Reflections from the Border by Beth Jordan
“Perdimos a mi abuela.” Did you say you lost your grandmother? That’s what the little eight year old girl told me as she walked into the children’s playroom at Casa del Refugiado at the border in El Paso, Texas. Her family—mother, father, sister, and grandmother—had traveled for days from Michoacan, Mexico to El Paso; to escape the violence. They got to the border, asked for asylum, and were taken to a detention center in El Paso. The father was separated from mother and the girls, and the grandmother was separated from them all. When they were finally released to go to CDR the grandmother was not with them. The mother, daughter, and I huddled together praying that the seventy-one year old grandmother would be found.
Later, I heard an announcement calling for all intake volunteers to report to the intake center as another bus was arriving at our center. I told the two of them to run to see if grandma was there. Thirty minutes later all three came to find me to thank me for my prayers and concern. There she was “abuela”, the tiniest, oldest looking, indigenous woman I had ever seen. Dressed in the clothes of her village, face stained from dirt and cooking smoke, and silver teeth. There she was, the most beautiful face in the world. We wept.
It was not what I expected to see when I spent eight days volunteering at the refugee house, Casa del Refugiado, a shelter sponsored by Jesuit-run Annunciation House on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso. In that place, debate over our country’s immigration policy quickly takes a distant second place to dealing with the realities of asylum seekers and refugees. Tired of watching the nightly news of what was happening at the border, I decided to go and see for myself. I needed to put faces with the statistics of the thousands that were seeking asylum in the United States. I was there to volunteer, to do whatever was needed. Unfortunately, I am not a Spanish-speaker so my jobs did not include filling out intake forms, interviewing the guests, nor calling the families’ relatives to arrange for transportation to the sponsor’s home. My jobs included: monitoring the children’s playroom, disinfecting toys and door knobs, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the hundreds, fixing child and infant car seats, sorting donations of clothes and toiletries, buying supplies, deep cleaning everywhere, serving food, washing, drying, and folding blankets and towels, putting together hygiene kits, and driving families to the bus station or airport so they could travel to family members in other parts of the United States.
Our team of ten volunteers came from different parts of the country, but all with connections to the San Francisco Bay area. Five, including myself, represented Emmaus, an Intentional Eucharistic Community in Sonoma County, CA. Mary Waskowiak, Mercy Sister, former president of LCWR; Annette Lomont, Board president emeritus for National Catholic Reporter, and Chris Unruh, our team coordinator, were from San Francisco, and two, Adam Horowitz and Rachel Plattus are with Nuns and Nones.
Another of the nurse volunteers shared the story of meeting a man who asked if she would check his wounds. When he removed his shirt she saw five bullet holes in his torso that had been untreated. He, too, is from Michoacan, now called the “red zone of terror”. He shared his story of having driven to pick up his two children from school. As he drove home he got caught in the cross-fire between two rival drug gangs and was hit by gun fire. When he turned to check on his children he saw that his young daughter was dead. He went home, got his wife, his young son, left everything behind and headed north.
All volunteers work through Annunciation House, established in 1978, whose mission is “to accompany the migrant, homeless, and economically vulnerable peoples of the El Paso/Juarez, Mexico border." Our location assignment, Casa del Refugiado, was a former warehouse now turned into a shelter for immigrants. The expected capacity is 1500 beds. We usually had about 200-300 people, mostly families, stay with us while I was there.
As families arrived from the detention center, called “the ice box” because the temperature inside was extremely low, (their time there could be days or weeks), they were seated in a large room where intake volunteers would process them. While they waited they were given water, sandwiches, fruit, and a sweet. When they were finally called for processing they were greeted warmly by a volunteer. As the volunteer greeted the guest he or she said, “You are safe and you are free. Welcome.” The next thing the volunteer did was cut off the bracelet the asylum seeker had been given while in detention. Again, “You are free!” Obviously, this was neither the message nor the tone of what they had heard so far. Then they were given new underwear and socks, clean clothes, a toiletry bag with shampoo, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, and other personal necessities. On site there was an 18-wheel truck that had 10-12 individual showers. They were also given a towel and a blanket for their cot. We saw many children, from newborns to teens, and were able to provide diapers, wipes, formula, and some other specialty items for them.
All the guests were extremely grateful for anything— the kindness, the food, the welcome, the hugs, and the smiles. Although, upon arrival their faces were somber and often confused, after a short time we started seeing smiles and they were exuberant with gratitude. There’s an ad on TV that says, “What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas.” At the border, it is “What happens in El Paso stays in the heart.”
If these stories piqued your interest in life at the border may I suggest you consider volunteering or making a financial donation to Annunciation House in El Paso. I also recommend John Carlos Frey’s book, Sand and Blood. America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border.