Catholic Charities at the US border — two weeks of witnessing fear, illness, desperation and hope.
… What we saw at the border — a collective story from CFC as we encounter families seeking asylum at the US Southern Border — Part 4
Restoring Dignity….story told by Jim Fien, Director of Donor Engagement for CFC (week of Aug 19)
No thieves. No criminals. No bad people found among the groups as they file off the prison bus. Mothers, fathers, mostly children, treated as if they indeed are a threat to our society. Bars on the bus windows, Border Patrol with guns holstered. Treated as though they are criminals. Their plastic bags, with all their earthly possessions tossed to the ground with little regard for what that lack of care in handling signifies to them. Never once was I afraid. I wondered if they could say the same.
We greet them with a smile and let them know they are welcome here. During the intake process, we provide shoe laces (yes, these were taken from them by ICE), water, fruit and Sanctuary Soup, a light soup, mostly broth. The soup is only given to them after a medical exam where the doctors and nurses address any medical needs.
On my first day, I witnessed:
- A pregnant woman needed to be examined.
- Many blisters and foot issues
- A young boy, maybe 5 years old, came off the bus with no shoes. Feet swollen. The doctors soaked his feet in an antiseptic bath, wrapped them and gave him shoes and socks.
- A young woman with blisters was ashamed at how bad her feet smelled. She soaked her feet and we provided new socks and shoes.
- Everyone wants new shoes
- All I could think of was Jesus washing the feet of the disciples
- A woman had severe burns on her shoulders from walking across the desert in scorching heat
- Stomach issues- we hear that they have mostly been fed frozen burritos and crackers from ICE. Hence the need for Sanctuary Soup. Something light to get their digestive tract normalized.
On my last day, however, one of the Doctors asked me to give them the soup before the medical exams. I said, shouldn’t we wait for the exam? His response, “Jim, they have been eating crackers and dirt for days, let’s get them something.” I was stunned.
The kids play with toys. Many of the adults, however, are tired, many just stare, trauma no doubt. I wonder what sort of psychological damage and support many of them may need. The children, too. They may seem resilient but is that truly the case? One day, a young girl was crying. Her 18 year sister was sent back. Yes, our current administration IS breaking up families. If a family comes across the border, any children over the age of 18 are sent back. Again, stunning.
(sidebar) Perhaps the week for me can be summed up with this story: A simple call to practice the Catholic Social Teaching, principle of the Life and Dignity of the human person.
A family, with a young boy maybe 5 years old, had been at Casa Alitas for a couple of days. They arrived as they all do, exhausted, dirty, hungry, in need of some basic human dignity. They spend a day or two at Casa Alitas catching up on sleep, getting fed, taking a shower and getting clean clothes. I had never interacted with them because I don’t speak Spanish. However, I would always smile at them, wave and say Hola! The day came for them to get on the Greyhound bus and continue their journey to their sponsor. I prayed with them through an interpreter. I welcomed them and told them we are glad they are here and they are loved. I asked God to continue to keep them safe and give them courage and strength on their journey. The mother cried a bit and as they were walking out the door, the little boy turned around and ran back to me and held his arms up for me to pick him up. I hugged him. Just like I hug my grandchildren.
An entry from my diary….story as told by Afshan Qureshi, Manager of Immigration Services for CFC (week of August 26)
I am so glad we took this opportunity. Thank you for assisting in making this happen. I thought you might like an update on how and what we are up to, so this is as of last night.
We are as usual keeping busy. There can be no office hours. The whole team is available to do whatever it takes to get needed things done. Ken, Greg, Brigitte, Neena & I have everyday assignments to do. Our day usually can start for each either by 8 or 9 am and end the day at 12 midnight. I thought you might enjoy that and know that is the normal me. Last night so much was needed and we were all there till 9 pm. So we are all in sync with helping out and replacing the regular volunteer staff so they can have a few days’ break. We have taken over some of the day assignments and some new items that were being put off for lack of new volunteers.
We have seen the immigration aspect of the cases, and have been able to assist in this as well. We are doing arrival reception when ICE brings a busload, so far 2 per day, between 20–40 people each. We have been helping with travel arrangements, which includes tickets, transportation to and from the transport facility, arranging travel food, setting up the main entrance reception, food prep assistance, and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. After guests have left we inspect rooms for any items left by them, and only then will a cleaning service come in.
They have volunteer doctors and one retired attorney on staff. But the attorney wanted to stay clear of any task involving representation (liability), so asked me to address (this is quite curious to me). We are going to set up a consult system here, and have advised that they will want an accredited representative also on a full-time basis as a volunteer.
It is great what they have established here at Casa Alitas. The volunteers here before us must have done a lot with assembling furniture and basic set up. This facility is an old juvenile court detention center, and is next to a court house, so it is very safe.
The people brought in by ICE are referred to as Guests only. When they first come they are greeted and then taken to the reception area. They sit on the pew-like benches. There is a prayer lead by one of 2 more permanent staff or volunteers (usually a Deacon) and then they are given some basic information about the facility. Key points are: this is a guest house for them, and they are free to go — this is not a detention center. Travel arrangement will be made in conjunction with their sponsors as soon as possible. They may select and choose clothes and other essentials at the commissary. During this time we feed them a small amount of food: fruit, a cup of water, and then a cup of hot soup (“Sanctuary Soup”). After this they are taken through an individual intake process that gathers basic information like final destination, sponsor name, address, phone, family information, etc… Then, they go to the Doctor’s station to get medical intake, and a physical checkup for anything needing immediate attention, and immunization. Finally, after that, they receive their room assignment and settle in.
- Breakfast is 8:30 am, prepared and served by volunteers
- Lunch is 12:30 pm, prepared and served by Volunteers
- Dinner is 5–530 pm at the latest, prepared & served by volunteers
The kitchen has no heating facility except a microwave. It has 3 freezer/ refrigeration units, which are commercial-size. The outlet for the microwave blew up and a fire alarm went off yesterday morning, so that ended the heating of food. Most prepared food is usually is brought in by volunteers, but it was nice to have that microwave. They are working on it, and an oven too.
There are showers available for everyone; men and women are separate. There is a security person at night. Ken installed the entry security system — it is a good/fancy one. Brigitte & Neena took over updating the old files in the database as some were not complete, and some were not in system at all; they spent all day to fix that. Greg has already assembled furniture with Ken. Greg has also been the first one to stay to do the night shift. I will do the next night shift, and Neena, Ken are covering these shifts also. Cynthia has been a huge help by staying a second week to help with medical intake and interpretation. I have also done some database work, a lot of the travel arrangements and transportation. I serve at the reception, arrange the food for dinner, and today we will meet with the Safeway food director in order to get food donated to the center.
It is sad to learn what our guests have gone through to get here, and to see that they are so grateful and still so trusting of us. It is heart breaking when I take them to the bus station; it is so touching to see them attached to you and thanking you and hugging you. One woman told me that they are so angry and rough at the border when the talk to them. I truly wished I knew more Spanish. Especially when you see families with kids, I cannot imagine how they all traveled through the desert and such a long distance.
The staff here is amazing. Each one has been committed and serving for quite a while, and they are all volunteers — there is only 1 paid staff. They are such a devoted group, but some have reported that volunteer fatigue is beginning to settle in. I think the best thing we have done for the center here is to provide some relief coverage, perhaps allowing some respite and refresh to this core of volunteers. I took over many transportation and travel arrangement duties, allowing that volunteer to ease up for a little while. I have helped with assembling and filling travel bags for departing guests, which is a very long and busy back-room process. The usual volunteer who runs this understands that I know who is a priority based on the travel bus schedule, and how many are in each family, how many days they will be traveling to reach their sponsors destination, etc… We are not just doing one assigned task, but are standing ready to do anything and everything where we can lend a hand.
All the local staff have been great: Deigo, Hugo and all the others. Thank you for this opportunity and for putting a great team with Ken, Greg, Brigitte, Cynthia, Neena and me. I know you are here in spirit with us all through.
Coming Soon! Part 5: Its’ a matter of faith.
See some of our photos on Facebook
**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/