Sisters and lay people have been asked to volunteer in El Paso, Texas, to help immigrants transition into the United States. This photo shows volunteers Patricie, Sister Jean Ellman and Sister Leah Couvillon.

Last October, the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, Texas, asked for volunteers to help with the intake of immigrants. The School Sisters of Notre Dame answered this call. For over a year, sisters have been going to El Paso to help in any way they can. From cleaning to cooking, organizing, shopping or making phone calls, they are happy to help. Not many of the sisters speak the two common languages - Spanish or Portuguese - that are heard in the centers, yet they continue to volunteer and have a positive impact. Read three reflections of sisters who have volunteered.

 

A journey of the heart

By Sister Carol Jean Dust

Nineteen-day-old Suledy rested in the arms of her mother, Teresa, who sat in front of me ready to share her story. Sixteen-year-old Angélica sat beside her mother and tiny sister, with a listless gaze, wondering what was going to happen next. Though she gently mustered a smile at my welcome, that smile held a volume of incredible life experiences already, of feelings and questions. Over the next hour, Teresa, Angélica and Suledy’s story began to emerge slowly and pull at my heart.

Teresa was about seven months pregnant when she started the journey from the Olancho area of Honduras along with Angélica, for whose life she feared, given the violence and gang activity in that area of her homeland. Teresa’s husband had left her when she became pregnant with their fifth child. Teresa could not find safe work to provide for her children. The journey north provided hope for her, where she wants to find work and safety for Angélica, and gradually, be able to provide for her other children she left behind with her parents in Olancho. Teresa knew the journey would not be easy, being the seventh month of her pregnancy and using up the little money she had scraped up to make the journey itself. However, she could not find a better solution, and so she began to travel.

It was a day’s journey just to the Guatemalan border, then through Guatemala on foot and in buses, and then into Mexico. Arriving midway through Mexico, two months after having begun her journey, Teresa gave birth to a daughter in a small Mexican village with the help of a midwife, and she named her Suledy. Now, they would be a family of three traveling. They waited under the hospitality of the village folks for about 12 days, until newborn Suledy could withstand the treacherous journey that still lay before them to the border of the United States. Now, sitting before me, Suledy had a little respiratory congestion and Teresa herself lacked sufficient breast milk because of her own malnutrition from the journey. Yet, she could not be more grateful to be in El Paso, Texas, receiving a nurse’s care for Suledy, nutrition and a bed for Angélica and herself, and knowing she was among caring and compassionate friends. Three loving hearts touched mine, an experience that happened repeatedly at Casa de Refugiados.

The experience in El Paso, Texas, was indeed a journey of the heart for me, which began with the heartfelt contributions of sisters and friends before leaving St. Louis, the heartfelt joy of sisters sewing cloth bags for the refugees, and the heartfelt prayer of so many to accompany us daily. That journey of the heart was indeed a journey of courage, the very word whose origin in Anglo-French and Latin stems from the word for “heart.” I could lay the template of courage over the stories of so many of the refugees. There were refugees like Teresa exhibiting incredible courage in leaving behind so much to seek safety, family survival, opportunity to live and grow peacefully, all the while knowing they were entering the unknown, strangers in a foreign land and a foreign tongue. What truly courageous hearts they had! There were also volunteers with courageous hearts from around the country, staffing the hospitality centers while leaving job opportunities behind in order to serve without pay and care for those fleeing violence and danger. Other El Pasoans at the bus terminal and airport attended graciously and courageously – yes, from their hearts – the immediate needs of the refugees who were ready to travel to sponsors.

During my two weeks in El Pasothe Parable of the Good Samaritan was used twice at the liturgy of the Eucharist – once for the Sunday Gospel and once for the Gospel on a weekday. It was no coincidence to me, but it was rather a subtle emphasis from God to my heart: “This story is being fulfilled here – listen to it!” Yes, I was witnessing this parable in real life! I was brought to see that the four particular moments of the parable calls for four actions. And in my own journey of the heart in El Paso there could be no more poignant message than the message of those four actions of the Samaritan, no greater evidence of those actions than in what I witnessed among the refugees and volunteers all around me:

  • Show compassion.
  • Be courageous.
  • Be generous.
  • Call others.

May my heart keep journeying in compassion, courage, generosity, calling others, and may it never forget.

 

I’ll never be the same again

By Sister Audrey Lindenfelser

What did I learn from the asylum seekers and refugees that arrived at Casa del Refugiado in El Paso, Texas? In August, I had one of those, ‘I’ll never be the same again’ experiences. I volunteered with three other School Sisters of Notre Dame at Casa del Refugiado (House of the Refugee) in El Paso. The scripture for the first day we volunteered was from Deuteronomy 4:35. It reminded me of why I was there: “All this you were allowed to see that you might know God.” Since returning from Casa del Refugiado, my longing and challenge is to put the experience into action.

Sisters and lay people have been asked to volunteer in El Paso, Texas, to help immigrants transition into the United States. Sister Antoinette Nauman and volunteer Karina are showing off the bags sewn by St. Louis sisters and donated to the center.

The shelter is a 125,000 square-foot former warehouse, originally planned to receive up to 1,500 refugees; that number has greatly reduced over the past few years.

While we were there, approximately 140 new asylum seekers and refugees arrived daily at various times throughout the day and early evening after being processed and released by the United States immigration authorities at the border. Even though we never knew for sure when our new guests would arrive, the volunteers and staff were ready to greet them with welcoming smiles and gentle dignity. After weeks and months of struggle to get through the border, the guests felt free and safe at last.

After the guests arrived, through the intake, the volunteers learned more about their upcoming journey and future destinations. Volunteers helped them call their relatives or sponsor, to buy them a bus, train, or airline ticket to the place where they would live while awaiting their immigration hearings. The goal was that within one - three days our guests would be ready to leave for their destination.

After the intake, each person received one clean change of clothes so they could take a shower. Since the shelter had no indoor bathroom facilities, restrooms and showers were located outside. Generally, each family received one towel to share and each guest received basic toiletries and a blanket to help make sleeping on a cot more comfortable.

Through a mobile kitchen, the Salvation Army prepared, delivered and served our guests meals. If guests arrived in the evening, they were served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a bottle of water to tide them over.

A children’s playroom was open for several hours each day and evening, where children could color, draw, read, play with donated toys, make friends and feel happy.

What touched my heart during my days at Casa del Refugiado? I was in awe of the many dedicated volunteers, especially young adults who gave a year, three months, a month or two weeks of their time. The shelter needed at least 15 volunteers a day who were willing to do mundane and unpleasant tasks in the hot building, such as cleaning showers, garbage removal, sorting boxes of donated clothes and toiletries, sweeping, making sandwiches, etc. Besides youth, the volunteers also included retirees and religious from all over the United States, including local El Pasoans.

As I looked into the tired eyes of our guests, I was reminded that these are ordinary families, similar to my own siblings, nieces and nephews, simply wanting a better life for their children.

Guests overflowed with heartfelt gratitude; not only for food, clean clothes, the play area, assistance with contacting their sponsor, but for safety, freedom, hope and our caring presence.

I saw how happy and resilient the children were, able to play with any little toy, even broken ones. It was impressive to witness the long-term commitment of the Salvation Army in preparing all the meals offsite, while serving them onsite. I can still see the sparkling eyes of babies and toddlers. I hear their giggles as we did plays at their table in the dining hall.

Deep sadness welled up within me as I saw pregnant mothers with small children needing to wear ankle monitors required of them at the border. Despite this, these ordinary moms continued to seek safety for themselves and their children.

Even though I do not speak Spanish, I tried to let my smiles and kindness reflect my care and respect. Hugs I received from children and their gifts of artwork, were sure signs that smiles and kindness are a universal language.

I felt the welcoming spirit of El Pasoans, even while grocery shopping; folks openly greeting, smiling and asking if we needed any help.

Yes, the words of Deuteronomy 4:35 reminded me of why I had the opportunity to be touched by our refugee brothers and sisters, “All this you were allowed to see that you might know God.”

Sirach 4:1-6 “Do not mock the life of the poor; do not keep needy eyes waiting… A beggar’s request do not reject; do not turn your face away from the poor. From the needy do not turn your eyes.”

 

I am honored to be one of the hundreds to volunteer

By Sister Elizabeth Anne Swartz

Last October, the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, put out a call for volunteers for the new hospitality site opening at the Pastoral Center and I volunteered thinking that I could at least serve meals. Because it did not require I speak Spanish. On the second day, I was asked by the site coordinator to help with intake. I told her that I did not know Spanish. Her reply was, “Amber did not either and she does it.” Therefore, I had my community member who is fluent in Spanish help me with a cheat sheet of family members, etc. to get by while filling out the form. I began doing intake and met many different people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador; later the Brazilians came speaking Portuguese, so I expanded my cheat sheet and relied on Google Translate to do the questions.

I saw all the people moving through our center to places all over the country, mainly to places that have been associated with meatpacking, farm labor, and dairy farming. These people are fathers and mothers with young children, some barely literate, some more educated, but all wanting to escape the violence and political situations in their home country. They traveled great distances walking, hitching a ride, jumping on trains, traveling for weeks, looking for a safe place for their children and themselves.

I have gone to the center almost every day, since the end of October. I go to show the immigrants someone cares about them and respects their dignity as a person. I am honored to be one of the hundreds who have shown them kindness, compassion, helped them be united with family and friends, showed them to a hot shower, clothes and (winter) coats, fed them, given them food for the journey and helped them navigate bus stations and airports. I always look forward to my next volunteer opportunity.

Learn more about the SSND Corporate Stance on Immigration Reform.

 
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