My Experience Helping Migrants by S. Mary Catherine Antczak, OP
For two weeks this summer I volunteered with Catholic Social Services of Tucson to assist migrants.
The site where the migrants were housed during my visit was a large, former Benedictine Monastery in Tucson. The location is about 65 miles north of the US-Mexico border.
What happens at the Monastery? US Border Patrol officers bring migrants to the Monastery where volunteers welcome them as guests. Their stay is brief--rarely more than three days. Upon arrival guests are interviewed by volunteers who clarify and confirm the family's sponsors--friends or family--who will buy bus or plane tickets for them to travel elsewhere in the country. Volunteer doctors and nurses provide physical exams. Guests are shown to sleeping quarters--bedrooms or dormitory style sleeping quarters in the basement that have been furnished with cots or bunk beds. Guests visit a room where abundant stacks of donated clothing and shoes are available since they all arrive with only the clothes on their backs. Donated food items abound, and guests are served three meals a day in the sisters' former dining room. A very important place is the room where volunteers help guests to phone their sponsors and confirm travel arrangements. A group of volunteers prepares small backpacks with travel supplies--water, sandwiches, snacks, hand wipes, etc. Drivers volunteer to take guests to the airport or bus station. A strict policy is that no one may photograph anyone at the site.
For over 80 years the site of the Monastery was holy ground as the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration brought the needs of God's people to prayer day and night. For the last few months, the people of Tucson and volunteers from across the US enter the Monastery to provide food, clothing, shelter and compassionate support to migrants around the clock.
A sense of extraordinary generosity is evident just driving into the parking lot at the Monastery. One sees license plates from across the US. Upon entering the Monastery one meets volunteers of all ages--young people, retired persons and medical professionals among so many others. Common to all is a palpable sense of care and compassion.
The most moving experience is meeting the guests, the migrants.
On my first day I worked in the intake room, interviewing families. I met a young Guatemalan couple only 29 years old with two little boys--both children sick with bad colds, mom and dad visibly exhausted and apprehensive. They were hoping to make contact with a relative who would arrange their journey from Tucson to Los Angeles. Later that day I met them, relief on their faces, visibly relaxed because they had finalized plans to travel to Los Angeles.
One morning I helped to translate in the medical clinic where a mother from Honduras had four little children. They had traveled for a couple of weeks and survived ten hours in the desert before their miraculous rescue. The little family was headed to Sacramento where the mother would see her mother after 20 years! What special excitement this young mother felt when she learned that her family had arranged a plane flight not a bus trip for the family's journey from Tucson to Sacramento.
Walking down the hall of the Monastery, I met a young man and his son who were from Honduras. They were preparing to go to a bus station later in the day. The father asked me if I could find him a suitcase instead of a backpack. I soon realized that this young father would be more comfortable pulling a suitcase because an injury had left him with only one hand. Someone told me there were no suitcases in the Monastery. I told the Dad, "Let's pray." Five minutes later a volunteer found a perfect suitcase with wheels!
I will never forget a father from Honduras who explained to me that on the journey with his son all his money was stolen. That did not deter him. He explained that he has great faith in God who kept providing for him and his son. He also expressed deep gratitude to God for the generosity of strangers who responded when he asked for help. Grateful to God for arriving in Arizona, he was waiting to travel by bus to New York to live with his brother-in-law.
The guests are humble women and men who witness to extraordinary virtue. I am deeply inspired and moved by their love for their families, courage to undergo severe physical trials to seek better lives for their children, patience to wait for everything they need, and abundant gratitude to God and others for all they have received.
The volunteers are everyday people who see their sisters and brothers in need, drop everything, give as much as they can, and ask how else they can serve. I see the volunteers in Tucson witnessing in a remarkable way to Jesus' words, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
During these past two weeks, I have met, listened to and spoken with migrants. Their stories urge me to be more proactive contacting political leaders to pursue just and humane immigration legislation. I find myself praying more and more for the migrants, especially those I now know by name. Most of all, this experience deepens my realization of how blessed, how very blessed, I am.
May Our Mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe, accompany our sisters and brothers on their journey!
--Sister Mary Catherine Antczak, OP