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By Sister Stephanie Spandl
(Left to Right) Sister Stephanie Spandl, Maria Sajquim de Torres, Caminar Contigo program manager, Father Carl Quebedeaux, Shelter Director, Casa San Romero Shelter, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

As winter approaches, the intense heat of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in July seems a distant memory. But the memories of the stories I heard and the people I met remain vivid and alive in my heart – a living, contemporary image of the Holy Family’s desperate flight into Egypt.

Situated in the midst of the Chihuahuan desert, these border cities are at the center of an ongoing humanitarian challenge – the desperate migration of peoples and the incapacity of our country over many years to agree on a coherent, just and humane way of receiving, processing and assisting them.

For two weeks in July, I was graced with the opportunity to volunteer with the Jesuit Refugee Services Caminar Contigo program, a new program offering legal and mental health support to migrants in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. I was excited to be able to offer my mental health skills, knowing from my many years of ministering to refugees, the trauma inflicted by these desperate journeys. I wondered what I could offer in only two weeks, and yet at the same time, I knew that much of what could be done would have to be short term due to the nature of their journeys. The program was just getting off the ground due to delays from COVID-19 and I was grateful to the director, Maria Sajquim de Torres for taking me on as a volunteer even as she was still figuring things out.

The mural on the side of a building for Casa San Romero Shelter, Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  Photo provided by Sister Stephanie Spandl.

Much of the two weeks was spent planning with Maria, thinking through our mental health and trauma training, trying to figure out what kinds of interventions could be helpful in the face of so much trauma with only two or three encounters, possibly even only one. What could we offer that they could carry with them and use to help themselves mentally and emotionally wherever their journeys might lead?

Two days each week, we traveled to shelters in Ciudad Juarez to visit with migrants who have been stuck in Mexico anywhere from several months to two years, a result of significant policy changes in processing asylum seekers at the Mexican border. They were the lucky ones, the ones who had the safety of a shelter. During these visits, I had the opportunity to interact with both a women’s and men’s group, as well as to visit informally with some of the residents.

Although we did not ask the women and men in the groups to share their stories, not wanting to open up too much trauma given the short time we had with them, they nonetheless, on their own, offered their stories as they introduced themselves in the group. In some ways, how could they not? These were the realities that were consuming them, leaving them sleepless, anxious, depressed, frightened and desperate. They put a very personal face to the stories I had heard in general terms. They came from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico. They were mothers and fathers with children, a construction worker, a teacher, a youth soccer coach, a nurse and more who told stories of loved ones murdered, of threats by gangs, drug cartels and police corrupted by bribes who cooperated with them, of extortion and government persecution, of assault and rape, of long dangerous journeys, fear, exhaustion and desperation. At the same time, they showed a resilience, strength and hope in the midst of despair; a determination to continue the journey, to protect themselves and their loved ones, especially their children.

Sister Stephanie Spandl shares a reflection of her trip to the border. This photo has four volunteers posing with masks.

In the face of such suffering, in so short a time, what could I offer? Maria and I taught a few self-calming techniques and sought to normalize their emotional distress, assuring them their emotional responses were normal in the face of such trauma. We let them know that in spite of how it seemed, that if they made it through the process to the U.S., many were waiting to welcome and assist them, such as those faithful volunteers who wait regularly at the border patrol station to meet those allowed to cross into the U.S., welcoming them and directing them to buses that take them to shelters. We listened and tried to offer a bit of hope.

Really it seemed so very little. I wondered why I had come, why God had seemed to open the doors for me in the very narrow window of weeks I had available, how everything had fallen into place in just a few weeks. I wanted so much to make a difference and yet felt so little in the face of the enormity of the situation, so inadequate in the face of so much suffering and trauma. There was no time for ongoing therapy to try to bring healing. All I had was a couple of hours, or in walking with a woman to a shelter bus, just a few minutes to encourage her. I cry again as I write this – remembering.

What came to me clearly in prayer was the image of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus – so little in the face of his crucifixion and yet so profound that the story is still told today. I was called to trust that little things matter, that gestures of kindness and compassion make a difference, that being present and witnessing their suffering matters. I was reminded of Pope Francis’ emphasis on encounter. Being seen, being heard, matters.

(Left to Right) Sisters Liz Swartz, Stephanie Spandl and Dolorette Farias attending a social gathering of religious in El Paso, Texas.

As with most things in a School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) life and mission, what little I could offer was not from me alone. The community supported my presence there and I served in the name of the community. In particular the two sisters living in El Paso, Sisters Liz Swartz and Dolorette Farias have made an amazing commitment to welcome and support other SSND coming to the border to learn and serve. Although they would play it down, it is no small commitment to welcome guests on a regular basis into your home, sharing your bathrooms, upending your daily schedule and rhythm, providing hospitality even as they actively volunteer and seek to respond to the many needs around them.

Scripture calls us to love our neighbor through concrete actions. In Isaiah 58:6-9 we hear, “Is not this the fast I choose: to lose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?...Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and God will say: Here I am!” And, in the story of separating the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25: 31-46, “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

I pray for the grace to continue to be open to ways to concretely love my neighbor and allow them to love me. I know that those personal relationships impel me to advocate for justice at a societal level. I am grateful for the witness and companionship of my sisters and all our associates and SSND friends and collaborators in this journey of love seeking justice.


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