A Visit to Sister Norma’s Respite Center in McAllen, Texas

“Many people think that we’re harboring, or we’re helping people into the country. We’re not. We’re only responding to a reality we’re facing here in our own community and giving these families the care, any person deserves, the rightful care that a human being should be receiving.” –Sister Norma Pimentel

On August 8th, Rabbi Jonathan Roos and his wife Elizabeth led a group of 17 from Temple Sinai in (Washington DC) and Holy Trinity to McAllen, TX to serve and learn at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center.  In June of 2014, Sister Norma Pimentel started this center to respond to the large influx of refugees and migrants, many of them children. We heard stories of suffering, but also of bravery, kindness, dignity and the power of community.

Here are our reflections:

We arrive to the respite center’s new facility, a large, recently repurposed nightclub across the street from the bus station.  A guard buzzes us in (a needed security measure for the protection of the immigrant families).  We are warmly greeted and then escorted to different ways we can help.

The first group arrives after being processed by Border Patrol and is warmly welcomed by the Respite Director.  These migrants are not from Mexico (Mexicans are now directed via another process) but from all over Central America and beyond: Venezuela, the Caribbean, Africa.  They shuffle in, exhausted by their travels and fears, instinctively clutching their children and few possessions.  They patiently wait in line to receive personal care kits – soap, diapers, toothbrushes.

But within a few hours, this quiet group changes.  They approach the toiletries / medicines station showered, fed and refreshed.  Many now have arranged bus tickets to hosting family or friends in other parts of the US.  The men ask for razors and shaving cream, the women for hair ties.  Teenage boys ask for hair gel and the chance to shyly flirt with Alexis, a 16-year-old fellow volunteer from Charleston, SC.  Children laugh jumping rope, kicking a soccer ball or drawing funny pictures.

There are some families, however, who are unsure where they will go next.  One of our group speaks French and helps translate for Gertrude, a woman from Cameroon five-months pregnant, who cries as she tells of her long, terrifying journey.  Gertrude was tortured in her home country, escaped and was smuggled into Turkey.  From there she took a plane to Ecuador (who does not require visas for Africans) and made the dangerous trek up through South and Central America to the US Border.  She has come here looking for asylum but knows no one.  Fortunately, the Respite Center was able to make a connection with a group of nuns who run La Posada Providencia Shelter, in nearby San Benito, Texas where Gertrude can stay, protected and supported as she goes through the asylum process.

Another family from Nicaragua approaches.  The father was a lawyer who represented a government protester.  Government thugs broke into his house and tried to take his 5-year old son.  He fled with his young sons, his wife, and baby daughter.  In Mexico they were robbed of all their money and possessions.  The Respite Center provides them clothing and basic items as we secure them bus tickets to Houston where a friend could provide at least a place to stay for the next few months.

As the first day ends, we note there are many empty chairs.  The daily numbers of migrants have dropped from 700 the prior week to about 150.  We are told the change is in large part due to the new Migrant Protection Protocols (“remain in Mexico”) where asylum seekers are sent back to Mexico to await their US court dates (often a year) and often held in horribly overcrowded and filthy Mexican migrant detention centers.

Friday at 9am we are greeted by Mike Blum, board member of Temple Emanuel, the small Reform synagogue in this area.  Mike acts as our local guide showing us the outside of the Ursula detention center, the infamous warehouse facility where immigrants are kept in cages.  From the US side we saw the three bridges crossing the Rio Grande and the “border wall” which at this location acts as a flood containment barrier.  It is clear that this region continues its centuries tradition as a blended culture of those who continue to live and work in both countries.

Back at the Respite Center we have meaningful interactions with the other volunteers.  They come from all parts of the country, all ages and all religious backgrounds: Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals and agnostics.  When current news stories come up it is clear that we can have very different views of the same facts.  One volunteer cites that 70% of migrants released from custody do not show up for their court date.  While another notes that the current “legal” process is completely broken, delayed and underfunded.

But it is easy to move beyond political debates and focus on the common reason we are all there.  Cleaning floors, sorting clothes, drawing with the kids, handing out needed personal hygiene products.  Each volunteer feels joy in the act of service to others.

On Friday night we all attend a Shabbat service at Temple Emanuel followed by dinner.  This weekend marks Tisha B’Av, regarded as one of the saddest days in the Jewish calendar mourning the destruction of the sacred temples, when the Jewish people were stripped of their homelands and forced to be refugees with nothing but their faith and each other.  This 30-day period taken from the book of Lamentations ends on a verse of total despair.  But in the practice, Rabbi Roos tells us, this verse is swapped with the one before it that speaks of hope.  Perspective is everything.  We have the power to change despair to hope.  To change alienation and fear of other to an inclusive and loving community.

It is this perspective that Sister Norma gives to all of us, “These five years have brought together the good work of so many people — kind people with generous hearts that have demonstrated that there is a better part of us that comes forward, that can come together, work together and respond together to defend life.”

What can you do to change despair to hope?

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