Sister Marichui Bringas, CCVI, who directs the Hispanic outreach of the National Catholic Sisters Project, Vocaciones Hispanas, recently visited a refugee center on the Texas border. We asked her to share her experience there with the broader NCSP community.
One observation Sister Marichui shared that has been underreported elsewhere is the fact that many refugees at the border do not speak English or Spanish – especially those coming from Guatemala, who speak indigenous languages. This has made it more difficult to assist them during their time of crisis.
Here is her story.
On Wednesday, Nov. 21 at 4:30 a.m., I started my journey in San Antonio, Texas, to travel with another sister to El Paso, Texas. During the trip, we shared our ignorance about the reality toward which we were traveling. What united us was the desire to give a hand and be in solidarity with needy people. We were given the opportunity to serve in one of the centers located in two adjacent hotels.
Mountain Time Zone is one hour behind our time zone, so even though our trip lasted almost eight hours, we arrived a little before noon. We had time to learn about the situation at the refugee center, greet the volunteers and the migrants. The hotel employees offered lunch to the migrants. They looked happy to be serving and did so graciously.
In the first group of “new immigrants,” the center received approximately 80 people in the afternoon. The person in charge was an American woman who welcomed them warmly and with a big smile.
“This is a refugee center of the Catholic Church,” she told them. “It is not a detention center. You are free.”
She went on to tell them: “We are volunteers and we will register you in order to give you a room. You can then take a shower and rest. We have food, clothes, medicine and water. We are also going to call the people who are your contact in this country so they can send you your tickets. When you receive your tickets, we will take you to the bus terminal or to the airport. If you have any questions or need anything, we are here to help you and to be in solidarity with you.”
In response, the refugees – most of whom are from Central America – visibly relaxed. Many smiled, some cried with relief.
That same day, a baby was born to a woman from Guatemala. Life continues – there is hope in the midst of pain.
Four days passed in a similar way. We received new groups of people who arrived feeling fearful. Their faces reflected an expression of “What is next?”
Serving them and sharing food with them gave me an opportunity to listen to them, understand cultural differences and share the experiences they lived on the trip. They spoke about the months they had traveled to arrive here, how they crossed the river, the days and nights they spent in very cold places, sleeping on the floor. This caused colds, body aches, ear problems and coughs for most of them, especially for the children. Fortunately, we had medicine to give them.
The refugees were headed to different parts in the United States, but they had no money. When we took them to the bus terminal, we also gave them a bag with food for the trip. This was the beginning of another Calvary for them. Most of them had to change buses three, four or five times, and many travelled more than 24 hours to reach their destination. Airplane tickets were very expensive because it was the high season for travel. We explained the details of their trip to them, but because many of them have their own languages or dialects and do not speak Spanish, they had to work hard to understand us.
My experience of accompanying immigrants to the airport is one of gratitude to all who helped them. They allowed us to go with them and explain the procedures at the airport, but still, I felt helpless.
None of the explanations were enough to make my heart feel at peace. I understand that they are courageous people who fight for their lives and take care of their families. I imagined how they would feel when they changed planes in Houston, Dallas or other large airports with all the signs posted in English. If they at least were in Spanish, it might be easier. And I said to myself: I am only a volunteer, a child of God. I want to be God’s instrument. These are courageous people, and God is with them.
Our world is filled with injustices but also opportunities. We have advantages and disadvantages. There are generous people who help the immigrants, sharing what they have with them. There are people in solidarity with them who mend their clothes, help them make telephone calls and listen to their stories and sufferings. They speak a word of encouragement or give them medicine to help them heal.
On the last day, when I finished my service period, which had begun at 7a.m., I went out later in the afternoon to look for churches where I could post an announcement of our Vocational Discernment Retreat.
All were closed because it was Thanksgiving!
However, I found a large sign that said Venite Adoremus and entered. This was my place – a chapel of perpetual Adoration. I needed to talk with God and tell Him about the pain I felt when I saw his people suffering.
He identified himself with his people: “I assure you that everything you did for one of my sisters or brothers, even for the smallest one, you did it for Me” (Matthew 25:40). This is where my heart, my body and my soul rested. Here is where I find sense in everything I do.
Joy and hope are renewed – I am called, loved and sent forth by Christ, King of the Universe. He is in charge. Amen!