Personal Reflections on a Week of Service in El Paso
I spent a week in El Paso helping with the humanitarian crisis of Central American refugees being released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention. Living in Hawaii, I felt quite removed from the border crisis, and I wanted to know first-hand what was really happening and perhaps why so many people are risking everything to make this dangerous journey. I wanted to witness this crisis and to share with others my experience. As a Loretto co-member, I was able to do so through the generosity of Buffy Boesen.
Why would poor people risk such a dangerous journey with their children? What did they hope for in the United States? Annunciation House terms the people crossing the border “refugees,” so I’ll use that term also. The refugees I encountered chose to journey to the United States primarily for economic reasons, although at least one came with clear asylum credentials, having had one son killed, another in hospital, the victims of drug-gang violence. Most were fleeing severe poverty and the lack of paid work opportunities sufficient to support their families.
Refugees: Hoping for a better life
While I am not bilingual, I learned through other volunteers these refugees’ stories. Most were from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, poor countries with high concentrations of poverty, gang violence and faltering economies. Several I spoke with had crossed the border before and had been deported but somehow found resources to try again. All had the hope of a better life, and all had family already living in the United States. As a second-generation granddaughter of an Irish immigrant who came for the same reasons, I felt a connection to these people.
Perseverance, acceptance, patience
I wanted to understand the processes used to move so many people in such a short time. Three words guided my week: perseverance, acceptance and patience, with myself, and with others. The work was intense and exhausting — seven full eight-to-10-hour days, little time to eat, challenges with staying hydrated, the never-ending need for basic supplies, taking families to their rooms, filling water coolers, serving food — a routine repeated all day every day. The gratitude of the refugees encouraged me. Finding ways to care for myself were important. Morning coffee and breakfast, journaling, daily prayer, basic exercise and a good lunch helped prepare me for the 2–10 p.m. workday, while conversations with other volunteers over Baskin Robbins ice cream at night helped put things into perspective. I left with the realization that the intense week was but a drop in the ocean of the total picture. There was no end to the flow of people, no way to meet all the needs, no way to count “success.” It was just plain hard work.
An intense, profound experience
When I returned to Honolulu, I felt I’d abandoned other volunteers left to cope with the never-ending numbers of sick, traumatized people passing through the doors of that one location. I, as had others, contracted a deep chest cold from the foul air in the enclosed environment of the hotel hallway, shared with refugees as well. I have enormous admiration for the site coordinator, one person managing an entire operation because of his own belief in the importance of the work. I felt deep respect for the volunteers, Catholics and non-Catholics, nuns and lay people, who came to serve and to interact with the refugees. No gold stars for any of us. While it’s taken time to decompress from the intensity and profoundness of the experience, I know it will stay with me for a very long time!