Ministry at the Border

Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur from the US East-West Province are serving at the US-Mexico border in various temporary capacities.

Following are some excerpts of their reflections on the experience.Our Sisters have most recently been walking miles every day to bring food, supplies and support to a makeshift camp in Matamoros, Mexico, where over 2,000 people live in deplorable conditions as they await access to the U.S. immigration process.

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From November 2019 in Matamoros, Mexico

Nancy O’Shea, SNDdeN

“It Takes a Village”

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in McAllen, Texas going regularly over the border into Matamoros, Mexico. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have a project in McAllen where we can be part of the team helping immigrants at the border. It was a true privilege to be there, serving our brothers and sisters, young families for the most part, who are trying to find a better life for their children. The living conditions are difficult… in small camping tents within inches of the next tent, and on cement floors. It was hot when we were there, but we know the cold and rain will be coming soon.

Of course, the faces of the immigrants told the story of the hardships they had endured and yet, the hope they have for gaining asylum in the United States. However fleeting that reality might be, they still have hope. The thought of returning to the dangers they left is too much to consider.

Another group of people also spoke to me of hope. These were the volunteers we met from all places in the United States. They came from all walks of life and with different motivations, I’m sure…but behind everything was the desire to help other humans. That in itself is inspiring.

Nancy O’Shea, SNDdeN leads a procession of carts moving from the border station to the migrant camp in Matamoros. Mexico.

There were some who live in the McAllen area and come each day to volunteer at Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center of the Rio Grande Valley, where we made 300 sandwiches each day…and packed up needed supplies to take over the border. Other locals came when they could…one was a college student studying to be a bookkeeper…coming on days when she didn’t have a class until late afternoon. Willy was there each and every day, hauling things over the border. Sherry came daily to help with the organization of the work at Catholic Charities. There were some men and women who came from South Carolina with a Methodist Church group. They were trying to educate themselves about the situation at the border: what is causing it, what needs to be done with our laws, and just wanting to lend a helping hand.

There was Bob, a retired Coast Guard officer, who comes from the middle of the US whenever he has eight or nine days in a row he can keep free. He pays for his flight, rents a car, and gets a place to stay. He is a great organizer and is able to relate easily with people. This was his fourth trip, and he promised more.

There were two Sisters from communities other than Notre Dame, in their late 70’s. Both Maryann and Pat were from the East Coast. They saved some money, rented an Airbnb apartment for two weeks, flew down to Texas and rented a car…they came each day to the Catholic Charities Center to help in whatever way they could. They connected easily with the SNDdeN’s and learned the ropes about making sandwiches and taking them and other items over the border into Matamoros. We worked side by side with them during the week we were there. They even invited us over for dinner one Saturday night..the gifts of sisterhood were alive and well!

There was a member of the group “Angry Tias and Abuelas” who came in to sit with a family who had been cleared by US Border patrol to travel to a sponsor in the United States. She oriented the frightened, but excited, young couple, to the route they would be taking on the Greyhound bus—35 hours to San Diego. She gave them a blank map of the United States and highlighted their path and named the stops they would make. Each was also given some food and necessities for their journey, and a small toy for the child. She answered questions and tried to allay their fears, coaching them as to how to get information or help at the bus stations through which they would pass.

Over in Matamoros one day, I was part of a conversation between Jackie, an older woman from North Carolina, and Anthony, a young man from Chicago. They just met while sitting there. He told of how he had a car full of coats that he tried to bring over the border but was refused because they weren’t new items. He would have needed to pay a fine to get them into Mexico. Jackie had brought money to buy some items after she had a chance to assess what was needed. Together they decided to walk to a local store on the Mexico side and purchase coats and jackets there, bring them to the Center where they could be available when the weather changes. Anthony had his credit card and muscles to carry the coats; Jackie had cash back at her hotel in Texas, so she could reimburse him later in the day. Off they went on their shopping trip, which I’m sure was successful. A few obstacles didn’t deter them from helping others.

I didn’t meet, but heard of, ‘Team Brownsville’, a group of citizens from that city who fix and serve a meal in Matamoros four or five nights a week. And there is Kelly, a woman who volunteers each day as an office manager at an ‘ad hoc’ center in the Matamoros tent camp, keeping services moving as she responds to the various needs of people who come in search of help. Her comment was: ‘As long as the immigrants are here, this is where you will find me.”

With all the pain and suffering represented in the faces of the immigrants and in the telling of their often horrendous stories, the goodness and generosity, the will and the determination of these volunteers was a testimony to a real goodness of people who want to reach out to their suffering neighbor, knowing their only reward is a smile and a ‘Gracias’. And that is truly enough!

Rita Raboin, SNDdeN

My Reflections of the Border Experience – Immigrants’ Solidarity Among Themselves, Nov.11 – Nov.22 

Sr. Rita Raboin gives a little blue hat and sweater to a young mother with a baby at the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico.

This was my second time being privileged to accompany the immigrants at the Border. However, this time the support was characterized by crossing the bridge from Brownsville, Texas to Matamoros, Mexico. New restrictions enforced through the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocol, is forcing asylum seeking families to be held in Mexico. The Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen receives a few families from to time who were able to cross into the U.S. Ellen Dabrieo, Nancy O’Shea and Gerry Stanton, for her last few days, and myself comprised our team.

Some days we would go to the Respite Center, make the sandwiches and gather needed supplies for the migrants. We would then drive an hour to the International Bridge and cross into Mexico to distribute this snack and other necessities. What was striking for me was how the Sisters had discovered responsible people as point persons to distribute particular items like tents, tarps, knitted infant sets and other much needed goods to people who, when they saw us, immediately stood to converse and find out how they could help us. We could trust them at different localities to get these items to the people who needed them. They had already developed a system to distribute these goods to those in most need.

The same trust and responsibility exists at the Resource Center [in Matamoros] where Kelly Escobar, whose grandparents were born in Mexico, would hold items and see who had newborn babies, etc. It was so gratifying to see this networking going on as the number of families is huge with hundreds and hundreds of families under pup tents. I suspect that Ellen and others on the Coordination Team have helped make these contacts or other volunteers along the way.

However this connection was born, it is an enormous help to reach the folks who have specific needs. These contact persons were courteous and understanding, generous and in solidarity with families who are in a similar situation as themselves. I was so touched by this openness of companions on the journey. This is not to romanticize a highly oppressive situation caused by our Government but to underline the rays of hope that the people are for each other in an otherwise isolating experience of interminable waiting.

The families in Matamoros and thousands of immigrants throughout the world are in so much need of prayers and dramatic policy changes to welcome them into the diverse countries throughout the world, including ours. What I saw among them in these simple instances, manifests an openness to help each other whenever that is possible. I always feel privileged to be among these families and am grateful to Notre Dame for this opportunity.

Gerry Stanton, SNDdeN

“Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts…He made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in His disguise of commonplace, fragile, ordinary humanity.” —Dorothy Day

Sisters assemble hundreds of sandwiches every day to distribute in the migrant camp.

For over thirty years I have been ministering with the Refugee and Immigrant Community. For the last two weeks I was privileged to be with the refugees in Matamoros, as well as a small number who arrived in the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.

I saw the Face of God smiling broadly as we greeted each other bringing much needed supplies of toilet paper, soap, diapers, lip balm, razors, feminine supplies, dolls, hats and gloves and YES, sandwiches and milk

I saw it in the anxious look, the worry and concern, as many waited to meet the Lawyers 4 Good Government at the Resource Center in the migrant camp. Here Ellen [Dabrieo, SNDdeN), MaryAlice [McCabe, SNDdeN], and Rita [Raboin, SNDdeN], were able to assist families in filling out the asylum forms that the Lawyers 4 Good Government will pick up and prepare for their court hearing.

There are many volunteers working to alleviate the suffering caused by the Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) which forces asylum seekers from Central America to wait in Mexico for their court hearing. The Face of God beams through these women, men and children. Their fire for justice and compassion is palpable and contagious.

I feel honored to be a part of this effort. Organizers are so grateful for our presence there. They say, “The Nuns” will be here – we can count on them.

I know that you, too, will see God’s Face in these beautiful people.

Marie Prefontaine, SNDdeN

Sr. Marie Anne Prefontaine reads with a child in Matamoros, Mexico.

“Sometimes We Need to Hear a Bit of Good News”

On Tuesday, my first day in Matamoras, Mexico, I wandered among the many tents pitched along the international plaza and came upon a sole African woman sitting on the cement sidewalk near the Federal Mexican Immigration building. I introduced myself and said hello. Her first pleading words were” I only speak English!” to which I replied, “that’s all I speak also.” She sat there waiting for her number from the officials in the Federal building. Over the course of the next few days, I heard her story.

Sham is from Uganda where her husband is in jail (not certain why). She is eight months pregnant with a child conceived by rape. She has 2 children—Trey, a rambunctious four-year-old boy and Jasmine, a darling typical two-year-old toddler with a gorgeous smile. Sham and her children traveled from Uganda to Ethiopia, to Belgium, to Argentina, and came through Mexico where they are now detained. Eventually, I discovered she has a sister in Des Moines, Iowa – her desired destination.

Ugandan family Trey, Sham, and Jasmine wait in Mexico in hope of joining Sham’s sister in Iowa.

Like so many of the asylees, she and her two children live in a small tent near the international bridge. She had a friend in a neighboring tent–although language barriers were difficult. On Wednesday, I spoke to Charlene, the recently arrived attorney from Lawyers 4 Good Government, about Sham’s story and her isolation of language and ethnicity. Charlene met with her on Thursday. Gerry watched a “crying for her Mom” Jasmine in the Resource Center waiting room. I watched Trey outside since he fought with the other children in the Center. I realized Trey’s known aggressive behavior came out of frustration. He so tried to be the “man” of the family in caring for his Mom, yet is frustrated with an inability to communicate. He spoke his local African language, a bit of English since he’s too young for school and learned some Spanish words during his 2.5 months at the camp.

On Friday, Sham told us they might leave the camp sometime next week. Some hopeful news! On Saturday, we needed to find Sham for a medical appointment. Success came quickly, but then discovered the doctor only spoke Spanish. Luckily, an English translator was found. Once again, Gerry and I were the abuelitas (the little grandmothers as the people called us) for Trey and Jasmine. Following the exam, Charlene met with all of us. She told Sham to go pack her things, wait at her tent and someone would be there in 1-2 hours to walk her over the bridge! What amazing news from Tuesday to Saturday. I was not quite certain how it all came to be. Diapers, powdered milk, clothes and socks filled the suitcase and the children’s backpacks. Mom had a winter coat (it was quite cold in Matamoras), but the children only had their sweaters. We said goodbye as they sat at their tent ready to go, like Israelites leaving Egypt hoping to enter their promised land–Des Moines, Iowa.

It was not until the following Thursday when Gerry was able to get back to the Resource Center in Matamoras that we learned they entered the United States on that Saturday and are probably in Des Moines at this writing.

Good News for one small family to start a new life after a very long journey. God is so good.

Ellen Dabrieo, SNDdeN:

Do you remember seeing immigrant families in cages wrapped in Mylar blankets? Do you remember our accounts of helping these immigrant families when they were released to the Humanitarian Center in McAllen? That was in June and July. We have not seen those pictures since then. Where have all the families gone?

In August, the Trump administration initiated a new policy to deter families from seeking asylum here in the USA. It is called the Migrant Protection Program (also called the Return to Mexico Policy). All asylum seekers coming across our southern border are being returned to border towns in Mexico to await their court hearings

We are now assisting families in the asylum camp at the base of the international bridge between Brownsville,Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. We do not know if there is an exact count of just how many families are there. The last number we heard is 1600, and more are arriving every day. They are sheltered in small pup tents donated by compassionate Americans from all over the country. This past week a cold front dropped the temperature from a daytime 80 to a night time 45. It was very cold in those pup tents.

The Matamoros city officials offered to take families to a stadium for shelter. The families did not want to go for fear that they would not be allowed to return and would not have transportation to their court hearing. This deep fear shrouds their deep hope of a new life here among us.

Wash basins and wringers are made available so that people living in the Matamoros camp can wash clothes and other laundry.

In the midst of this, we have found families striving for some sort of normalcy amidst this chaos. Their creativity knows no bounds. The city has given them some cement sinks and running water to wash their clothes. There are even a few hand turned wringers. The women hang the clothes on a fence or from branches of trees to dry.

Across a section of the camp, we saw small ovens made from clay-like mud dug up from the bed of the Rio Grande. The families have cut branches to make wood fires for cooking. We saw women crouched before these small flames preparing tortillas, rice, frying chicken. We saw one man who was making a table from bamboo-like reeds he found growing along the edge of the river. Another man found a slab of flat rock and with the help of three other compañeros hoisted it up on to four poles to make a table. We saw men and women sweeping the small area around their tent … sweeping the floor as it were! Striving for normalcy amidst chaos.

All of these families are fleeing terror, violence and hunger. A man from Honduras told us that his small vegetable farm was confiscated by one of the gangs and is now seeded with marijuana. A young Guatemalan mother told the story of fleeing because her 15 year old daughter was being threatened by a gang member who had already tried to sexually assault her. These parents are seeking a safe environment for their children, a good education, and an opportunity find work to sustain their families.

The gospel today proclaims Blessed are the poor in spirit. They are blessed because they are the ones who mourn, who are humble, hungry, merciful, promote peace and are persecuted for their pursuit of justice.

From October 2019 in McAllen, TX and Matamoros, Mexico

Ginny Scally, SNDdeN:

My experience at the Border at the end of September was very different from the experience I had in late May. In May, the Respite Center was filled daily with more and more immigrants being released from the McAllen Detention Center. It was at @ 500 when we arrived and within a week that number had increased to closer to 700. Families were in and on their way to their sponsors within 24 hours, having had time to be connected with relatives, to schedule their departures and to eat, sleep, shower, and change clothes.

The Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, TX is now virtually empty due to a policy change that prohibits migrants from entering the U.S.

Since that time, the Respite Center has moved to a much more spacious location, with a local address literally right across the street from the Greyhound Bus Terminal with travelling immigrant families in mind. Now the Respite Center stands EMPTY and waiting for all practical purposes!

President Trump has gotten the Mexican government to agree to allow the immigrants to wait in Mexico for their final screenings. It also seems that the deliberate intention of our government is to delay and delay and delay any final decision re legal entry into the U.S., hoping this hardship will encourage immigrants to return to their own countries regardless of conditions there or the “credible fear” asylum seekers have. In the meantime, there are now hundreds of women, men and children crowded in, as close to the Mexican Border Station for protection from cartels, etc. as possible. The majority of the people here have little if any money for water, food, shelter, change of clothes, etc. since most of what they carried initially was taken away from them at the time of their first interview. Having been sent back to Mexico then, they have to wait for weeks before their next hearing. It’s just plain cruel and heartless.

A tent city has grown up in Matamoros, Mexico, to shelter people waiting to access U.S. immigration servies.

On the other hand, some of the people we met were unbelievable. Volunteers and Staff at Catholic Charities Respite Center gather daily to prepare cart-fuls of snack bags with sandwiches and water, toiletries, toilet paper, small games for children and clothing. Sometimes those volunteers are families who want to help. Sometimes they’re teens who come. Sometimes they’re people from across the States who just need to DO something to say “This is not who we are!” Driving to Mexico, pulling the carts in 98 degree heat, hoping the Border guards will allow them in, distributing these simple things and talking to the people…all ways of putting their faith into action, while hoping they offer a different face of the American people.

And people respond, both immigrants and neighbors who see what is being done and so appreciate it. One afternoon on our way home, we stopped for a Dairy Queen. A young woman named Lucy with a small baby recognized our shirts. She came over to us, offering us her DQ coupons, saying thank you for what we were doing… Jose from El Salvador shared his story and asked for help to prepare for his meetings. Two young girls just wanted to be recognized and affirmed. Children gathered with us and they read the Spanish story books we brought to one another. One shared, small, cold bottle of water quenched the thirst of 3 adults and 3 small children. It reminded me of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

On Sunday the Bishop of Matamoros, Mexico offered an outdoor Mass among the people. He was short of stature but had an unending, gentle smile for each one he greeted. In the middle of the Mass, the heavens opened and it poured for about 20 minutes. While the altar itself and the Bishop and priests were under a cover, everyone else just stayed in place, being drenched, while continuing to sing and pray. Lectors, musicians, instruments, music, all the people just kept on keeping on. The sun will come out. The heat will return. Everything will dry and all will be well. And it was. The Shepherd was among his people, come rain or come shine. What an example! What an experience! What a heartbreak overall.

Kathy Gallivan, SNDdeN:

What a difference a few months makes and sadly, things are much worse. While the new respite center in McAllen is spacious, well stocked and ready to welcome new immigrants, the center is almost empty. In late May we were welcoming 500-700 men, women and children a day. This time, 14 was the higher number of people at the center during the week we were there.

The people we met are all huddled at the International Bridge in Matamoras, Mexico; one of the many crossing points from Mexico. Hundreds of them are living in pup tents or out in the open. Thankfully we were able to walk over the bridge bringing basic supplies in wagons. They are so grateful for the simplest things; water, snacks, and children’s clothes; until we were told by the Mexican border patrol that we could no longer bring clothes!

The people are waiting and waiting for a meeting date (via video) to plead for asylum. Some have dates as far out as January. They will wait at the bridge until then or return to the country they fled. The largest number of people seem to be from Honduras and many from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and now Cuba.

Amidst the utter poverty and difficult conditions, I also saw the goodness of God reflected in so many ways. There are amazing volunteers in McAllen; some of them permanent volunteers who come almost every day to help with whatever is needed. Thank you; Sr. Anne Connolly RSM, Willie, Megan, Alma, and so many more. You are an inspiration. A mother and her son came on the weekend willing to do whatever was needed. And then there was Joe from Massachusetts, a former Maryknoll priest, now married with four adult children. He was there for a week, paying his own way, just to help in any way he could.

I was also struck by the kindness of the immigrants themselves. One young man invited me under his tarp during a rain shower and another little girl picked a bouquet of flowers for one of the volunteers.

There were also little rays of hope as a young mother waited at the respite center while her newborn daughter remained in the hospital with a cardiac condition. Once he is released she will join her husband and other child in Kansas. And a family of five somehow got to the respite center and left the next day to join relatives in Florida.

I cannot end without thanking our East West team for their support of this ministry and giving so many of us the opportunity to see up close the plight of our immigrants. And, of course, a thank you to Ellen, Mary Alice, Betsy and Judy for your ongoing commitment to facilitating this project.

Betsy Flynn, SNDdeN:

As we entered the almost empty Respite Center in McAllen, Texas we were told that the huge numbers of migrants whom we welcomed to the United States were no longer being dropped off at the Center. It took awhile to figure out where the migrants were, but soon we realized that no longer permitted to enter the states, they were dropped on the other side of the border, in Matamoros, Mexico where they were forced to take up residence at the bank of the river under the International Bridge.

Volunteers distribute food to people living in the immigrant camp in Matamoros, TX.

I remembered that one of the important events in the life of Dot Stang and the Brasilian Province was when she and Bequi decided to follow the farmers in Coroata, Marahao to new land made open by the Transamazon Highway. I believe that our finding and following the migrants to the Tent City brings new challenges and new life to our ministry in McAllen.

There are more than 500 asylum seeking migrants forced to camp out by the river under the International Bridge separating Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. They choose to wait there instead of making the long difficult return to the countries they have left because of the life threatening experience. The organization of the Brownsville communities is the life support of the tent city. The people use the river for washing clothes and bathing. Groups are organized to bring 2 meals each day, water, tents, diapers, toilet paper. These items are brought over the bridge with difficulty and distributed daily. Some needed items are not permitted to be brought over, for example, clothing. The organization, faith and respect of the Brownsville citizens inspires hope. The words of our president, however, are shameful and cruel. He wrote saying he would like to stock the river with crocodiles and snakes, and shoot the migrants in the legs.

You have read the reflection of Ginny on the Bishop’s mass. I participated in the mass seated on a wall with a young woman I will call Gloria and her 10 year old son from Honduras. It was 1:30 or so in the afternoon, and she had just been dropped off by ICE and left to wander into the mass of tents to find a place for food and shelter. She started to share her story. She is from Honduras, forced to leave because of threats on her life. She was sequestered for two days. The coyotes wanted her cell phone to call her family in the states and demand $8,000 for her release. She had no phone because it had been stolen, so they left her in the wilderness.

Border Patrol picked her up, and after spending time in the holding space, she was brought to Matamoros, Mexico to await a hearing date. The Border Patrol told her son that the police in the USA would slit his throat if he got there. They had nothing, had not eaten for a day, and they were tired and discouraged. About that time Louie, another volunteer, came by. He had come with us from McAllen and I knew he would know what could be done. He listened with quiet attention as she and her son told the story again. Well, one thing for sure he said, “I will take her to get some food. They are very hungry.” She asked me to watch her small plastic bag, while they went with Louie.

I continued sitting on the wall, praying with gratitude for Louie whom I considered an angel. So then to the empty space left by Gloria and her son, comes another man, we will call Jose with his daughter and they sit for awhile. He tells me that his family traveled together, he, his wife, and two daughters. Some how they got separated, the husband with one daughter, and the wife with the other. His wife got through, but he does not know where she is, whether or not she made it to the relatives who offered to sponsor them. He has a hearing date for Oct 23. He had a tent and he showed it to me. It was right in front of where we were sitting. Six people were sharing that small tent. I asked him about the process for getting a tent. He said people buy them or get them when someone leaves. I asked him if he could help Gloria. He said his tent was already crowded but he could get material to cover the hardness of the cement and she and her son would be safe near them for the night.

About that time, Gloria and her son returned, with food to sustain them. I introduced Gloria to Jose, both from Honduras. Come to find out, she is an emergency room nurse, and he a college graduate, teaching in grammar school. They were conversing when all of a sudden the heavens opened and there was strong wind and a deluge of rain. We scrambled to get refuge from the rain. Though all were drenched, Mass continued as if nothing unusual was happening. We got separated in the crowd but I knew Jose was another angel and that Gloria was in good hands. And that we are all in the company of angels.

From September 2019 in McAllen, TX

Those of us, Pat Shanahan, Bobby English and Mary Alice McCabe who have been at the Humanitarian Respite Center during the past few weeks have been witnessing a very disturbing situation. The number of refugee/immigrant families being released from detention facilities and then sent to our shelter has notably decreased. Somedays we welcome 150, other days, 50 or less. Only about 5% of those detained by ICE are allowed into the USA and then appear at the Respite Center. Where are they sending the other 95% of the families who we know were in detention? They have been sent back to Mexico, turned out on the streets of very dangerous Mexican border cities and told to wait there if they wish to appear for an immigration court hearing in 2 months! This is one crueler, illegal decision of the Trump administration.

This new immigration policy called the Migrant Protection Protocol was implemented in mid-July all along the Texas border. In our eastern area of the Texas Border, The Rio Grande Valley, this means that 100’s of Central American families, without clothes, or money or shelter have no choice but to camp out at the base of the international bridge between Brownsville -Texas and Matamoros-Mexico.

Last Friday, Mary Alice had an opportunity to go over the bridge to see for her in what conditions these poor people are living. She went with a non-profit group of volunteers called TEAM BROWNSVILLE who bring meals twice daily to the immigrants camped on the other side. They met behind the Brownville Bus Station where 20 or more volunteers gather and organize a caravan of carts bringing food, diapers, toiletries, blankets. The march over the bridge takes about 20 minutes.

What she saw on arriving on the Mexican side was deplorable. Over 500 men, women and children outdoors, with no food, water or basic necessities. And no shade in the blazing sun registering 102 degrees. She counted 2 outdoor toilets for 500 people. She saw kids without shoes, and mothers sitting on curbs nursing their babies. About half of the families had small camp tents provided by TEAM BROWNSVILLE; others, who sleep out on the ground begged the Team to get them a tent. The only bath available to them is in the filthy Rio Grande which passes close by and is filled with chemicals from the maquiladoras (factories). Babies and clothes are also washed in this river.

When the Team arrived, two long lines of 100’s had already formed in wait for a meal. People told her that they had no choice but to wait there in the camp because they had no money to travel or find shelter, and that they feared leaving the camp to go into the streets of Matamoros, a city controlled by the violent drug cartels that rape, assault and kill. Also they hold on to the hope that in 2 months they will be granted entry into the USA. One man said: “I have no choice –either wait here as a last hope or go back to my country and be killed by the gangs.“

Sr. Mary Alice McCabe distributes diapers to families camping in Matamoros, Mexico.

Catholic Charities in McAllen is sharing donations to help Team Brownsville in responding to the needs of the families on the bridge.
For us, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the call seems to be as always – to follow the poor in the most abandoned places. So in future months we see ourselves dividing our time and efforts between the Humanitarian Respite Center and the Brownsville- Matamoros Bridge. Let’s continue praying long and hard to the Good God, that Good overcome the evil we are witnessing.

From September 2019 in Arizona

Liane del Suc, SNDdeN:

Thursdays bring an ICE busload of people who have been processed at the border in Yuma, Nogales, or Agua Prieta, AZ to a small church in Phoenix where an interfaith community of volunteers provides the sometimes first safe, respite place as arrangements are being made for bus or plane transport to their families or sponsors in the US. Each day of the week, another small church community offers support. All receive food, showers, backpacks, clothing and help for the next leg of their journey.

Approximately 30 men, women and children arrive with only the clothes on their backs, ankle bracelets to monitor their whereabouts, and the hope that they will now see their relatives. The stories of their journey are heart-wrenching and their need for simple human contact is great. Many are coming from Guerrero, Mexico where violence and fear abound. The numbers from Central America are down as they are caught in Mexico, not having asked for asylum in the first country they entered.

On the border in Nogales, Mexico, construction is underway of a new building for the Kino Border Initiative services and it should open in December. This will increase the number of people served at one time, add a clothing room and dormitories. Although there are a number of smaller shelters in Nogales, the need is tremendous for those who still have hope that they can get into the US.

The stories about the detention centers are scandalous. Some people have been without food for three days at a center. One mother was sorry her three year old had to experience that; she didn’t think that could happen in the US. Last week, a Romanian father (who speaks several languages) and his son were separated at the border from his wife and daughter. He and his son were given temporary asylum and arrived in Phoenix, but he has no idea where his wife and daughter are, somewhere in Mexico, with no English and no Spanish. His sadness was palpable as he sat alone in a corner for the afternoon.

The commitment of volunteers, week after week, restores our faith in humanity in the midst of an inhumane situation.

From August 2019 in McAllen, Texas

Jean Stanford, SNDdeN:

We would watch people walk off the Border Patrol bus, looking exhausted, having mismatched shoes on their feet, and hair in disarray because the Border Control had taken away their hair ties and shoe laces. We walked with them across the street from the bus station to the Respite Center, saying, “Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos!”

L-R: Srs. Betsy Flynn and Denise Curry, with volunteer coordinator Jose, Sr. Jean Stanford and Debbie Polhemus served in border ministry in August, 2019.

We stand on holy ground together creating community, overcoming obstacles of language and figuring out new ways to communicate, often using pantomime. I would guess and hold up an object needed and they would give “thumbs-up” if it was the wanted item. Sometimes they would hold up a foot for shoe laces. We had hair ties for those who needed them. We were able to get shoes thanks to a generous donation. I learned the universal language known to all of us is “Pampers!”

We spent time at the Respite Center and lunch at the bus terminal where we watched the huge white “no name buses” arrive from the detention centers, and the tired people descend and walk to the Respite Center where they were greeted by the staff, given a brief orientation to the Center, and handed survival bags to guard items needed for the journey. The people relaxed, smiled, and you could see peace descend on their faces. A spirit of joy and hope permeates the Center.

I think that if this experience doesn’t lead to change in consciousness and generate some kind of next step, then I think we are missing the boat.

Denise Curry, SNDdeN:

A child’s drawing of the trip to the US.

I want to hold up that there were so many good people there volunteering: elderly couples, youth groups, Methodist ministers. Yesterday there was a group called Child Fund, an international group that came to set up a child play area. They’re going to come back to clean the rugs every two weeks and replenish the toys and games. They brought building games, Uno cards, two carpets like in a kindergarten class with ABC’s, a big rug map. Leaders were young, happy, enthusiastic women and men who had a hard time putting the big toy boxes together.

[Sr. Denise had physical limitations because of recent shoulder surgery, but was tireless in her availability for the children. Her smiling presence calmed children who were coming from a long sometimes traumatic journey. She took good care of them and the children took care of Denise, bringing her water when she was thirsty. Denise conversed with the mothers, listened to their stories, and was indeed an Instrument of peace. She had an encouraging word for all: refugees, staff, volunteers. She gave strength for the journey.]

[In the video below, Sisters Betsy Flynn and Denise Curry and fellow volunteer Debbie Polhemus appear and speak briefly about their experiences.]

Betsy Flynn, SNDdeN

A brief note of gratitude to all of you who helped us to come for this experience at McAllen. You have all been with us as we lived these days getting to know the refugee reality and working together to make their time at the Respite Center a time to gather continued strength for the journey, and support for the challenges yet to come.

No sooner back from the Border, we witnessed the tragedy of El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio and the raids and mass arrests in Tennessee which bring once again to the eyes of the world, the violent experience of many who come to the United States seeking hope for the future. While shocked by the overwhelming violence of these events, may we continue to have sustained hope in the power of courageous action of the many to work for change. St. Julie inspires us to trust that “the good God gives us in the right time and place whatever we need.”

From July 2019 in McAllen, Texas

L-R, beginning with 4th person: Srs. Judy Ward, Carolyn Sanchez, Ellen Dabrieo and Margaret Lanen with partners in serving immigrants.

Judith Ward, SNDdeN:

I may have left McAllen, Texas recently however, my heart, spirit and memory are still there! When we started our journey and traveled home we were surrounded by the most appropriate scripture passages. Truly, at this time we were sent by God!

While in Texas, part of my morning prayer each day was directed by Teresa of Avila’s prayer that I/we are God’s eyes, hands, feet and heart on earth now. I prayed that I would truly and deeply SEE the people for whom I was ministering. What I saw was strained, serious faces and eyes transformed into beautiful smiles that lit up their entire faces when greeted with faltering Spanish words. As I encountered folks standing in lines, receiving toiletries or letting me view their travel plans, although we really couldn’t speak to each other we certainly communicated and related with each other. So many were pleased when I responded with enthusiasm about the place to which they were travelling.

One teenage girl had received shoes and shoe laces which she was struggling to insert into the holes. I knelt down before her and gestured that I wanted to help. She was reluctant at first (probably worrying that I was taking them away) but we got the task done. Her father used the light on his cell phone to help me find the holes. Then he took a picture of his daughter and me. It was a powerful moment for us (she had to wipe her eyes, too!).

As we who have ministered at the Respite Center have stories to tell of our experience, I can’t help but think that the Migrants also have stories to share of people who helped and cared about them.

Caroline Sanchez, SNDdeN:

Being part of the daily activity in the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center was a grace. Contributing to even such small things as preparing food for the migrants’ journeys, offering welcome and basic necessities as they entered this safe place that gives shelter, food, clothing and the means to continue on their journeys to family and friends–though keeping us very busy–was a privilege. Interacting with families at the Center or at the bus station as they prepared to leave brought home the reality of their lengthy journeys, the separations some have endured, and the courage it takes to continue.

A world of volunteers seemed to be present during our days in McAllen. Local people, parents and children, fervent church groups, students, college professors, from many states, and some from as far away as Spain.

One group I really admire is called Angry Tias and Abuelas (Aunts and Grandmothers). It is a non-profit group that serves the immigrants in several ways. They meet the ICE buses at the bus station, then escort the immigrants across the street to Catholic Charities, where they are welcomed. When groups of immigrants are ready to start their bus journeys, they sit with each family at the bus station and make sure they have their tickets, show them on a map where they are going, and escort them to the right bus. They do a wonderful service.

I am very grateful that our visioning led us in this direction at this time, in this way, in standing with people made poor as they struggle for adequate means for human life and dignity

Who would have thought that a night club in the center of McAllen, Texas could be called Holy Ground? [The Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center recently expanded to the location, which it is attempting to purchase and renovate.] In the last month it has become a welcoming place for migrants who need resources and a space to plan their next phase of the journey. It boggles my mind to see children enjoying coloring pictures at one former bar area and volunteers at computers helping people get tickets for the next leg of the journey at another former bar area.

I tried to study the little Spanish I know for weeks before going to McAllen. However, I realized that one word said it all – bienvenidos. Wearing my SND cross, I could see and feel the joy expressed in the ripple of smiles among the immigrants as they arrived from their time at the detention center. Many told stories of their walk for over a month from their countries with their children and few belongings. They have a deep faith in God’s presence with them on the journey.

One woman I met from Honduras was happy to display her new shoes. She showed me the sandals with a broken strap she was now able to throw away. Her 6 month old daughter also received a pair of pretty pink shoes.

Most of the time I spent in the kitchen making ham and cheese sandwiches. It did not have any glamour, but when I saw the people leaving the center with their bags filled with sandwiches and other goodies, I was glad that they would be fortified for the journey with the food we prepared.

One day in the kitchen with five other people we heard a young child screaming incessantly in the dining room next to us. Each of us expressed concern so Sr. Ellen took a little doll and presented it to the child who instantly stopped. Her mother was finally able to get her to eat. A little miracle occurred.

Ellen Dabrieo, SNDdeN:

I remembered Cana. I was in the sandwich room early Sunday morning. Sr Anne Connolly, coordinator of the same, came in and said Ellen, there is no cook! I responded, “And why are you telling me this?”

She then said that MaryAlice said that I was good in the kitchen. I responded that was true for up to 20 and 40 people, not 200 – 400. Anne responded just go in and see what you can find to make some soup. I will get some of the people to help. We found cut up vegetables in the fridge and a miracle in the freezer: two large pots of frozen soup and some rice. Four Dads from Honduras joined me and together we fed 200 – 400. They gathered together all the hamburger and hot dog rolls. We had many laughs, and they would not let me serve hot soup; they made me wait until the boil produced more flavor! ¡Una rica sopa!

From June 2019 in McAllen, Texas

Peggy Cummins, SNDdeN:

I can still see the long lines of women, men, children, infants from Central America lined up at the center waiting for food, clothing, a shower, medical care, help with travel arrangements, etc. There was no sign of impatience or a lack of gratitude, but what stayed with me was the lack of joy, laughter, conversation…. For me, it gave new meaning to Julie’s words, “Give them what they need for Life.”

We saw the wall near the Rio Grande or I should say walls. There are many types- long, high slats, wires and stone walls. I had a long, friendly talk with a border patrol office while he was sitting in his van. I listened to his perspective and experience at the wall and he listened to mine. I brought up the word compassion and he jumped in to say that he had compassion, too. He said that they bring the migrants to respite centers like the one where I worked. We did agree on two things- a wall will not deter the people from migrating and there is a crisis at the border.

I got involved in the kitchen and distributing food. At one point we ran out of soup, so a young man named Jesus suggested we had more broth to make it go further. Later, we resorted to huge amounts of ramen noodles that actually smelled good. Some days we have so much food because a group brings in the meal, but other days we struggle to get the available food cooked and ready to serve. Today, all of a sudden there were hundreds of mangoes delivered. What a treat. The food line never ends.

I gave out tortillas with another woman. I had the feeling that it was a communion line and we were acknowledging that they all were the Body of Christ. The woman beside me said that she was a Methodist minister and she felt the same way.

From May 2019 in McAllen, Texas

Kathy Gallivan, SNDdeN:

…The image of the hundreds and hundreds of families just released from the Detention Facility and now arriving at the Respite Center will stay with me. The Center was overflowing. …I found myself in the baby room giving out diapers and powdered formula. There were so many babies and pregnant women…

I met a man who had just arrived on the ICE bus and was standing in line to be processed. He was alone, carrying his daughter, Sophia, about 5 months old. He had somehow made his way from Romania and was just so grateful to be in the US.

Most of the families are from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, fleeing through Mexico and then crossing the Rio Grande to be picked up by the Border Patrol and brought to the Detention Facility before they arrive at the Respite Center. About 700 people come through the Respite Center daily.

An image that will stay with me is a young mother who had walked from Guatemala with her ten-week old daughter. Hopefully her husband would come later. She was so grateful for the bottle of water I gave her.

A volunteer makes sandwiches at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Press Enterprise

Much of our time was spent in the “Sandwich Room” where we made hundreds and hundreds of ham and cheese sandwiches and prepared bags with water and snacks for the trips the families would finally take, mostly by long bus rides and some by air to finally (hopefully) connect with family or friends here in the US and find a new home.

As with so many times I offer service, I come away feeling blessed and knowing that I have received so much more than I gave.

Jennifer Pierce, SNDdeN:

We met a Honduran mother, Lidia, who arrived at the Respite Center with a broken leg. The ICE-Border Patrol bus had brought her and 50 other refugees to the Center from the Detention Facility. Her leg was wrapped in a make-shift, dirty cast and she was in severe pain. She told us that she had broken her leg eight days earlier in Mexico when she was running from the feared Mexican Immigration agents and she fell in a hole. We asked her how she had managed to escape the Mexican agents with a broken leg? She said: “My son, Carlos, carried me on his back to a safe house several miles away.” We all praised and hugged her 15 year old son, a thin, timid boy sitting by her side. Then we found an old wheelchair for her, and the nurse on duty gave her ibuprofen for her pain. Later, a Respite Center volunteer brought her to a local hospital where she was fitted with a decent cast and crutches. The next day, Lidia and Carlos left us with smiles, “gracias” and renewed hope.

People released from detention pick up extra clothes and supplies at the humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas.

The pain of people’s journeys was easy to see, but their gratitude at being welcomed and given things as simple as hair elastics or a toothbrush was profound.

One day, we got word that visitors were coming to see the Center: Three Senators (not sure who), immigration officials, coast guard officers and the Auxiliary Bishop of Brownsville, TX. The Coast Guard officers stopped in the sandwich room and thanked us for what we were doing. They told us we were entitled to a free rescue!

Mary Alice McCabe, SNDdeN:

One of my jobs was to do the buying of snacks, (chips, crackers, cookies) at Sam’s Club which would be put in the bags that each family takes on their long bus trip. I was wearing my Catholic Charities Disaster Response T- shirt. As I was pushing the cart up to pay, a young woman came up to me, gave me a $100.00 bill and said: “I want to help! I have relatives who are immigrants.”

Every day in McAllen brings an experience, both meeting the refugee families and hearing their stories and meeting the volunteers who come from far and wide with hearts open and welcoming and proving the essential goodness of the American people, a goodness often over shadowed by cruelty and racism too often raising its ugly head. For me, the meaning is that the goodness and Jesus’ inclusive, compassionate message will prevail, already is prevailing!

From May 2019 in Tijuana, Mexico

Judy Flahaven, SNDdeN and Susan Olsen, SNDdeN:

We have spent time at two centers providing help to refugees:

Servicio Salisiano del Tijuana, Desayunador (Salisian Order’s Project of Tijuana – Breakfast Services). The large dining room was well organized, spotless and with many spiritual symbols to give hope to the refugees. We walked in unannounced at 7:45 a.m. and were welcomed by the person in charge. We were asked to work in the kitchen or help seat groups as they arrived.

We never thought about the numbers, but the lines continued for two hours. The seventeen tables of six were cleaned and reset with food and drinks placed for each changing group in rapid turn-around time. By the end of the period we had served 1000 persons! We were told that recently when there was a great influx of refugees they were feeding 3000.

In addition to the miraculous experience of feeding many street people and refugees we felt hopeful because the majority of the volunteers were young people in their 20’s. We were told that people come to help from many places in the world. There were two young women from France who were completing eight months of service at the Desayunador. The experience gave us a sense of what Jesus and the Apostles faced in feeding 5000. We made a plan to volunteer one more time here before we left.

Ejercito de Salvacion (Salvation Army)
This shelter provides housing for 120 men and there is another nearby shelter for women and children. They pay special attention to persons deported from the United States and refugees.

Those deported from the United States are often families who have lived there for many years. Because they have no documents they are taken from their homes by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers (ICE), and sent to the Mexican side of the border. They are often leaving homes that they own and all their community connections. The Salvation Army provides food, clothing, a safe place to sleep, medical and counseling help and time for each person to reorient his life and find work.

“Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected.”
-Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018

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  1. Our awareness is heightened each time we hear from our Notre Dame sisters. Continued prayers and supplies are being sent and hopefully getting to the asylum seekers for some sense of peace and outreach. The outrage of ‘the wall’ continues to paralyze our minds that this can possibly be! Thank you for mobilizing with deep compassion.

  2. Thank you for sharing these stories. For those of us that cannot be there it is so important to hear first hand what is going on. I very much wish I could be there handing out supplies and giving hugs and smiles. Thank you for sharing the amazon wish list. What an easy way to get supplies to the Humanitarian Respite Center. I will pass this information along. God Bless you all and our brothers and sisters you are serving.
    Joanne Thompson, AND Belmont, Ca

  3. Thank you so much, Sisters of Notre Dame and all the volunteers at the border. How can we contribute specifically to the Humanitarian Respite Center?

  4. Thank you for your physical presence along the southern border, for witnessing the suffering and responding with open hearts. Thanks too for sharing stories of what is actually happening in McAllen. I loved reading about Peggy Cummin’s conversation with a border patrol officer – I can visualize that encounter. Deep peace to all.

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