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Sharing My El Paso Experience

Posted on May 1, 2019, by Vivian Doremus CoL

Vivian Doremus, at far right, and her sister Judith Powers, holding a bag of sandwiches,
gather with volunteers and the site coordinator at Casa Oscar Romero in El Paso, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)
Vivian Doremus, at far right, and her sister Judith Powers, holding a bag of sandwiches, gather with volunteers and the site coordinator at Casa Oscar Romero in El Paso, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)

Recently I returned from volunteer work helping immigrant families at the El Paso/Juarez border. I wish to share the remarkable story unfolding there. I had been reading accounts in Interchange of the dramatic needs at Annunciation House. These stories moved me to begin sending shipments of clothing and toiletries to assist immigrants arriving after arduous journeys, crossing the border, surrendering to authorities and requesting asylum.  Slowly it dawned on me that as a Spanish-speaking social worker I might be of use in direct service to the immigrants. 

My sister, Judith Powers, readily agreed to go with me, as she, too, had been increasingly touched by the refugees’ plight. Also, El Paso has long been dear to our hearts. Our Army father was stationed at Fort Bliss for a number of years, and we both graduated from Loretto Academy. One of the immigrant shelters was located right on that campus in an unused section of the Nazareth nursing facility. We applied to Annunciation House, which welcomed us for a two-week stint. We then were offered lodging with the Loretto Community in the Trowbridge House. Mary Margaret Murphy, Liz Dienes and Beth Riehle, a volunteer living in the house, provided us with a warm welcome and great hospitality for our stay.

A volunteer points out California on a map of the United States. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)
A volunteer points out California on a map of the United States. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)

A steep learning curve

The learning curve was steep as we realized what we were involved in and what the big picture looked like. Before we arrived, we were given assignments to the newest of the hospitality centers, Casa Oscar Romero. We appreciated the felicitous symbolism of its name, and the delicious irony that it is located near the airport at the foot of Mattox Street, which houses the ICE detention center and a large Border Patrol training facility. Safe address, indeed.

The name of Annunciation House’s founder Ruben Garcia is a key building block for understanding the work. Since 1976 Garcia and volunteers have ministered to the homeless immigrant population of El Paso. As the surge of immigrants has swelled, Garcia proclaimed the mission “No refugee to the street.”

‘No Refugee to the Street’ proclaims Annunciation House’s Ruben Garcia

As ICE releases people who have been detained at the border crossings, Garcia has sought to gather them into safe shelters. Upon arrival, immigrants are welcomed; served a hot meal; and then given a bed, a shower and a change of clothing. When next seen our new friends are immaculate, maybe in second-hand clothes but clean ones, hair shampooed and combed, eyes bright, much more relaxed and beginning to believe they have been welcomed to a safe haven.  During the initial intake interview, phone contact is established with friends, relatives or sponsors with whom the immigrants will stay in the United States while their asylum cases are processed through the courts. This call provides another heartwarming experience as they speak to beloved family members, a parent, a sibling or sometimes adult children whom they have not seen for years, and they know they will soon be together, safely under one roof.

Judith Powers shops for refugees. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)
Judith Powers shops for refugees. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)

Annunciation House, other shelters provide safe refuge

Four other shelters besides Annunciation House recently were opened. The ever larger number of arrivals has forced Garcia to seek additional safe refuges in churches, even in hotels and motels. Another key concept, the work of Annunciation House is totally carried out by volunteers. As written on its website, “The work done in our houses is sustained totally by the spontaneous and free contributions of individuals, groups and faith communities. We have no permanent funding sources, and we do not accept, nor have we ever accepted, state or federal government funding.”

During the time of our March 11-23 stay, nearly 650 immigrants were released daily by ICE in El Paso. Garcia and staff would determine how best to distribute them among the sites. At Casa Romero we averaged about 65 new arrivals per day. It was hoped beds were available for assignment, newly vacated by guests who had been with us a few days and had just departed by bus or air for their “permanent” places of residence in the United States.  After the brief intake interview guests are free to make themselves at home and as comfortable as possible as they await news from family that bus or plane tickets have been bought and travel arranged. 

When that happy day arrives volunteers drive the travelers to the airport or bus station. Casa Romero supplies guests with lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two per person for each day of travel, water, juice and small snacks.  These provisions and  the staples of daily food preparation are donated. Volunteers make near daily forays for rice, beans, oil, salt, sugar for coffee, cereals, corn meal and flour and as many vegetables and chicken or inexpensive meat cuts as the shopper’s budget can afford.

A smiling Vivian Doremus enjoys selecting clothing for refugee children. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)
A smiling Vivian Doremus enjoys selecting clothing for refugee children. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)

Daily life at Casa Romero can be tranquil, cozy

Daily life at Casa Romero is tranquil and surprisingly cozy. Residents care for their own sleeping areas, groups of guests do general cleaning, while a crew is always at the washing machines, laundering the huge piles of sheets and towels produced by the approximately 120-bed household.  Guests also volunteer to do the cooking, with delicious results. Good seasoning makes a plate of rice, beans and the occasional vegetable very tasty.

There is a large outdoor play yard, and the children and young teens take good advantage of the sunny area. It is a pleasure to see apprehensive small arrivals transform quickly to normally boisterous and active children.

Volatile situation reaching critical proportions; more help needed!

As I write this report, news broadcasts and papers tell of vastly increased numbers crossing the border daily. We see a volatile situation approaching critical proportions. Garcia has been giving frequent press briefings and interviews to keep the public informed of the daily changing realities. The Washington Post especially has been giving extensive coverage to the story. The buses of new arrivals are arriving later in the evening at the sites, and more people are crowded onto them. At the present time Border Patrol, claiming its resources are stretched too thin, has been releasing immigrants directly onto the streets rather than channeling them through ICE for orderly processing. The situation is immediate, and the needs are tremendous.

The Old Lady who lived in a shoe didn’t know what to do — but I do! I turn to all of you for immediate help. First, become super-informed on the situation and pass along the real story to everyone you know.  For example, some El Pasoans became concerned that hundreds of immigrants were swelling their city daily. However, the truth is that they are merely passing through. Their greatest wish is to move on to their families who are located all over the states. It is the goal of Annunciation House to speed the guests on their way in 72 hours or sooner.

Rooms are available for volunteers at El Convento at Loretto Academy for a modest donation. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)
Rooms are available for volunteers at El Convento at Loretto Academy for a modest donation. (Photo courtesy of Vivian Doremus)

Beseech your friends and everyone you know to donate. No gift is too small or too large. If you can go in person, the gift of time and energy is priceless. Spanish speakers are worth their weight in gold, but everybody can help with logistics and supplies at the hospitality sites. If you can arrive with a car, providing transportation to bus station and airport is vital, as are daily food shopping and pharmacy runs. All volunteer applications and requests for information are processed online at [email protected].

If you are considering volunteering

If you are considering volunteering, there are several housing options. There are limited rooms available at the hospitality sites. They are simple, but clean, and the overnights are generally tranquil. Some volunteers stay with friends, others with Airbnb. There are also rooms available at El Convento at Loretto Academy for a modest donation.  Buffy Boesen handles these arrangements.

Donations of cash are welcome as are clothing and toiletries. New underwear for men, women and children is always in demand. When sending clothing, it helps to bear in mind that most of the immigrants are physically smaller than the average U.S. citizen. In general, they are not as tall and slighter in build. Checks and supplies may be sent directly to Annunciation House, 815 Myrtle Avenue, El Paso TX 79901. Or donations can be made online through PayPal  at annunciationhouse.org. All donations to Annunciation House are tax-deductible.

The immigrants are climbing mountains to reach safety and freedom, and we volunteers and donors can facilitate and lighten the climb and brighten their hope.

Vivian Doremus CoL

Vivian Doremus CoL

Vivian Doremus CoL is a social worker in private practice who resides in New York.
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