Standing With Refugees on the Border

This is the end of my fourth day in McAllen, Texas. I’m here with a group from my church, Epworth United Methodist. What is happening here is unfathomable, and despite what our government wants us to believe, what has been reported of parents being separated from children, people being forced to stay for days, weeks, and months in cages, no opportunity to bathe for days and sometimes weeks—this is happening.

We’ve been working with the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center which takes in a steady flow of refugees all day. Hundreds. I don’t know how it’s possible that so many people could fit in a space that is about 3,000 square feet total for waiting room, kitchen, dining room, storage room, clothing room, baby supplies room, shower and bath room, room for making sandwiches and “go bags,” and also be checked in by volunteers to help them connect with a sponsor family, eat a meal of soup, fruit and bread, get a set of fresh clothes (finding the right sizes can be complicated, as the average refugee is smaller and thinner than the average person in the United States who has donated) and then get a shower, but this is happening.

Yesterday as I stood with a mom waiting for the shower, I looked down and saw her ankle monitor: an ugly, heavy thick black strap and square around her ankle. Sadly and unjustly, the control of the bodies of moms, dads, brothers, and sisters does not end when they are released from detention.

In the kitchen, I worked with a teacher on summer break. As we talked, she told me her friend’s husband had worked at a center where people were awaiting their asylum court date. She said they had counselors there, and other services to help make a tragic situation more bearable. But inexplicably seven months ago, that center was closed and all the staff and people were transferred to another center. She said, “Everything you see on the news, it is true. It is happening. My friend’s husband couldn’t take it and quit after two weeks.”

The scale of this humanitarian crisis, made worse by our own government’s policies is shocking, ugly, and evil. But it is happening.

The volunteers have come from all over the country. One group of women was there from the Bay Area; another woman came on her own from Philadelphia; a teacher from New York; a family of five from Georgetown, Texas, who decided their summer vacation would be to spend a week at the respite center; our group from Berkeley. All of us were needed every second we were in the center; none of us were asked to come, though we found out about the center through local contacts or church connections; most of us were able to come because it is summer. The center staff wonder what will happen when the summer volunteers stop coming because they have work or school but the streams of people do not stop coming.

Today I got to hold a baby while her mom tried on a donated shirt. She was hot, having just been asleep on her mom’s shoulder (and it’s been 107 degrees and the air conditioning is being worked on in the center). Precious child of God. It is a privilege to be among all of these children of God.

We do have the power to change this reality. In small ways and in large ways, in person and through policy, prayefully and politically, we must act to change this reality. What’s happening at the border is not right and we know it. This is not how a caring and free country acts.

Those moved to respond to the work happening at this respite center are encouraged to donate to or contact online Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley

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