Ursuline Sisters accompany
asylum seekers at the border

Ceidy, an asylum-seeking migrant mother from Guatemala, kisses her 3-month-old baby Bridget while waiting to be escorted by the U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande into Roma, Texas, April 7, 2021. (CNS photo/Go Nakamura, Reuters)

A mother from Haiti traveled for three days in a former refrigeration truck with her toddler, with no fresh air or light.

Fathers and mothers crossed the Rio Grande under the cover of night, clutching young children to their chests.

Asylum seekers from Central and South America take these risks before facing the formidable United States Border Patrol for a chance to start life again in the United States.

Many are deported, returned to whatever fate they fled — some form of violence or poverty precipitated by corruption, the climate crisis or the pandemic, to name a few causes of migration.

Among the lucky ones are those who make it to a border shelter such as Casa del Refugiado — the House of the Refugee.

About 150 asylum seekers in the El Paso area each day are released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and taken to the converted warehouse for food, clothing and dormitory-style accommodations provided by volunteers.

They’ll stay just one to three days before the next leg of their journey to reunite with relatives or friends around the country.

Some arrive with just part of their family — a husband or adult son left behind in detention at the border. Some arrive with an ankle bracelet to ensure they’ll turn up for legal proceedings in the future.

Two Ursuline Sisters of Louisville witnessed their lives first-hand last month, spending May volunteering at Casa del Refugiado.

They joined about a dozen other volunteers tending to the temporal and emotional needs of the hundreds of guests residing in the 125,000-square-foot warehouse.

Ursuline Sisters of Louisville Yuli Oncihuay, right, and Kathy Neely discussed their May visit to El Paso, where they volunteered at a shelter for asylum seekers. They recounted the experience during an interview at the Ursuline Motherhouse last week. (Record Photo By Marnie McAllister)

Sisters Yuli Oncihuay and Kathy Neely, who were joined on the trip by their friend, Ursuline Sister of Toledo Carol Reamer, reflected on what they experienced and learned during an interview at the Ursuline Motherhouse last week.

Sister Oncihuay, a teacher and native Spanish speaker from Peru, spent much of her time connecting with children and families. She was moved by what she saw, she said.

Mealtimes, she noted, were meant to be family time. But since many of the families there were incomplete, she said, often “the children just cry and cry, ‘Daddy, we miss Daddy.’ ”

Early on, she said she noticed a small boy from Haiti who was anxious and withdrawn. She tried to draw him out with smiles and friendly gestures, but he retreated behind his mother’s legs, tugging on her clothing and hiding his face, sometimes in tears.

Worried about him, she asked what had happened.

“Trauma,” she said she discovered. He’d spent three days in a former refrigeration truck being smuggled into the United States.

“He was afraid of enclosed spaces,” she said. “The children’s emotionality was not good.”

In general, though, the families felt a sense of safety after arriving at the shelter, she said.

The shelter-warehouse was converted in 2019 to accommodate up to 500 people in a dormitory-style setting. It’s run by Annunciation House, a non-profit based in El Paso that operates several shelters. Casa del Refugiado is its largest, according to its website, annunciationhouse.org.

When families arrive, they receive a change of clothes and a bedroll. They receive three meals a day, provided by the Salvation Army, and they help clean up after meals.

Sister Neely was assigned to kitchen duty during her stay at the shelter.

“Every person who was there did something. A couple from Omaha, Nebraska — Margaret and Tom — gave two weeks. They took out the garbage and washed down all the cots. They’re grandparents and had eight children,” Sister Neely noted. “They inspired us. They stopped at nothing.”

“Yuli was a presence to the families. Her heart is bigger than she is,” Sister Neely said. “Carol worked in the roparía, the clothing room. She did a super job.”

As families arrived at the shelter, Sister Neely said, “I saw concern on their faces.”

But by the time they left, “their expressions changed,” she said. “They were smiling and laughing as they waved goodbye.”

“Each person or family had their own story. One man was deaf and mute,” she noted.

The situation at the southern border “is bigger than our border,” she added.

“It’s a human situation. I love the analogy of Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt. When Jesus’ life was in danger, an angel appeared to get the family moving. That says it all to me. The right thing to do is to get out of the situation,” she said.

“And we have to try to understand the reasons and root causes,” she added. “And we have to work on the root causes.”

The sisters’ trip to the border was prompted by a call for volunteers issued by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It ended up as a reunion of sorts. The three — Sisters Neely, Oncihuay and Reamer (from Toledo) — previously served together in Peru.

Sister Oncihuay, who left her teaching position in Peru last year to serve on the Ursuline Leadership Team in Louisville, said the journey to the border has changed her. And, though she herself lives far from home and has worked with immigrants in the past, until now, she didn’t fully understand what it was to be a refugee.

“I didn’t know exactly what a refugee was before I went to El Paso,” she said. “Now I know who they are and I can be one with them. I can understand them. They need a friend.”

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