Seeing the need, filling the need

Assisting refugees from Central America fleeing drug violence

assembling-backpacks“My heart almost broke when I saw the children’s faces,” shared a volunteer. “They were between 2 and 10 years old. Their mothers had a distant look in their eyes, confused, and apprehensive … There is no time to ask why; our main concern was to provide assistance.”

After years of escalating violence perpetrated by gangs in Central America, in 2012 the U.S. Border Patrol began to see a significant increase in immigrants coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Then in 2014, the floodgates opened as more than 39,000 families and almost 49,000 unaccompanied children fled into the U.S. After governmental efforts in both the U.S. and in the Central American countries resulted in an almost 50% drop in 2015, in 2016 the numbers have soared again.

Behind all of the statistics are the lives of real people: young mothers with children, and children without their parents, fleeing their violent neighborhoods.

Responding to the call of Pope Francis to go to the “peripheries” and a simultaneous encouragement from Focolare President Maria Voce, the Focolare community in San Antonio, Texas, decided to join in the efforts to help these families who were literally in their “backyard.”

In 2014, the U.S. government established two centers (near San Antonio, in Dilley and Karnes City) to detain the families and unaccompanied children as they crossed the border into the U.S. The families and minors are held for up to 21 days as they undergo a “credible fear” interview by immigration agents. If they can demonstrate that they have a credible fear for their well-being if they return to their country, they can be temporarily released to a sponsor somewhere in the U.S.

At the invitation of Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, the Focolare community decided to volunteer with Catholic Charities, who had joined a coalition of churches, religious and social awareness groups called the Interfaith Welcome Coalition. About 20 members of the local Focolare community participated in training.

Those families who pass the “credible fear” test are released (the mothers with an ankle monitor) to travel to stay with their sponsors. They also have an appointment to appear in court at a future date at their destination. The families spend one night in an overnight facility run by the coalition and then are taken to either the bus station or the airport the following day. They are given a backpack with personal items and snacks to help them along the way.

We began working to support the families: packing hundreds of backpacks; collecting items from local donations, as well as from the Focolare community in Dallas; helping out at a half-way house; assisting families at the bus station or at the airport.

All those who participated have learned many lessons from this experience; above all, the realization that these refugees are people who only want health and safety for themselves and their children. They have just completed a harrowing, exhausting and often dangerous journey across Mexico. Many of them have become leery of people. Our first hurdle is to gain their confidence so that they will allow us to help them.

One of our people shared, “I work hard to win their confidence. For all they know, I could be from immigration. Sometimes they look at me with fear in their eyes. I assure them that all I want to do is to help them in any way I can … I ask them if they need sweaters or food, and soon they begin to trust me. I tell them a little about myself and soon they want to tell me their stories about the families they haven’t seen in years. One young woman of 26 said she was left behind in El Salvador with her grandparents when she was a baby and now has a three year old of her own. She was on her way to California to see her parents for the first time.”

Some talk of the hardships they endured in the detention center, how they were not treated with respect. Others talk about walking through the desert of Mexico and being violated. When we say our goodbyes after a couple of hours, the mothers often comment that their faith in God is restored because he sent people like us to give them a hand.

Because of the language barrier (most of them only speak Spanish or a dialect), we decided to always have two of our people working together. This gave us the opportunity to keep the presence of Jesus among us (see Mt 18:20), so that it would be his presence that helped these families.

The flow of refugees has continuously changed over the last year. At first the biggest need was at the bus station, then it changed to the airport. The ways in which we could assist them were endless: they ranged from the major, like navigating through security, to the very simple, explaining how the automatic faucets work in the restrooms. One day, after we guided three mothers and their children to the restroom, they all came out laughing; we had forgotten to warn them about the automatic faucets and hand dryers, and they jumped a foot when they went off!

The stories of hardship were continuous and heartbreaking. It had taken these families from one to two months to make their way across Mexico, riding buses, hopping on trains, walking across the desert … The situations they were fleeing were incredible. One young woman explained that she had been approached by a gang leader insisting that she be his companion. She refused and moved twice, only to be found again by the gang leader. The third time he told her that if she didn’t agree he would kill her five-year-old son. Several of the young women confided that their husbands had been killed by the gangs and that they were fleeing to protect their children from being forced to join the gangs. We were told that boys as young as seven were often coerced to join.

Though the mothers were very cautious initially, by the time we had been with them awhile, they were much at ease. Often we had to split up in order to take families to different terminals. Many times this meant that one of us who only spoke English stayed with a family who only spoke Spanish for several hours, waiting for their flight.

Once, one of our non-Spanish speakers was with two families at the same terminal. By the time the second family got on the plane, he had been with them almost three hours. He was unable to speak with the mother, but managed to play with the little girl and speak a little “sign language” with well-meaning gestures to the mom. Finally, it was time for them to get on the plane.

“As the mom and little girl stood in line looking back at me, the mother leaned over and whispered something in the little girl’s ear. She immediately ran toward me, making her way through the crowd of people. I kneeled down as she approached me and she threw her arms around me in a big hug! Then she turned and ran back to get in line. As they showed their tickets to the stewardess, the little girl looked back at me and gave me a wave as the mother smiled broadly. I felt as if I was saying goodbye to family.”

We entered into this endeavor with a desire to help those who could not pay us back. In the process we also witnessed the many ways that love is contagious, including ticket agents, stewardesses and security guards, who all responded in their own ways to assist these families.

— Mike Zwartjes and Gerry Soto

Reprinted with permission from Living City