Donated supplies greatly appreciated
A donation of shelving was received, which was greatly needed and quickly assembled. Volunteers and guests assembled the shelves, while speaking Spanish or English. Shelving was distributed to the kitchen, clothing supply, linen supply, clinic, pantry, and diaper room. There was a sense of accomplishment that the supply areas were more functional. A women’s group supplied and cooked an entire meal of spaghetti and salad for 80 guests and volunteers. We appreciated the change of menu from the usual beans and rice. Civic, religious, and church groups donate or pay for undergarments, socks, and shoelaces. The local folks seem to be supportive and caring for those entering their community and the crises from which they are running.
Donor information is on the website for both monetary and supplies to be shipped. www.annunciationhouse.org.
As I prepare to depart after two weeks of ministry with migrants, more volunteers are arriving: members from various religious communities, former missionaries and Peace Corps members, young and energetic adults fluent in Spanish, and local church, restaurants, and civic groups.
“The Lord sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives,” — Luke 4:18. My effort is joined by countless others who volunteer, donate, and serve in response to the crisis of refugees and migrants, who fled hatred, violence, and misery. Inspired people are offering hospitality, care, and support to immigrants, the lonely, and newcomers.
“We, the Sisters of St. Agnes, participate in the mission of Christ by joyful service, in the Church, always aware that we, too, are among the needy and are enriched by those we serve.” — CSA Mission Statement
I have been privileged, challenged, informed, troubled, and inspired by my ministry at the border of both McAllen and El Paso, Texas.
It is Thursday and this 6th and final Posting is from my room at the Leo House in New York City. It is good to be home; to revel in the noise of the fire trucks, ambulances, street conversations and all the energy and diversity of the Big Apple. Worlds away from El Paso.
I am grateful for so many individuals and things:
- for our CSA leadership which approved and supported my volunteer commitment in El Paso.
- for my local community at the Leo House which “picked up the slack” during my absence.
- for all of you who as individuals, as local communities and families sent Chapstick, socks, undies and shoelaces for use by the guests.
- for the support given via texts, cards, phone calls and especially prayer.
What was before a rarity, a US postal service truck, became commonplace. He would arrive with more than 1 box on a regular basis. So, to quote William Shakespeare, “I can no other answer make, but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks!”
It is also true that while I, Pat, was physically present in El Paso, “We, the Sisters of Saint Agnes” were present.
When I named my religious community and described our history and charism, “We, the Sisters of Saint Agnes” were present.
When I introduced myself to a guest as Hermana Patricia, “We, the Sisters of Saint Agnes, were present.
The “we-ness” of our communal life was very present to me over the last 4 weeks. Perhaps it was the sharing on this “we” question which we have been engaged in over the last few months which sensitized me. Or perhaps it was grace allowing me to recognize the “great cloud of witnesses” both past and present which captured my imagination.
Whatever sparked this insight I pray I was a “joyful witness” who welcomed “all who come to us with genuine hospitality.” I am so, so grateful to be a member of “We, the Sisters of Saint Agnes.”
Excursion to the mountains
The mountains can be seen from my bedroom window. Ruth, my co-worker, and I explored two trails in the Franklin Mountains State Park, in the Chihuahuan Desert mountain range. The view is expansive and deep. Our walk was limited by not having hiking boots or walking sticks and an early evening shift at the Center. However brief our excursion, the expansiveness of the views opened my soul to the splendor of creation. We toured the nearby National Border Patrol Museum. U.S. Border Agents have secured and protected the U.S. external boundaries since 1924. They deliver asylum seekers in vans to our shelter frequently.
Refugees from Brazil
A surprising development is that the El Paso shelters have been receiving 40+ asylum seekers daily from Brazil, who speak Portuguese. The shelter has a volunteer on call to translate. The Brazilians have smartphones and money, call their sponsors, and often leave the same day. We wonder how they traveled so far.
With two days remaining for me at the shelter, I remind myself of the significance of a smile of encouragement. Whether by word or gesture, a smile may lift their burdens momentarily. The challenge is to lift one another’s burdens in this holy chaos.
On my first day off, I took an excursion across the border to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico with Pam and Laura, two other volunteers here in El Paso. Pam and Laura were previously Peace Corps volunteers and are committed to helping the marginalized. The purpose of our exploration was to learn as much as we could about the various processes asylum seekers encounter as they pass through Border Patrol and make their way to our shelter. This image below shows asylum seekers sitting on the ground in the restricted area as they wait for the border patrol to send them on the next step of their journey.
We opted to walk across the bridge rather than waiting in the slow vehicle lane and were approached by two police officers who were concerned for our safety as we walked along the Rio Grande, which in this area is a trickle of polluted water. They told how robbers and thieves prey on the asylum seekers.
We entered a government building and were met by a volunteer, Luca, who told the history of how an empty building was converted to assist the asylum seekers from both sides of the border. Mexico was as unprepared for the massive exodus as the United States. When asylum seekers are deported from the U.S., they may find their way to this agency and this kind, committed woman. She is hopeful that the current president of Mexico will support law-abiding citizens, since many asylum seekers from Central America are fleeing from extortion. If they develop a successful business or farm, their lives could be endangered unless they pay the extortionist. Luca wrote and published a book for children to help them heal from their trauma.
Our comprehension and feelings were greatly expanded by our excursion across the border
It’s Thursday of my last week in El Paso. As I ponder the last 4 weeks, I’m filled with more questions than answers, more confusion than clarity, and an awareness of the deep human cost of demagoguery.
This article from the Washington Post is an excellent summary of the ministry to the migrants being done by Annunciation House. They are to be commended and supported for their efforts over the last 40+ years.
It has been heart-breaking to witness grown men sob as they speak to relatives here in the United States. They are speaking in their indigenous language, so I don’t understand what they are saying. The feelings, however, are patently clear and raw.
It has been heart-warming to meet so many selfless, caring volunteers whose primary focus is to make the guests feel welcome and to reunite them with their families as soon as possible. The volunteers have been lay and religious; single and married; of all religious denominations. They/we have been united in a common purpose of Annunciation House: “No refugee to the streets”
That purpose has been seriously tested as the Border Patrol rounds up more asylum-seekers. Because the detention centers are full, these individuals are not processed through ICE. Rather, the Border Patrol has tried to release these individuals to the streets of El Paso. It’s only through the tireless efforts of Rubén Garcia, Annunciation House founder, that living spaces have been found for these people. This practice has been called “catch and release” a phrase we attribute to fishing, not human beings.
What does it mean that the elegant, beloved symbol of freedom, Lady Liberty, stands in New York harbor and we find walls, razor wire and “hieleras” in the southwest border?
What does it mean that undocumented people are called “alien?” Aliens are mysterious, extraterrestrial frightening phenomena. Undocumented people are human beings like us with hopes, dreams and aspirations. Except for an accident of birth, we could be “alien!”
What does it mean that families make a choice to undertake a profoundly perilous, arduous journey seeking a better life for themselves and their children to be greeted with cruelty, abuse and a lack of respect by the greatest(?) country in the world? This is no walk in the park they undertake. The conditions under which they are living prompt this decision. Like any of us, they would prefer to “stay home” in their own culture but that becomes an untenable possibility.
What does it mean that women being welcomed into Casa Oscar Romero and being told “this house is your house” begin to cry, because it’s the first time they have felt welcomed anywhere since arriving in the US?
What does it mean that children 3, 6, 7, or 11 years old are able to tolerate hunger and fatigue? That they have developed long-suffering patience when no one of any age should have to do so?
What does it mean that a man from Guatemala asks if he can say a prayer before eating? Or that another man asks if he can speak in his “own” language?
What does it mean that I return home with less than half the clothing I arrived with and still have more than enough?
This month-long experience will take much longer to integrate into my life and process adequately. I try to summarize it below in poetry form. The impetus for the words in quotations is the poem by Emma Lazarus entitled The New Colossus. I invite you to read and reflect on it in light of what is occurring here in the southwest.
Cypress, cactus and palm live side by side in your desert scrub-grass and sparks my longing for an
abundance of green and bouquets of flowers. The Franklin mountains pierce the sky to the west. Your
dry, windy climate has ravaged my respiratory system and shortened my breathing.
Yet all of that is nothing to the sight of endless lines of women, men, children and babies who arrive at
the front door of Casa Oscar Romero. They are the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe
free” of Emma Lazarus.
Those people and their stories and their plight have broken my heart in ways that I don’t yet have words
for. I have been tenderized, pounded down, with the weight of their grief and loss. And, strangely, I have
been buoyed up by their turn toward hope and optimism after spending a few hours in this House of
We all know their struggle has only begun and may continue for years; in a short period of time they may
find themselves once again in Guatemala or Honduras.
Meanwhile I return home a changed woman even as I don’t fully appreciate how and in what way that
change will manifest. For a few short weeks I have been a “mother to exiles”; a beacon of welcome to
the “wretched refuse of your teeming” border.
I have lived the experience of “being enriched by those we serve.” Thank you. Gracias .
Casa Oscar Romero has limited medical care available to refugees for various ailments. Health concerns include upper respiratory conditions, high blood pressure, foot sores, athletes foot, and diabetes. While some asylum seekers are able to start their healing, others will carry the scars and trauma of their long and arduous migration for months and years.
As busy as we volunteers are, there is an occasional moment for personal connection with those who are staying overnight. A father let me hold his baby while his wife washed pots and pans in the kitchen. His daughter was born 40 days ago, which was before the parents left home and indicates how resolute the young couple was to migrate.
When I arrived in the dining area to eat a simple dinner, the guest cooks were eager to show me their appreciation by serving the usual rice and beans. Two adults and their young children told me about traveling four days by bus and then being confined for three days in the frigid detention center. They are eager to leave by bus tomorrow for Florida. While I ate, we had an introductory vocabulary lesson. They all four promised themselves to enroll in schools where they could learn English and become self-sufficient.
In response to a request for volunteers to assist refugees who are seeking asylum, I am traveling to El Paso, Texas. The Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes is a member of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which requested volunteers to help in El Paso. My general superior forwarded the request to our members. After my previous ministry at Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, TX, I was surprised to have a second opportunity to volunteer with refugees. I will be glad to join Sister Pat Hayes, CSA, who began at El Paso two weeks ago and will continue while I will be there.
I arrived at El Paso Texas, which borders on Mexico, New Mexico, and the Rio Grande. The elevation is 3740’ above sea level. The population is 683,577. The Franklin Mountains are in the background. Two international crossing bridges connect with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. We volunteers lodge at El Convento, a former motherhouse and novitiate of the Sisters of Loretta. Many women religious and dedicated lay people volunteer for two or more weeks. I was happy to meet Sister Pat when she returned from work. Annunciation House comprises shelters at 13 locations, which are sponsored by the Diocese of El Paso.
I am assigned to work 12:00-7:00 at Casa Oscar Romero; the same shift and location as Sister Pat who lives just down the hall from me. Our transportation is via Uber. Forty asylum seekers arrived, primarily young families from Guatemala. We made sandwiches of PB&J for the refugees to take along as they travel by bus to their sponsors elsewhere across our country. I read a picture book with a father and daughter to help them learn the vocabulary of colors and objects. We practiced the color words as well as naming the object in the pictures. Other volunteers and I organized donated and recycled clothing for distribution. This established program serves the clients meals of rice and beans: a familiar Central American menu. The asylum seekers are eager to reach the destination and reunite with the friends and families who are sponsoring them. In addition to their lunches, refugees will carry identification and immigration papers which include the address of their sponsor and documentation indicating that they do not speak English.
Day 4 - Grateful and Helpful
My shift at the Casa Oscar Romero, where I volunteer with the asylum seekers from Guatemala, is becoming more predictable. These refugees are willing to clean, cook meals, and wash laundry. They hang the wet wash over the fence in the yard. In this dry climate, the laundry dries quickly.
My task was to get all the floors swept and mopped. I studied the vocabulary for broom, dustpan, mop, and bucket. Helpers responded to my request and cleaned the floors before more refugees arrived. Forty refugees were delivered by border patrol at 4:00 p.m. These refugee newcomers are surprised and grateful to receive food and clothing at the shelter. Packets are prepared in advance for distribution. Packets include a set of bed linens, bath towel, and a sandwich sized bag of toiletries. Sister Pat, the shift manager, said to prepare at least 75 packets for refugees, who will be delivered by border patrol at 6:00 p.m. I recruited two young women, including one with a toddler, to prepare 80 packets.
While my helpers folded the bed linens and towels, one young woman described how they were released from the detention center directly to the street. They slept under a bridge for four days and four nights without food or water. They have sore hips from lying on the soil and stones. They are coughing and sneezing from breathing in the dust. They are grateful to now be in a safe shelter. They knew before they left home that they would suffer on their journey, yet they chose to flee from violence and unemployment. Their bravery and determination indicate how much these immigrants will enrich our country as they make their home in our midst.
Thursday, March 28 and into the 3rd week here at the border. Sister Patricia Weidman (Trish) arrived on Tuesday, March 26 and will be staying in the same place I am. She, too, will be working at Casa Oscar Romero on the same noon to 7:00 p.m. shift.
This week’s posting is a visual presentation of where I’ve been working, where the guests stay, and other visuals that might deepen your understanding of what I’ve been writing about this last little while.
Thanks to Dusty and the staff of the CSA Mission Advancement Office for their help in setting up the format. Left to my devices the presentation would be like sending mail via a Wells Fargo stagecoach!
This is the entrance to the Casa Oscar Romero. Casa Oscar Romero is one of at least 10 houses for released detainees operated under the umbrella of Annunciation House Hospitality Centers. Annunciation House has been in existence since the 1970s and has been responding to the needs of immigrant and refugees since its inception. Their ministry has exploded within the last few years. They are funded by donations and depend heavily on volunteers. Their tagline: No Refugee to the Streets.
Casa Oscar Romero was opened in February of this year and can house up to 120 individuals. It is not an impressive looking building and in fact appears quite desolate and deserted. Appearances can be deceiving. Inside the building there is a lot of healing and hugging and living and loving going on.
This is one of the intake forms we use with the clients upon their arrival at Casa Oscar Romero. It begins the process of their reunion with family members in the States. Upon arrival at the house they are given food, bedding, and a place to sleep. They are interviewed and their documents from ICE are reviewed. We make contact with the family and/or friends who will be arranging their travel. Two bulletin boards in the office reflect the travel status of the guests who arrive.
Once the travel plans have been made the intake sheet is moved from the “pending” board to the board reflective of the date they will be traveling. The bus sheets run down the left side of the board; air travel runs down the right side.
We are responsible for getting the guests to the bus station and/or airport in a timely fashion. We help them get the tickets from the agents and in the case of air travel print their boarding passes. Then we explain the transfer process since there are few direct flights from El Paso to anywhere in the US and assist them through security. If they are traveling by bus to distant states, we provide them with enough PB and J sandwiches for two per day per person for three days. We give them bottled water and snacks and hope their travel goes well.
The turnover can be quite rapid with some guests arriving on Monday afternoon and leaving by bus the next morning. It is rare there is a stay beyond four days. In fact, just this Sunday a guest and his son arrived at noon and they were leaving for California on a 6 a.m. flight on Monday. In that instance, because we don’t have volunteer drivers so early in the morning, they were taken to the airport at 10 p.m. and slept there overnight.
This is the PB&J sandwich making room and travel pack assembly area. We rely on the goodness and generosity of strangers and friends to keep this room stocked with bread, jelly, peanut butter and snacks. Annunciation House provides many of the essential food items as well, especially bottled water. Due do the generosity of friends and former colleagues, we are able to include a toy for those children traveling long distances by bus. Can you imagine being a mother of 3 children under the age of 2 traveling by bus from El Paso, Texas to New London, Wisconsin? It happened. We hope the family arrived safely with no travel glitches.
This is a picture of one of the two women’s dorms. Most of the women prefer to pull the mattress to the floor rather than climb up and down a bunkbed. Because the number of women and men guests can fluctuate, the population in the different dorms can go up and down. It’s not uncommon to have guests carrying mattresses from the men to the women’s dorms and vice versa. The guests and their children determine where and with whom the older girls and boys will bunk. Sometimes the 13-year-old male would prefer to stay with his mother in the same bed and vice versa. They have experienced enough separation and trauma, so we allow them to make those decisions. Primarily, though, the women are housed in different dorms from the men.
This is a picture of the dining where the 3 meals are taken. The diet is primarily beans and rice with occasional helpings of meat, primarily chicken. The guests clean off the tables and sweep the floors after each meal.
The meals are cooked by guests themselves who volunteer. For the last two weeks we’ve been blessed to have a Cuban couple handling the cooking detail and they’ve prepared wonderful, tasteful meals. They have moved on so other guests have “stepped up.”
This is one of three of the men’s dorms. Boys tend to be more adventuresome and take the upper bunks more easily then young girls. Two of the three men’s dorms have showers and toilets attached. One of the two women’s dorms have a shower/toilet area, so there is a lot of sharing that goes on.
This large space is reserved for the children and their play needs. It looks pretty bare now because the children often take the toys to their dorm. We had a wonderful set of interlocking, foam pads for the floor. They had stars and circles and other figures in the middle for educational purposes. In their own creative way, the children used the center pieces for frisbees and the pads themselves as necklaces. They have drawn some wonderful pictures on them as well. Most of us have stepped on or kicked Lego pieces – not a favorite toy for lots of reasons! The coloring books have been filled and the crayons are being reduced to stubs. Chalk for outdoor drawing is a big hit.
There is an MD on call for consultation about health-related issues with the guests. Most of the guests arrive with coughs, colds and other upper respiratory issues related to the “hieleras”. We have good first aid medicines and cough and cold remedies. I’ve been in the clinic for a few sessions. We are lucky to have a volunteer nurse for the next 2 weeks as well as a physician’s assistant. They hold regular clinic hours and respond to the guest’s health needs.
After guests have completed the intake process, they are given a set of sheets and towels and select a bed in the appropriate dormitory. They are then able to go to the clothing room where they can select 1 top, one pair of jeans/slacks and clean underwear. We rely heavily on donated clothing although some volunteers have been purchasing men’s and women’s underwear.
We have two functional washers and dryers and two that are broken and awaiting repair. As noted above, the turnover is quick, and we must wash the sheets and towels and get ready for the next group of guests. Guests take care of the laundry themselves. We have noted a pattern of guests receiving a clean shirt and jeans and leaving the clothes they arrived with behind for “recycling.” They are washed, dried and returned to the clothing room for re-use. Very thoughtful. The guests are not into “acquiring” and graciously settle for what is available.
This photo depicts a pair of post detention and pre-new shoelaces. Parents are very creative in using the aluminum-like blankets for shoelaces. Most of the time the guests arrive with no laces at all. It’s fun to see them looking through the shoelace box for a pair of colorful shoelaces. The young girls and boys in particular like the bright colors. Their parents, on the other hand, choose either gray, black, or brown.
Drawings by two little girls given to me as “thank you” for crayons they were offered. Both girls were from Guatemala and have already moved on
Some children choosing the colors they will use for their “chalk-art”. Some of the children are quite good with a strong sense of dimension and perspective. Others looked befuddled when I suggested they draw a sun. By the time this posting is made, they will have moved on to their host families in the United States.
I hope this pictorial summary puts some images to the words that were shared in earlier missives. The last Posting from El Paso will be published next week.
Until then…may all roads lead to freedom, safety and new beginnings!