Volunteer stints in El Paso renew hope - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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By nature and nurture, I am an optimistic person. Lately, however, I’ve been finding myself deeply disturbed by the never-ending stream of new damaging policies affecting migrants globally, but specifically immigrants at the U.S. border with Mexico.

It is this sense of frustration that has driven me to El Paso twice this year to work with immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. People ask me why I do this, and I think it is because these personal encounters offer me hope and light at the end of this dark tunnel we’re crawling through. Perhaps if I take you along on a “volunteer shift” with me, you’ll understand why so many volunteers like myself are returning exhausted but with renewed hope.

Both my volunteer experiences in El Paso with a group from Annunciation House were rewarding, but my recent visit was more personally meaningful. I was assigned to Casa Oscar Romero (COR), one of two temporary Annunciation Houses operating in El Paso. These two houses receive 100 to 300 immigrants each day. Last March when I first went, there were 12 Annunciation Houses receiving 1,200 to 1,500 immigrants each day. This time, with fewer asylum seekers being allowed into the U.S., the numbers were smaller. The smaller numbers afforded us volunteers more time and direct contact with those arriving. COR felt like a large family home with everyone under one roof.

The numbers of immigrants presently crossing into the U.S. has declined significantly because of President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. Immigrants seeking asylum here are now routinely being held in Juárez, Mexico, before having a hearing date in the U.S.

Even though there are now fewer arrivals in El Paso, my two weeks at COR were very busy ones. After helping with intake, we got to welcome each new guest and their kids by name. I loved helping our guests feel “welcome,” at least for a few days. They shared their stories and their gratitude as they began to feel safe, eat and watch their children play, read books and learn a little English and math.

We and our guests all pitched in to keep COR clean and neat. We mopped floors, cleaned bathrooms, helped prepare and serve meals, painted walls. Some afternoons, thanks to donors, we were able to make much needed runs to Walmart, Target, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree for food and clothing. We did lots of laundry and hung everything outside to dry – very quickly in 100+ Texas temps! We spent one afternoon picking small bugs out of the bean supply, yet I never heard one complaint about these chores, all done willingly and sometimes even accompanied by singing!

One woman from Honduras was dropped off at our door early one morning by Border Patrol. Her name was Juana, and she was six months pregnant. She looked sad, tired and scared. She explained that she was attacked in Mexico and separated from her husband there. Crying, she recounted that she didn’t know where he was, or if he was still alive.

We would make daily bus and airport runs accompanying migrants who had been granted an asylum hearing but would be staying with a sponsor elsewhere in the U.S. until then, as they set out for their destination. Prior to each departure, we prepared travel bags with water, sandwiches, snacks and slips of paper reading “Please help me as I don’t speak English.” Everyone departing was quite nervous since they had never traveled before in the U.S. Most spoke only Spanish, had no money and often had to make three to four bus or plane transfers in cities along the way. Imagine taking your very first airplane flight and having to make changes in the Dallas and Atlanta airports! Volunteers accompanied each one to the station and tried to provide explanations for what to expect. It was a bittersweet experience.

One day my friend Ginny and I were asked to go to a regional bus station with Oscar and his 14-year-old son, Antonio. Not much conversation on the way as Oscar was rather shy. When we got to the bus station, however, it was filled with a fiesta atmosphere. There was Mexican music, picnic food and drinks awaiting all those departing and arriving. Then Oscar spoke of his trip from Honduras to El Paso—it took two months, and upon arrival, he and his son spent eight days in the El Paso Detention Center. He described always being hungry there, fed only on thin soup and tortillas. We wished them Godspeed as they departed for an uncle’s home in eastern Texas.

One of our last bus runs was with a lovely Honduran family who had been at COR for four days awaiting confirmation of their bus tickets. Keli is a single mother with four children. They were going to L.A. to live with Keli’s mother, whom she had not seen in 16 years. After we said goodbye, I envisioned Keli introducing her darling children (ages 12, 9, 4 and 1) to their grandma. How blessed I was to meet this lovely family and to witness such tremendous leaps of faith and trust in God every day!

One of our guests, who was seven months pregnant, began having abdominal pains, so the doc on call at COR suggested we get her to the ER. Ginny and I drove Anahi, Eduardo and their little boy to the El Paso Hospital. Between multiple tests and CT scans, we had plenty of waiting time to talk. Meanwhile, Ginny was busy taking care of the two Eduardos, entertaining them with conversation in Spanglish, walks and lots of French fries and burgers in the cafeteria. After five hours Anahi was discharged perfectly fine. It was false labor, so we celebrated with “What’s a Burger” for Anahi and by midnight called it a night to remember!

Since returning home, I keep seeing these many faces – brief encounters that have made me deeply aware of how our hearts and joy grow out of relationships with others. In volunteer and service relationships, genuine reciprocity cannot always be counted on. Still, when it does happen, as Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, such reciprocity “is a form of grace for which one must always be prepared.” 

Vicki Simon
Vicki Simon is the chair of the governance committee of Maryknoll Lay Missioners' board of directors. She served as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Kenya (Class of 1998) and at the Maryknoll Lay Missioners office in Ossining, New York. Vicki was the director of IVC St. Louis (Ignatian Volunteer Corps).