion of the pope.
“He seems like a very nice guy, because he takes care of the homeless and cares for the people,” said Essa, who is going into the third grade at St Charles Borromeo School in Manhattan.
He told AFP he has “a lot of things” he wants to ask the pope, such as what part of Argentina he is from and when he was born.
“You can always make friends. People are very friendly,” Essa said.
Aleeya Francis, principal of St Charles Borromeo, said Essa has two siblings at the same school.
“The family want a good education for their children,” she explained.
“We do not discriminate. We understand and we respect each other faith. That makes his family feels comfortable.”
– ‘Doorway out of poverty’ –
Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools of the archdiocese, says the education on offer is “a doorway out of poverty” for many immigrants in the city.
Sixty-four percent of children at the 13 kindergartens, 152 elementary schools, 47 high schools and eight special schools are from families living below the poverty line, he says.
Ninety-eight percent who graduate go onto college, McNiff said proudly, believing that the archdiocese’s focus on children, education and immigration dovetails with Francis’s own focus.
“Our priorities are very close to his priorities,” McNiff said.
Joanna Walsh, principal of Our Lady Queens of Angels School — which Francis will visit — said she is “very excited” about what she considers “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Francis, she said, “speaks to our minds and our hearts.”
In another sign of the diversity at the archdiocese, a good number of the Latino children speak Spanish, such as nine-year-old Benjamin Grassia whose parents are from Argentina.
“I know the Pope is Argentina and likes San Lorenzo”, said Benjamin of the Pope’s home football team.
He supports Barcelona and is starting fourth grade at St Paul School of East Harlem but is understanding of the pope’s football preference.
“I will say San Lorenzo is a good team,” said the boy, who calls himself “more Argentinian than American.”