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IHM Reflections from the Border

Ongoing work with refugees and asylum-seekers
by Julie Vieira, IHM, and Sarah Nash, Coordinator of the IHM Justice, Peace and Sustainability Office

It has been an honor and a privilege to be part of the IHM team of sisters, associates, co-workers, and friends who served the many families who are refugees and seeking asylum at the Mexico/United States border. People from across the country donated money, coats, shoes, toiletries and more to help the team of eight women who volunteered at the border from Jan. 6 – Feb. 3, 2019.

The need for hospitality at the border continues, and countless Catholic sisters, lay people and clergy locally and across the country continue to answer the call to volunteer by working with Annunciation House, an organization in El Paso, Texas, that accompanies “the migrant, refugee, and economically vulnerable peoples of the border region through hospitality, advocacy, and education.”

As an IHM community, we continue the mission to the people by offering more opportunities to volunteer at the border and to support the work of our sisters, associates, and coworkers who are involved in many different ways in service to people who are immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Here are just a few examples:

Pope Francis has called upon all people of goodwill to welcome the stranger, especially those who must leave their homeland in search of freedom and safety. In his message for the 2018 World Day of Migrants and Refugees (Jan. 14, 2018), Pope Francis said that everyone is “called to respond to the many challenges of contemporary migration with generosity, promptness, wisdom and foresight, each according to their own abilities.” Our shared response, he says, can be summed by four verbs: “to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.”

So what are some ways for us to continue the work of serving our sisters and brothers who are refugees and seeking asylum?

We can’t do everything but we each can commit to do one thing as we continue to pray and advocate for our migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking sisters and brothers. These are our people. They are ours and we are theirs.

Since the summer of 2018, there has been an increase in the number of refugees arriving at the southern border fleeing violence and extreme poverty in Central America and Mexico. In November, the IHM Leadership Council issued a statement calling for humane treatment of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers arriving at the southern border. Around this time, Annunciation House put out a call for volunteers to help provide hospitality to refugees arriving in El Paso, Texas. Many women’s religious communities have answered this call, and the IHM Leadership Council invited IHM Sisters and Associates to prayerfully consider volunteering at the border. Eight IHM Sisters, Associates and friends of the community responded.

On Saturday, Jan. 5, IHM Sisters Margaret Alandt, Marge Polys and Gloria Rivera along with IHM Associate Vicki Koivu-Rybicki and long-time friend of the IHM community Dora Lezovich arrived at Annunciation House to begin their two-week volunteer ministry. Then on Saturday, Jan. 19, IHM Sisters Judith Bonini, Angela Cerna-Plata and Julie Vieira traveled to El Paso to volunteer for an additional two weeks. During this time, they have been providing temporary housing, meals, transportation and care packages to refugee families who have been released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and will be leaving El Paso to be reunited with family or friends already living in other parts of the United States.

Here are their reflections on this experience.

Feb. 1, 2019

Reflection from Julie Vieira, IHM

I never thought I’d say this. One of the best moments of my life happened when I was sprawled out on the floor of a downtown bus station at 6:30 in the morning.

David and Oscar were on the floor with me. The 3-year-old, 6-year-old and I were intently focused on a high-stakes race car match. A 50-cent drifter versus a 50-cent monster truck. It was crazy. While we were entertaining one another, the boys’ mom was on my phone talking to her aunt, letting her know that she’d be there soon.

Moments like these are not exactly what I pictured when I signed up to volunteer at the border. I had an open heart to do whatever needed to be done. I expected that to mean making lunches, cleaning rooms for our overnight guests and driving refugee families to the airport or bus station. I went in expecting a lot of “behind the scenes” work because my Spanish was rusty and I was rather shy about using it.

I thought of my IHM Sister Marge Polys’s reflections about her own feelings about not knowing Spanish well. She wrote, “I felt vulnerable not speaking the language, not being in control of the situation or knowing what would happen next.” (Jan. 5, 2019) Marge also knew how feeling not in control was small in comparison to the lack of control that the refugee families have been feeling throughout their journey. A small but nonetheless tender way to be in solidarity with the people.

I took my IHM Sister’s words to heart and like her, I opened my heart to just be “not in control.” At least I tried! It’s not easy being vulnerable. My first few words of Spanish I’m sure were straight out of my high school textbook, dredged up from many years ago. “Hola. Yo me llamo Hermana Julie. ¿Cómo se llama usted?” I laugh as I write this because now, two weeks later, I can remember my shyness and hear my stilted words versus today when I chatted all day about everything from futbol (soccer) to mochilas (backpacks) and the all-important taza de café (cup of coffee).

In these “chats,” I am also free to hear and to receive the people. To take in what they want to say, not just about mochilas, but about how receiving a mochila from the shelter is so important because it means they can now safely carry their immigration papers and the battery charger of their “ankle bracelet” (a monitoring device from Immigration), a change of clothes, a tooth brush and a bottle of water. A mochila means that the parent of a young child can easily carry both her or his child and the family’s belongings more easily.

Being not in control is how I ended up on the floor of that bus station. I didn’t plan it. I don’t even like it for the obvious reason that IT IS THE FLOOR OF A BUS STATION! But talking with those little boys, giving them a bit of “wild space” to play and giving mom a bit of respite is what was needed at the moment. It’s every bit a part of the work of volunteering with people who are refugees and seeking asylum.

An open heart can take us to unimaginable places. It can take us to great sorrow and to ecstatic joy. It can free us to pass through our own walls. It can bring a little tenderness to a people – and that means all of us – desperately in need of safety, shelter and feeling human again.

Please continue to pray and to advocate. These are our people. They are ours and we are theirs.

Jan. 29, 2019

Reflection from Julie Vieira, IHM

The news about the southern border is harsh and it’s difficult to understand the full situation. I find it a challenge to sort through news stories, fake news, “alternative facts” and to truly hear the voices of the people whose lives are splashed on our TV screens and newsfeeds every day. We only get a tiny glimpse of the people who are refugees and seeking asylum and then it’s on to the next segment on the Super Bowl, Chicago’s deep freeze or our favorite upcoming TV show. It’s more than disconcerting. Whether we know it or not, we can become de-sensitized to the fact that the women, children and men who are fleeing for their lives are not reality stars, they are not actors. They are human beings. Imagine seeing a two-minute spot on TV about a tragedy within our own family and then the camera switches to an enthusiastic group of people preparing for their team’s upcoming game!

I write this because I myself did not know what to think about the border. Who would I encounter crossing the border? Would the images match the ones I see in the news? I also wondered what kind of “America,” that is, what kind of United States I would experience, because after all, North, Central or South, we’re all America!

I don’t have an answer to the human rights or political problems, and that’s something I am committed to learning more about. But I do have these couple weeks of experience at the border to converse, hear, see and touch the reality of what is happening now. While my experience here is just my experience, the story of truly great people is another story that must be told.

In previous “dispatches from the border,” IHMs have told the stories of many of the people crossing the border. There is another story too of a great people. Countless people in the U. S. have given their money, time, energy, skills and presence to be there for the people crossing the border. They donate, they make sandwiches and burritos, they transport people to the bus station and airport to reunite families and friends. They work without pay at airport security. They wake up in the middle of the night at the shelter to care for a baby with a cold.

This is the “great” U. S. that I know and love. Women and men answering the call to be there with their sisters and brothers.

In my many trips to the airport to escort families through the process of navigating the airport, I have met very fine airline personnel, TSA agents and homeland security officials. I know many of them by name now because of my frequent visits. Airlines have been gracious in giving me a security pass to go through security. And when I approach TSA security, I now hear, “Hola Hermana! How are you, Sister?” They share their stories with me as well, especially how the government shutdown had affected them and their families. Many of the officials ask me about the families crossing the border, seeking to more fully understand their stories. It is a little thing we can do to help give voice to the people.

Finally, one very heart-warming story to share. Immigration came with a busload of people to us and while we were helping them get settled, I spoke to Maria Rosa, a 9-year-old girl. She wanted to know all our names. So I introduced her to all of the volunteers. Finally, I came to Judith and I said, “Aqui es Hermana Judith.” Little Maria Rosa immediately left her mother’s side and went into Judith’s arms. She stood by Judith and they talked and talked and talked. It was so beautiful. Our work here is difficult, and it is so precious.

Please, continue to pray and to advocate. These are our people. They are ours, and we are theirs.

Jan. 23, 2019

Reflection from Julie Vieira, IHM

“Refugees.” “Asylum-seekers.” “Migrant caravan.” These are the names of the people we serve here at the border between Mexico and the United States. But we know them as Ada, Rigoberto, Claudia and Antony. They are little 2-year-old Carmen, eyes lit up with delight as she hugs a stuffed animal. They are 30-something Carlos leaving his home in Guatemala to earn money in the U. S. so that he can send money to his family. This morning, I saw the name Jesus on the list of people headed to the bus station. Immediately in my mind flashed an image of the one we call the Christ, squeezed in a crowded bus station, a plastic grocery bag on his lap containing his immigration papers and all of his possessions. But, then I saw the 5-year-old Honduran boy, holding onto his mother’s hand as he and his siblings prepared for a journey to see family he had never met, in a country he did not know, surrounded by a culture and language that were not his own. Jesus, Carmen, Ada.

These are our people. They are ours, and we are theirs. Today they are in need of our love, hospitality and fierce advocacy. Tomorrow, it could be us.

After a full day of welcoming people newly arrived at the shelter, feeding and clothing them, and helping them find their way to their family in the U.S., Angela, Judith and I sat and shared with each other our experiences. It touched me deeply as my sisters talked about the stories of the people with whom they spoke during the intake interviews. They shared in particular about the experience of the people in detention awaiting release into the U. S. Many of them were held for two or three days, some as much as five or more days. They are just staying in a big room, crowded in with others, waiting for some word of release. “We sleep on the floor,” the people said to us. “There are so many people, some of us have to sleep against the wall.” All the while, they say, the lights are on 24 hours a day and there is no quiet. The sisters said the people are surprised when they arrive at the border, surprised that they are treated like criminals and not like people who are in great need of safety and the basic necessities to care for their families and themselves.

The good news is that the human heart is bigger than the contrarieties that we face. The people seeking asylum whom we have met, for the most part, are not angry. It is another difficult leg of an already arduous journey. They are tired and traumatized, yet they open their hearts to our simple hospitality. Truly a humbling experience. We have much to learn from our sisters and brothers. And the people of El Paso. ¡Que fantastico! The love and care that these people have, as well as the many out-of-towners who have come to serve these people they do not know, but love dearly nonetheless. We have met such pure kindness in the grad students who take off precious time to work at the shelters, the homeland security official who kindly consoles a nervous mom and the random bus passenger who offers to watch over a family headed to the same city. I am not sure I ever believed in angels until now.

Please, continue to pray and to advocate. These are our people. They are ours, and we are theirs.

Jan. 21, 2019

Reflection from Julie Vieira, IHM

Our journey to El Paso began on Saturday with a great outpouring of love from the Motherhouse sisters and snow from the heavens! What a transition to go from a snow storm to a beautiful warm evening in El Paso. As we descended the stairs to find our bags, there were our IHM Sisters waiting to receive us – Toña and Maureen with open arms! Our hearts filled with joy.

We took the scenic road to our residence, climbing the Franklin Mountains so that we could see the cities below – El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mêxico – and the border between the two. It is difficult to imagine that such beauty in the people, the land, the sky and the mountains can hold within it such suffering in the lives of people seeking asylum. Yet, as we were about to experience, there is such love and tenderness in each person whom we encountered at the shelter where we are volunteering for two weeks.

Although our shift began early Sunday morning, we stopped in Saturday night to meet the site coordinator and the people. The volunteers said that they were very sad because a group from the IHM Sisters had just left and they had made a great impact on the place. We said, “Those are our sisters and friends. We are also IHMs!” They were thrilled and welcomed us with open arms, delighted to know that we would be there to continue the great work and loving presence.

Angela and I began our shift at 7 a.m. Our orientation lasted about 90 seconds before the place became alive with people and the coordinator had to go to take care of pressing needs. Volunteers quickly filled in and within minutes we were in the flow of the life at the shelter. By 7:03 a.m., Angela was at work preparing for breakfast and I was on my way out the door with another volunteer bringing a man and his daughter to the airport as they were on their way to stay with family. We worked all morning and then Judith began her shift at noon. A university peace and justice group brought lunch; they committed to bringing lunch every Sunday for a year. What a gift! Judith and the volunteers had their hands full as two buses arrived in the afternoon, bringing more than 50 people. She welcomed the people and learned “baptism by fire” how to do the orientation.

As the day ended, I held in my heart each person I met, especially the young ones, old enough to know enough of what is happening but powerless to do anything but to hang on and to trust – trust their parents and trust the women and men around them who bring a kind smile, a tousle of the hair, warm clothes and a soccer ball to kick around.

We are grateful to everyone in the IHM community and our friends and family who are with us in our hearts.

Jan. 15, 2019

Reflection from Margaret Alandt, IHM

On Sunday, we had a day off and went to Juarez for a very spirited celebration with our IHM Sisters and Associate there. During the homily, we were invited to introduce ourselves and Gloria gave a brief summary of our work. The priest continued the immigration theme in the homily as did Maria Antonia Aranda Diaz, IHM, as she explained the day’s symbol of water flowing and making bridges.

Yesterday, more than 300 asylum-seekers arrived at El Paso centers –  26 at our place.  We are expecting another 42 late this afternoon. This morning, one father relayed to us a common experience of how he was apprehensive and fearful when he arrived from the detention center with his young son but is now relaxed and grateful for how he has been treated.

Jan. 11, 2019

Reflection from Margaret Alandt, IHM

Yesterday we celebrated the birthday of an 11-year-old girl with a cupcake birthday cake and unicorn crown. She was delighted! The people we are meeting this week are asylum-seekers: mothers and fathers with one or more children, mostly under the age of 10. One woman I spoke with came because climate shifts are causing mud slides. That and volcanoes are ruining the land for planting. With no food or land, poverty is driving them north. Another young man’s journey here took him almost three months on multiple buses. He has experience as a carpenter, an electrician and is a musician. A young woman and her infant crossed the Río Grande after being dropped off by a coyote and being picked up by border patrol. They are hardly thugs and drug-pushers.

Years ago, Juarez and El Paso were like sister cities with people moving easily back and forth across the border. Today, when we asked the locals about the wall, they say there is not a crisis at the border and they do not see a need for any more wall (fence) than is already here. Of course, some would want one, but that seems to be a minority. We have experienced the people in El Paso as very welcoming and hospitable both through the volunteer network and even personnel at the airport and bus depot.

The volunteer systems here are amazing. Based on anticipated numbers (total guesswork) the “sandwich man” organizes a group to prepare plastic bags with six sandwiches and snacks that serve two travelers for each day on the road. He delivers sandwiches each day. They’ve been doing that for months. There are many other churches/groups that bring in and serve either lunch or supper. We provide cereal, fruit and drinks for breakfast.

Another group takes care of transportation to the buses and planes. Someone else keeps supplies and on and on. And of course, there’s a huge volunteer corps of short- and long-term workers. Some locals volunteer regularly – one, two, three TIMES a week. The generosity of everyone is so evident!

The number of asylum-seekers crossing the border has decreased significantly since the surge in December when Annunciation House opened several additional temporary shelters, including MESA Inn where we are currently serving. Numbers have decreased from about 1000 a week to 100 per day. Two days this week we received no asylum-seekers. On Wednesday, 38 arrived at our location. The most recent arrivals have had more medical issues than those we saw earlier. This may be because many of them had spent several days in detention at the border. Today the number arriving in the city jumped to 400 across four centers.

On Thursday, President Trump visited the southern border in McAllen, Texas. Sister Norma Pimentel, a sister of the Missionaries of Jesus, is director of Catholic Charities for the Rio Grande Valley. She was present during a roundtable discussion with the president and wrote an op-ed addressed to him yesterday in The Washington Post. Click here  to read more.

Jan. 5, 2019

Reflection from Margaret Alandt, IHM

Our first day began at 7 a.m. with about 80 guests arriving for breakfast. During that time, we also made sandwiches for those leaving today, about 30. Those traveling by bus receive a bottle of water, three sandwiches and snacks for each day on the bus, usually two to three. At the time of leaving, there were hugs, smiles and verbal expressions of gratitude.

Just before noon, food was delivered by a local church and, at the same time, about 40 new people were dropped off. Someone suggested ICE drops them off at noon so they do not have to feed them. Over the next couple of hours while the most fluent Spanish volunteers were interviewing new arrivals and calling relatives or friends to arrange for transportation, others assigned motel rooms and served meals Marge found us a very helpful google translation app which translates spoken English to spoken Spanish.

Each family unit is assigned a king size bed in the motel. If there are two beds in the room, two family units share a room. Most family units are made up of an adult and child, occasionally more. While here, in addition to food, we have available toiletries and new or gently used clothing as needed. We have some medicine available for colds and small injuries.

Currently there are about 11 shelters of various sizes in El Paso under Annunciation House. Ours has about 90 beds. The goal is that no asylum seeker ends up on the street as it happened on Christmas.

Usually people are with us for one to three days. If the U.S. contact info is incorrect, we need to find the correct info and notify I.C.E. But with the partial government shutdown, ICE is not working, only the border patrol, so those individuals are stuck here indefinitely.

Sunday, as we celebrate Epiphany, we look to the star that will guide the asylum seekers and us on a new way.

Reflection from Marge Polys, IHM

What a profound and exhausting experience! These asylum seekers are anything but criminals and thugs as they have often been characterized. They are polite, gracious and grateful. They each greeted us upon arrival and told us “Muchas gracias” with a hand shake as they left. We had about 80 adults and children for breakfast at 8 a.m. We had just gotten some connected and processed for moving on and on their buses or plane, area cleaned up and table organized for lunch when ICE brought 40 more people, mostly from Guatemala, unannounced before lunch. A generous group of people brought in spaghetti and whole roasted chickens that had to be cut up before served for lunch. Then, they organized them in bedrooms and gave them essentials for the night and helped them find a change of clothes, coats, etc. Gloria began calling their relatives or friends across the country to help arrange transportation. Most will leave in a day or two.

I felt vulnerable not speaking the language, not being in control of the situation or knowing what would happen next. Not speaking the language, it is unfortunate not to be able to hear their stories. To imagine the stories is already heart breaking. I keep thinking of my two nieces who were adopted from Guatemala as young children and from what they were perhaps saved.

As always, we pray because of the hope that is within us, and because of a faith in the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.

Reflection from Vicky Koivu-Rybiki, IHM Associate

It was quiet when we arrived at 7 a.m. I wondered how we would be received since volunteers rotate so frequently. What might give the best comfort and least intrusion in these asylum seekers’ fragile lives? The five of us busied ourselves doing any jobs that would make the breakfast welcoming. Gradually, a few at a time came into the large room: a mother with her young child, a young adult male with a teen or two, a teenager who appear to be traveling alone. The 80 who came to breakfast were satisfied with the corn flakes and milk, oranges and coffee. A few enjoyed cookies left from last night’s dinner.

I used a soft puppet turtle with large friendly eyes to encourage the young children to eat. Mothers laughed and began to have conversations using Mr. Turtle with their children. Then, the child was less afraid and used the puppet to respond. Soon there were friendly conversations among the mothers and others at the table. Even the young men at another table laughed at the silly turtle. Later, those same young men were happy to take over our assembly room clean up. They were so proud to be included in our adult responsibilities.

I asked many of the asylum seekers where they were going. What interested them most was how long they must travel. In most cases, it was over a thousand miles and two to three days into the interior of the U.S. Most are traveling from Honduras and Guatemala.

I used my phone as a conversational translator and it worked well. Both of us could alternate speaking and the translation was oral. Interestingly, no one asked about the phone. They are focused on their goal: to find and know their new “home.”

Our facility is an old hotel, but it provides at least a semi private room with a real bed, bathroom, toiletries and heat. One gentleman’s first remark to me was, “It is cold here at midnight.” I asked where he was last night and found that he and his young four-year-old had been on the street for three nights. His son was wearing a large padded vest. The dad’s jacket was small and thin. The dad was excited that we had a jacket for his son. The jacket was very small. I asked that the child try it on because we had other sizes. When he removed the padded vest, there stood a tiny frame of a child and a grateful smiling dad who didn’t want to lose his place in line for a warm room.

Tomorrow is a huge holiday and holy day for Latinos; it is Epiphany; it is their Christmas! Everyone prepares special celebrations and food. Families and communities come together. Yet, our asylum-seekers gather with a different festive spirit, they are over the U.S. border and temporarily safe: hoping, anxiously waiting, traveling into unknown tomorrows.

My “epiphany of experience” is unfolding as I celebrate the new life of others – people with courage and patience to risk life for love of family.