Words Matter

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” – Yehuda Berg

Everyday human beings around the world communicate with one another using words, gestures, facial expressions, body language, art, music, etc. The words we choose as well as our tone of voice and our body language, play a part in how the other person receives the message and reacts. If we want the other person to be open to what we have to say, we must also be open to listening to them.

In our professions, we each have standard vocabulary that we use daily. These words can have a serious impact on those with whom we communicate. Because of this, it is important that we “keep up” with current terms as our understanding of people and situations change.

Let’s look at a few examples of terms that are used when referring to the topic of human trafficking. Often, when a person leaves the situation of being trafficked they are said to have been rescued. This term can aggrandize “the rescuer” and disempower “the rescued,” giving the impression that she or he was a helpless victim and had no role in exiting the situation.

The word “victim” is another misused and misunderstood term used to describe those who are or have been trafficked. In this article from JUSTUS, the author defines a victim as “a person who has been hurt or taken advantage of, a person harmed or injured as a result of a crime, or other event or action.” Alternatively, a survivor is defined as “a person who remains alive after an event in which others have died, literally or metaphorically. Survivors thrive! They are successful men and women who have overcome and accomplished things in their lives because of perseverance, determination, and forgiveness and their main focus in life is to create a new order through the businesses, nonprofits, ministries, and teaching they have established from their own painful past.” It’s no wonder many prefer to be identified as survivors.

How sensitive are we when we talk about groups or individuals?  Do we use labels such “the poor” when referring to a person who is living in poverty or “the homeless” when referring to a person who has no home? Or using “sex worker” or “prostitute” to refer to someone who is being commercially sexually exploited or prostituted? Do we use terms such as “they” or “those people” in our conversations or generalize when speaking about a certain group of people? In other words, do the words we choose build up or tear down? Do our words bring about unity and understanding or cause division and misunderstanding? Do our words promote respect and enhance the dignity of the person or people or degrade and disrespect?

In a recent public statement, Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory stated, “We must all take responsibility to reject language that ridicules, condemns, or vilifies another person because of their race, religion, gender, age, culture or ethnic background,” the archbishop said. “Such discourse has no place on the lips of those who confess Christ or who claim to be civilized members of society.  Speech that vilifies or denigrates another is a violation of the humanity of the speaker and those to whom it is director-and deprives each of us of our God-given dignity.” The Archbishop closes his remarks with the statement, “The growing plague of offense and disrespect in speech and actions must end.”

Will you do your part to bring about a more respectful and unified world in the way you speak?

Trauma and Trafficking

“Human trafficking is one of the darkest and most revolting realities in the world today, ensnaring 41 million men and women, boys and girls.” – Father David Charters, second secretary of the Vatican’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations.

Those who are trafficked are daughters and sons, mothers, brothers, fathers and sisters. Most often, they are individuals who believed they were being given an opportunity to earn money to improve their future. Once in a trafficking situation, most come to believe that their hopes have been ruined. For many survivors, health problems hinder their ability to care for themselves and their family. For those most severely abused, those violated at the youngest ages, or those most vulnerable to mental health problems, the psychological burden may prevent them from moving beyond the trafficking experience and may even make them at risk of re-trafficking or other forms of abuse.

While prostitution is not itself a mental health issue, there is emotional and psychological damage involved which can lead to extreme feelings of instability. This trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Sex trafficking can be included in this situation of distress because the victims are subjected to physical and psychological harm as a way to control them. This trauma associated with trafficking and performing sexual acts under duress can be devastating.

The mental health needs of survivors of sex trafficking are among the most complex of crime victims. They often benefit from a multidisciplinary approach to address severe trauma, medical needs, immigration and legal issues, financial problems, safety concerns, housing, family re-unification, basic needs, and necessary inculturation in order to become active members of our societies.

Across the world, an increasing number of women, men, and children embark on perilous journeys in search of safety and dignity, and risk abuse and exploitation in countries of origin, transit and destination. As recognized in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, some feel compelled to resort to smugglers, especially in the absence of regular migration pathways others become victims of human trafficking.

Human trafficking victims and immigrants often suffer from similar types of trauma: assault, coercion, threats of harm to themselves and families, severe restriction of freedom, living in an environment of unpredictability and uncontrollability, multiple victimizations often beginning in childhood, shame and stigma associated with common trafficking experiences, abuse, low socio-economic status, no work history,  no access to documentation, and chronic coercion and control. Most have experienced unspeakable horror and persecution. Though many are exceptionally resilient, they still must cope with the emotional wounds and scars these experiences have left behind.

According to statistics released last year by the International Organization for Migration “around 75% of the people that were crossing the Mediterranean Sea,  said and declared to have experienced trafficking.”  Those migrating illegally are the most at risk, most particularly young women, both before and after they reach their destination.

For anyone who is distressed by the reality of human trafficking and wants to help, the first thing to do is to become informed. This topic is not covered well in the news, making it difficult to be well informed. To get accurate information visit the many websites of organizations who are involved with human trafficking. In addition to increasing ones knowledge, help support projects and organizations who are trying to help those affected by this crime.  Work at being responsible consumers by buying Fair Trade products, so as not to reward companies that are using “slave labor” in the production of their goods.

Prayer is also very important and a helpful way to support survivors, victims, anti-trafficking activities and even the conversion of the people responsible for trafficking.

“In human trafficking we can see, ‘the wounds of humanity today.’ Human trafficking is “a new crime against humanity as it’s a new form of slavery” that prevents people from developing authentic relationships and enjoying civil rights. The factors that make individuals vulnerable are various and include poverty, political oppression, family dysfunction, war, climate changes that force people to migrate and make them far more vulnerable to trafficking.”

Update from the Border & Beyond

The problems at the border now go far beyond the family separations of last summer. Children who are separated from their families are supposed to be protected under the Flores Agreement that “requires that children be speedily moved from Department of Homeland Security custody to the care of a purportedly more suitable agency,” and to be “housed in safe and sanitary conditions.”

That is not happening. Rather, the children are being held for long periods of time, without their basic human needs being met, in deplorable conditions. Necessities such as adequate food, water, bathroom and shower facilities, basic hygiene supplies, etc. are not available. Children are sleeping on concrete floors–if they have enough room to lie down–in cage-like structures.

Additionally, there is overcrowding at these shelters due in part to a surge in migration at the border including 144,000 migrants last month, a 13-year high. At least a dozen children have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border this year, more than any year since 2014. And it’s not just the U.S. side that is experiencing issues. These days, Mexican border cities are overcrowded as migrants wait for an immigration lawyer.

“I have worked with asylum seekers for 10 years,” says one immigration lawyer. “I have never seen people as scared, who are just viscerally terrified while they’re begging me, ‘Please don’t let me get sent back.'”

How can we close our eyes and ears to the cries of these people? Last week, people of faith participated in religious events on the border–the border that has recently witnessed lots of outrage from all over the country and the world after photos of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande trying to seek asylum in the U.S. were released.

Similar problems are happening throughout the world! Last Wednesday, the world was shocked by the acts of violence caused by air attacks that struck a detention center for migrants in Libya. Pope Francis urges us not to tolerate these acts of violence. He called Christians to, “follow the spirit of the beatitudes by comforting the poor and the oppressed, especially the migrants and refugees who are rejected, exploited, and left to die. They are persons; these are not mere social or migrant issues. This is not just about migrants, in the two-fold sense that migrants are, first, human persons and that they are the symbol of all those rejected by today’s globalized society.”

Click here to find out how you can help.

Blessed: A Reflection on the Border Experience

When walking the halls of Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., I made it a point to speak or make eye contact with those I met. I would pass many people, presumably patients, who could barely navigate. When I would inquire how someone was, I often received the answer: “I’m blessed.” This is my predominant thought when I consider my time in El Paso working with the newly-arrived migrants seeking asylum.

I worked at the shelter at Pastoral Center of the Diocese of El Paso, under the umbrella of Ruben Garcia and Annunciation House which has sheltered migrations for 40 years.

The migrants I encountered during my three week stint were mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. There were adults, most often the mother or father, who were accompanying minor children ranging from infants to teenagers. I saw only a few complete families.

When asylum seekers first arrive legally through a port of entry, they are placed in detention centers until their paperwork is completed. This paperwork includes the name of a sponsor and a date to appear in Immigration Court. When they arrive at the Pastoral Center, there was a brief orientation followed by a meal as all were very hungry when they arrived. Then, they begin the intake process wherein their sponsor(s) who is responsible for their transportation, are notified of their arrival. They can then access a complete change of clothing and toiletries from a large supply of donated items. They are also given access to a shower.

Three meals and snacks are provided each day. The sleeping quarters are simple canvas cots and blankets in a large room–men are on one side and women are on the other with their children. Those requiring minor medical care are treated and those who need more care are either transported to a hospital by ambulance or driven by a volunteer. The stay at the shelter is usually between one and five days. At the end, they are driven to the airport or bus station by a volunteer.

How was I blessed by this experience? First, I received the grace to leave my comfort zone to respond to this need in a small way. I observed firsthand, adults and children who had travelled hundreds of miles, most often by foot, to pursue a better life for their families. I was gratified by the irrepressible exuberance of the children who saw a pile of toys in the corner of the first room they entered and joyfully ran to start playing. I saw in the eyes of the adults, the exhaustion that was palpable, but still with the determination to continue this difficult journey.

I was constantly amazed at the inexhaustible generosity of the people of El Paso who donate food, clothing, personal items, and time week after week. These volunteers come from parishes, volunteer organization, and surrounding cities. I even met a local St. Vincent de Paul Society who had provided some needed shelving. The volunteers from other states whom I met were mostly grey-haired sister like me from various communities of religious women.

I was blessed by the realization that I have not yet, and probably never will, endure the hardships these migrants have endured on their journeys. It is an impossible-to-ignore reminder that I need to thank God every day for the blessings showered upon me. I continue to be blessed by the memories of this experience which remind me that I have no good reason to complain about inconsequential irritations.

Written by Sister Mary Powers, D.C.

What would it be like to walk in their shoes?

I stepped into their story briefly after they had traveled a long journey from many distant places – Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, and more. They were seeking a better life, a safer place, somewhere to get work, to have enough to put food on the table, and to raise their children.

I arrived in El Paso in mid-November to volunteer for a few weeks at one of the eleven shelters in the city for those men, women, and children being released from detention camps. They had been detained for entering the United States without documents and stayed there for up to ten days, where they slept on the ground and received some food. They were released to go to one of the shelters when a sponsor, often a family member, was identified who would provide a ticket for them to travel elsewhere in the United States. These migrants received a date for an immigration appointment near their destination.

At our shelter, we received about 100 people each day. When they arrived, each adult was wearing an ankle monitor. Most had only the clothing on their backs or a small bag with a few items in it. They had the papers from the detention camp that identified them and their sponsor. We welcomed them and took their information so that we could contact the family or sponsor and get the information (date, time, destination, type of transportation) from their travel ticket.

While they were with us, we tried to care for them with some necessities. We offered them a place to sleep (usually a cot, but in some shelters, a bed), showers, personal supplies, and clothing. We provided meals three times a day–all prepared and served by the people of El Paso including families, restaurants, church groups, and others.

When we received word that a ticket had been purchased for an individual or a family, we arranged to take them to the bus station or the airport. We packed bags of food for each person for their trip. It was simple food – sandwiches, bottled water, snacks – but it had all been donated for them. Some of the families would be traveling on buses for three or four days. Most had no money and spoke no English.

On one of the trips to the bus station, another volunteer and I accompanied a man and his seven year old son. At the bus station, we helped him get his ticket. When the ticket agent asked him to sign for his tickets, he told the agent that he couldn’t write, so he signed with an “x.” We showed him where he would be getting on the bus and explained that it would take him three days for him to reach his destination. He had an itinerary with his ticket that showed where he would change buses on the second day. When we finished, he sadly told us that he couldn’t read. We looked for someone on the bus who might help him to make the change.

Airport trips were harder in many ways. One woman and her five year old daughter had tickets to get to Atlanta. She had never been on a plane before and was terrified of going through security. The border patrol and TSA had to check her papers and do a search. All she had were the sandwiches and food we had given her. They were kind to her, but had a job to do. The airline ticket agent was very helpful. She saw how afraid this woman was and realized that she would be lost getting off in Atlanta, especially because the airport is so large. She suggested that we call the family member and suggest that he get a security pass to allow him to meet her at the gate.

There are so many encounters and stories to tell. Each night, as I returned from the shelter, I held the faces and situations of those I had met before me. I marveled at the generosity and kindness of so many people who offered food, donations, and time to help these strangers in need. I thought of the families who would borrow money to buy a ticket for their family members and offer them a place in their homes. I remembered the kindness of those who had been detained to each other – sharing the little they had with one another and helping to care for the children. What would it be like to get on a plane when you had never flown before? Especially with no money and a few sandwiches and did not speak the language? When you didn’t really even know where you are going or how the process worked?

I am grateful I had the opportunity to talk to and accompany these people. In the time I was there, during Thanksgiving, I was helped in so many ways to be grateful for the blessings in my own life and to be more aware of others in need.

I caught a very small glimpse of what it would be like to walk in their shoes.

Written by Sister Joanne Dress, D.C.

SOA Watch & The Border Encuentro

As I write this, the Central American Migrant Exodus for Life–which includes over 13,000 asylum seekers–is fleeing political violence. In response, the United States government is deploying 15,000 soldiers to the US/Mexico border.

In 1990, School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch)–an advocacy organization founded by Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois and a small group of supporters–protested the training of Latin American military officers by the Department of Defense at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Now, SOA Watch is tirelessly advocating for justice for oppressed persons across the Americas. They organize opposition to its training in torture, oppose the militarization at the US border, and support policies to assist refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants to the United States.

For the third year, SOA Watch hosted a Border Encuentro on the Arizona-Mexico border on November 16-18, beginning with a vigil at a Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona. The participants marched to the beat of the May Day marching band, sang “No estan solos,” meaning, “You are not alone,” and could see the shadows of the detainees from afar in the windows of the buildings.

As the weekend progressed, other gatherings and workshops were held at the US/Mexico border in both cities named Nogales. This location was symbolic of the fact that no wall or border can deter the solidarity of people.

The meetings focused on the following principles:

  • An end to US economic, military, and political intervention in Latin America.
  • The closure of the School of Americas and Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
  • An end to Plan Merida and the Alliance for Prosperity.**
  • Demilitarization and divestment of borders.
  • An end to the racist systems of oppression that criminalize and kill migrants, refugees, and communities of color.
  • Respect, dignity, justice, and the right to self-determination of communities.

The SOA Watch Border Encuentro gave me a sense of hope and renewed energy to resist the structures of oppression and injustice that threaten communities. It reminded me that the only power that will bring liberation is people’s power, people’s resilience, and people’s faith.

** Plan Merida and the Alliance for Prosperity are both US policies that seek to further militarize Mexico and the northern region of Central America. The alleged goal is to confront the so-called drug war and contain mass displacement from the region. Rather, these policies have led to human rights violations.

Do Not Oppress a Foreigner

“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners because you were foreigners in Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9).

“Migrants seeking a better life in other countries must not be viewed with suspicion but rather defended and protected, no matter their status,” Pope Francis.

“Freedom of mobility is a human right. Migrants have their rights; they do not lose them when cross a border,” (Article 13 Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

These past few weeks, we have been overwhelmed by the media showing us multiple disturbing pictures of families divided, parents deported, children left behind, immigrant toddlers ordered to appear in court alone, fathers heartbroken and mothers in tears. In the midst of those images we cannot ignore the psychological trauma endured by these families fleeing violence in their countries and enduring the arduous journey with smugglers and criminals preying on them as these families to try to survive together.

Last year, a Syrian-American medical organization announced that the severity of PTSD suffered by migrant Syrian children surpassed the clinical definition and should be renamed “human devastation syndrome.” Children crossing our borders and separated from their families may also be suffering this type of PTSD.

An annual report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released this past week estimates that there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. This includes individuals who are fleeing violence, persecution, conflict, and now climate change. The global number of refugees grew by a record 2.9 million in 2017.

However, we cannot ignore that those who cross borders bring both challenges and opportunities for their new host countries.

“The cliché that international migration is associated with economic ‘burden’ can be dispelled,” wrote the scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Clermont-Auvergne and Paris-Nanterre University. The research analyzed data from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The research found that asylum seekers contributed most to a country’s gross domestic product after three to seven years in the country. They also lowered unemployment rates and had a near-zero impact on public finances.

Refugees’ Impact on the US

“The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, A Return to First Principles: How Refugees Help to Define, Strengthen, and Revitalize the United States” was released June 20, 2018, the 18th anniversary of World Refugee Day.

The report looked at the 1.1 million refugees who arrived in the U.S. between 1987 and 2016 via the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Most of the refugees considered in the report moved quickly to self-sufficiency through gainful employment, English proficiency, and the attainment of college degrees and/or vocational training. The report stated that USRAP “has saved countless lives, put millions of impoverished persons on a path to work, self-sufficiency, and integration, and advanced U.S. standing in the world.”

It described some of their achievements and contributions, including:

  • 68 percent participate in the labor force (compared to 63 percent of the overall U.S. population);
  • 67 percent have naturalized;
  • 40 percent are married to U.S. citizens;
  • 10 percent are self-employed and have created jobs;
  • They achieved a median household income of $43,000.

The report was conceived and commissioned by Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Migration and Refugee Services. It was released at a symposium hosted by the Georgetown University Human Rights Institute in Washington, D.C. To read the full report, click here.

Hostility Fuels the Migrant Crisis in the US

Anti-migrant attitudes have little to do with migrants themselves. The crisis is rooted in the factors of: trust, social disengagement, and political disaffection. To solve any crisis, a good place to start is to consider the factors in the crisis and experience those factors to come to understanding of the others’ reality. An excellent example of trying to understand and diffuse hostility occurred last week in the Catholic community of St. Ignatius, a Jesuit Parish in Baltimore, that organized a refugee camp simulation.

Speechless. Devastated. Moved. These were some of the feelings parishioners expressed after leaving Camp Peace, the Refugee Camp Simulation hosted by the Immigration Subcommittee on June 24. About 60 individuals and families participated. It included stations of the various aspects of life in a refugee camp: entry process, shelter, water, food, health services, and education. There was also a Detention Center Station, to which parishioners were diverted with little explanation which many refugees experience when they arrive in a new country and on a detention camp.

22.5 Million Refugees Live in Refugee Camps Around the World

Over 65 million people in the world are currently displaced, and 22.5 million of these are refugees in other countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While some are relocated to new countries such as the United States, many must wait in various countries for long periods of time, expanding over decades and sometimes years, as I myself saw in Lebanon and Jordan.

Instead of the recommended 37 sq. ft. of space per person when camps become crowed, families of 4 sometimes live in spaces as cramped as 80 sq. ft. total. This means that they generally sleep sitting up, as there is not enough space for all family members to lie down on the blankets that are provided. Most camps are unable to provide the necessary 20 liters (5 gallons) of water per individual per day and refugees must carry this water themselves from the source to their dwellings in large buckets. These 5 gallons are used for consumption, cooking, cleaning and hygiene. By comparison, the average American uses approximately 300 gallons of water per day.

The migration of peoples is a reality that continues to grow and the challenges of migration are increasing. In order to respond to this globalization and to the magnitude of this phenomenon, it is essential to plan  responses that promote and show respect, charity, hospitality and generosity towards the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.

We must do more for migrants

“We are encouraged by the national outcry railing against the cruel splintering of families at the border. The president recently ended the practice, but there is no system or even governmental will to reunite these traumatized families. Furthermore, the dehumanization of people who are seeking safety continues. Our country has a long history of vicious disregard for family bonds–let us not be seduced by a ‘lesser evil,’ a ‘solution’ that is better than what was happening but that remains immoral. Let us demand more; we have an opportunity to move from a callous history of colonialism and individualism to a new vision of whom we can be as a country. Making room for, and welcoming with grace, those who need a safe place may impact our comfortable spaces, but it is what we must do, what we are called to do, not just as Christians, but simply as human beings,” (“Philadelphia Inquirer editor” – Sunday  July 1, 2018).

We can DO more day by day

  • Be choosing 2 or 3 credible sources to follow regularly to deepen your understanding of the changing realities of migrants and refugees;
  • By raising awareness of refugee and migrant realities both in the US and the world and sharing those through your use of social media;
  • By calling legislators’ offices and voicing your support for policies that change the situation of migrants and refugees in a positive way;
  • By taking action to defend the rights of refugees when we see those rights violated e.g. separating families;
  • By using a model like the Jesuit Catholic community in Baltimore to educate persons into the realities of migrants and refugees;

By joining in prayer as we contemplate the call of Jesus today to welcome the foreigner, “for just as you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for Me,” (Matthew 25: 40).