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.

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.

How Does Talitha Kum Fight Trafficking?

These past weeks have been a living reminder that human trafficking exists both near and far. The many meetings and presentations I attended and/or gave show me that, when people are aware of the realities of human trafficking, they begin to feel an energy and the willingness to act. Each person is affected differently and, therefore, the response from each person is unique. Hopefully, as people learn about this terrible reality, they will act in creative ways to combat the issue. I have yet to find an individual or group not willing to do something about this scourge when they understand the reality.

Cleveland

One of the meetings I attended recently was the USCSAHT international “Borders are not Barriers” in Cleveland. Here, I met many sisters I know from Central Mexico and South America. Among them was Sister Gabrielle Botani, CMS, Coordinator of Talitha Kum at the Vatican. Talitha Kum, a project of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) and the Union of Superiors General (USG), is an international network of members living a consecrated life who word against trafficking of persons. Working as a network facilitates collaboration and the exchange of information between 76 different countries.

Being together reiterates to me the fact that human trafficking is alive everywhere and certainly on this continent. As we hear about migrants journeying from Central America, we know how vulnerable they are in this unstable situation.

“People trafficking is a gross human rights violation which is often linked with mixed migration movements, but there has been little early identification and help for victims or those at risk,” said Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons.

Click here to read more about the Talitha Kum conference.

Flippin’ (Pancakes) for a Cause

The Daughters of Charity at St. Louise House in Albany, NY have been raising funds to assist building a safe house for trafficked women in the area. The first event fundraiser was a pancake breakfast and 50/50 drawing.

This collaborative project began as the sisters listened to the personal dream of their invited speaker, Debbie Fowler. Debbie spoke of her years in Kuwait where her husband was on a work assignment. It was in that desert country that she learned of maids who had been lured there from their native countries. They had gone to obtain employment but quickly had their papers taken away, finding themselves working for little or no pay and being beaten and sexually assaulted. After volunteering in a shelter for these women, Debbie returned to New York and, upon further research, learned of the great number of women being trafficked just in the United States. That is when she decided to take action.

Debbie was brought to us to speak after meeting Linda Rivard, activities coordinator for the Albany campus of Daughters of Charity, during their time as volunteers at Her Treasure Box, a creative arts thrift store. The thrift store provides “creative arts with a purpose–to provide hope and healing” for women survivors of human trafficking.

I follow the anti-trafficking effort via our local Coalition to End Human Trafficking, which is made up mostly of faith-based and religious here in the Albany area. We are in support of both Her Treasure Box and Eyes Wide Open, another local start up. We are beginning to partner with the Homeland Security arm, The Blue Campaign, and other state agencies for the purpose of education via leafletting at public events and other options yet to be developed.

Written by Sister Faith Colligan, D.C.

Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2018

Recently, I attended the Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2018 which focused on the uprootedness of our world and the needs of our brothers and sisters who are migrants, refugees, or displaced people.

As people of faith, we can do more. We believe God is with Dreamers, the migrants, and the outcasts. We believe He calls us to create places of sanctuary to offer hospitality to the stranger and to welcome all, regardless of their faith, race, gender, or nationality. We believe he calls us to break down the dividing walls that separate us.

During these days, the emphasis was placed on analyzing current policy and envisioning ways to more fully and justly respond to the global and local needs of displaced communities. Through prayer, worship, advocacy training, and networking, we prepared and analyzed policy changes that advance hope and overcome the devastating impacts of conflict, climate change, and corruption of God’s people. We learned, through worship and theological reflection, how to strengthen our Christian voice and mobilize for advocacy on a wide array of domestic and international policy issues.

The interactive plenary sessions and workshops addressed specific issues on a global scale, including focuses on Africa, Asia-Pacific, Domestic US, Eco-Justice, Global Economic Justice, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Peace and Global Security. The conference includes a Lobby Day conversation with members of Congress and the Senate, during which we were placed in advocate groups based on geographic location. The legislative act around which this conversation was held was carefully prepared by policy experts to help us to articulate solid policy rooted in our common Christian social justice traditions.

We Make Noise…

Due to its geographic location, Venezuela is a major country for transportation of victims. However, due to the current economic crisis, it is extremely hard to capture traffickers. “When we investigate, we find that, in Venezuela, trafficking in persons is invisible like anything else that questions the prestige and effectiveness of public power. However, it is as real as any other crime of which they speak little. In fact, the country has been under international gaze and questioning since it does not openly declare the criminal cases that are investigated and processed in the country against this scourge.”

In front of this reality, the Daughters of Charity of the Province “La Milagrosa Bogota Venezuela” have begun a campaign against this evil and its invisibility. Currently in its second year of offering options for information and prevention, the campaign is called “Let’s Make Noise, Let’s Talk About Trafficking.”

During the first year of this campaign, the goal was to reach more than 3,000 individuals, informing them of the evil that is human trafficking. With support and participation from each sister and members of the Congregation of the Mission, the goal was met! This had never previously been done! They were able to develop a method to measure the decibels of noise created by their campaign.

Today, we can say that there are more places for dialogue on the topic of human trafficking. People have listened, many have made comparisons. Real cases have been shared along with significant experiences. It has been discussed with the most vulnerable people, informing them of the cases and immediate consequences.

Now, entering the second year of the campaign, the new goal is the reach the border states, including Merida, Tachira, and Maracaibo. These places are known to be home to a vulnerable population.

“The work is still incipient but we are firmly convinced that we are doing what we have to do. The more you talk about the problem, the more people can name and understand the methods and recruitment strategies. In the end,  hopefully there will be fewer victims and life will be given and given in abundance.”

 

Example of Trafficking Education Workshops

My goal for the Office of Migration and Modern Slavery is to educate the public about the issues surrounding human trafficking and migrants. Recently, I received a reflection written by Sister Teresa Daly, D.C., informing me of action items that she and others have implemented to learn more on human trafficking. Her example follows.

“We thank God everyday for the wonderful ISP (Ignatian Spirituality Project) team we have here in New Orleans. Together, we facilitate retreats for the women from the Grace House and other entities that provide recovery programs for women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.

“For some of us, the topic of modern slavery has been on our minds and hearts for awhile.

“Our ISP team decided to sponsor a workshop on anti-trafficking and invited individuals who have also expressed an interest in this topic as well as a very knowledgeable speaker to address the group. Debbie Shjnskie, Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Respect Life, is helping us to focus a bit on this area. Our desire was to learn more and to deal with some questions such as: How do we know to suspect that someone might be being trafficked? What can we do if this is the case?

“All of us in attendance left this experience more aware and somewhat overwhelmed by the reality that trafficking is in our own society. We thought we need to learn more. This was the start of the idea to hold a day-long seminary on human trafficking that will take place in New Orleans on March 3. Our goal is to raise our own consciousness and awareness of this reality in order to do so for others too.

“As we continue with the ISP retreat program, we continue with hearts aware of this suffering in the lives of many and of our desire to include the victims and perpetrators in prayer.”

It encourages me to see others being proactive and learning more about these important issues. Please feel free to share with me what you have done or plan to do!