Sister Rachel’s story — as told to CFC case manager, Carmel Nelson
Sister Rachel is a part of the Dominican Order of Peace. She works closely with Casa Alitas and provides sacraments for women in the ICE detention centers around Tucson. Here is what she most wanted to share with us:
Sister Rachel: From the Arizona border perspective, those seeking asylum wait on the Mexican side of the border. We do not see as many people crossing, however, people are getting desperate and this is the group that is getting caught from border patrol. This group is ending up in the detention centers, despite current figures being published that state border crossing has diminished.
We are allowed into the detention center to provide pastoral care to at least 200 women, every week to two weeks, because there are so many Catholics.
Carmel Nelson: You were allowed within the detention center, which we hear is unusual. How were you allowed in?
Sister Rachel: To be allowed in, you must go through training for one day, get fingerprints, get a background check, etc… During training, you learn what the rules and policies are. Once you get clearance, you get a badge. Being a volunteer (chaplain), it is free.
Once allowed in, we are given one hour to speak to each group of women in the chapel. During the hour, I will ask volunteers to read our piece of inspiration (prayer), which is selected by the diocese.
We see mothers whose children have been taken from them, grandmothers, etc. They ask me to bless them. We physically touch them and make the sign of the cross on their forehead. They lean forward, tell us the names of their children/loved ones, and we write those names down and say a prayer for those children.
Everyone kneels and prays at a statue of Guadalupe and they weep. It is very emotional.
My role as a minister is to give these women hope, remind them we are here for them, and to remind them not just us, but people all around the world are holding them in prayer. It gives them great comfort.
Things are so bad, and so desperate, the only one they can rely on, is God. I remind them of their baptism.
Carmel Nelson: Women who have been through so much in their life, in any religion, can easily lose their faith. It is so wonderful that you all are reminding them of that
Sister Rachel: This is the promise of Abraham. God is with them always. The strength they have is that they believe, it is this strength that is carrying them through.
It’s a lot of suffering they bear. When you are in comfort, in prayer, you can release and you don’t have to be so vigilant. As we sit in prayer, we invite them to choose light. I see my role as a servant. The stranger is always welcome. We are all strangers to one another, we need to welcome one another.
In my last group, I asked “Where are you coming from?” One woman said “I was picked up in Phoenix in my yard; I’m a grandmother, border patrol came and took me.” Another said, “I was picked up at work, I did not have a chance to do anything but leave with them.”
Both women were in tears, and the pain is clear.
I remind them: this is your way of the cross. And Mary is there. Then I ask, “How many of you would defend your child?” “How many of you would stand in the face of danger for your child?” They all raise their hand and I point to Mary and state, “There she is. She is standing with you.”
The desert is dangerous and deadly for many reasons. People traveling this way suffer and struggle with dehydration, animals, and sharp cactus needles that are all over the desert floor tear up shoes and cause blisters and infection.
We have a team member, Sister Esther, who is attempting to gain entry to a detention center where children are held. She knocks on the door and asks to see the children. The person who answers the door asks why. She states “I am a nurse, I want to visit the children to know they are cared for.” The person then states “No thank you, we are fine.” Then closes the door. Sister Esther leaves, angry and frustrated. These private contractors do not have to allow us in. They are not obligated to honor our clearance and US Government issued badge.
Carmel Nelson: When they are separated from their parents, have there ever been cases where they got back together as a family?
Sister Rachel: We have heard stories where mothers would go in for an interview, and they would be told their child/children would be taken care of. They come out of the interview and find their child is now separated from them. If a mother was pregnant, she would be taken to the hospital; once she had her baby, it would be taken from her.
My story: Ken Zablotny
I spent last week volunteering in Tucson Arizona at Casa Alitas, the House of Wings. It was a week where I was surrounded by heroes — immigrants who crossed the border into the US, and volunteers who were the first people they met after leaving the custody of ICE officers.
The mission of Casa Alitas is simple — to provide immediate medical care, food, a warm shower, a soft bed, fresh clothing and shoes, and transportation to their family or friends anywhere in the lower 48 states.
Here is my witness to you: They are not clients, immigrants, patients, illegals. They are guests in Casa Alitas. They are immigrants passing from Mexico into the United States who have begun the asylum process. They are the heroes who have survived the long and treacherous journeys from their country, and endured detention in ICE facilities for days or weeks. They are tired, hungry, and afflicted with a variety of medical issues.
But when the ICE bus pulls into Casa Alitas, and the guests pick up their plastic bags containing what is left of their belongings, they are greeted by another set of heroes with big smiles and chants of “Bienvenido a Casa Alitas” and “Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos.”
What happens next here at Casa Alitas is truly amazing. There are so many pieces that come together for the guests, all done by hundreds of volunteers. Here is what these heroes do: communications with ICE and local authority, processing donations, scheduling volunteer shifts and tasks, coordinating the medical teams, preparing and serving meals, keeping Casa clean and organized, organizing and staffing the clothing store, teaching basic English language skills, preparing hygiene kits and travel bags, arranging their travel and transporting them to the bus station or airport, Casa site maintenance and repairs, purchasing supplies, and just being present, talking and answering questions (how I wish I knew Spanish…but the magic of Google Translate, and the magic of Love, seemed to break so many barriers!) So much of this seems like the grace of God how it all comes together!
I am so grateful for my time at Casa Alitas. It is hard to put into words the moments of discernment and revelation that entered my heart throughout this journey. I am grateful for what our guests taught me, and for what I learned through their stories. I pray for them as they continue on their journeys seeking safety, freedom and peace. God Bless them all, and you. Thank you for reading our stories.
Read more: Hope lives at Casa Alitas https://medium.com/@CatholicFamCtr/catholic-charities-at-the-us-border-hope-lives-at-casa-alitas-3d6b42317fc2
See some of our photos on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pg/CatholicFamilyCenter.Rochester/photos/?tab=album&album_id=10157193326812819
**Learn how you can take action and support these local efforts at the border. 100% of your donation will help our agencies along the border meet basic needs and ensure that children are being treated with care and kindness. https://www.catholiccharitiesusa.org/border-crisis/
**Watch our international award winning series, See Their Stories, a campaign created in effort to bring clarity to the mistrust and misunderstanding of the refugee story. A series of short video-story vignettes have been created to illustrate the personal journey of refugees. www.seetheirstories.org
** Support to Rochester’s immigrant community has been a cornerstone of Catholic Family Center’s work since its founding in 1917. Over the past 35 years, over 15,000 refugees have resettled to Rochester, NY with the help of Catholic Family Center and our many partners. Learn more about our Refugee & Immigration Services at https://www.cfcrochester.org/our-services/welcoming-refugees-and-immigrants/