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Working at shelter gives glimpse of migrant hardships

By MARGARET RUCKSTUHL
08/06/2021 | Comments

As a Salesian Cooperator, I am committed to living the Gospel message in the spirit of St. John Bosco who dedicated himself to the welfare of young people. I was privileged recently to live my mission through action with Catholic Charities Diocese of Laredo in Texas (CCDOL) at the La Frontera migrant shelter, supporting families crossing the southern border in search of a better life. 

The families arrive at the shelter with many stories of hardship and turmoil of their 30-day (or more) journey across Mexico. Most originate from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador where they are seeking relief from imminent danger and poverty. Many have used their life savings (and then some) to make the trip. They are hoping for a life free from harm and to find work for a decent wage.  After their long journey the families arrive by bus at the shelter and are very grateful for the social services provided by Catholic Charities.  Upon arrival they already have an American family identified who will sponsor them.

What is it like to volunteer at the Catholic Charities La Frontera migrant shelter? The short answer is you wake up every day with a true sense of purpose.

My service at La Frontera spanned from working in the la ropa (clothes) room, the food pantry, taking intake, preparing and serving meals, and doing laundry. Most people arrive with just the clothes on their back and the loose paperwork received from border officials with their assigned asylum hearing details. In the la ropa room each person receives one set of donated clothing, and shoes (if we have them). Then they are off to the showers, where for some it was their first bathing in quite some time. We served three meals a day and also provided travel bags of snacks and drinks for sustenance to their final destination.  Those with small children (and there are many) are given diapers and formula.

The next important step is to help the families contact their sponsors and provide support for arranging for their transportation. There are a lot of phone calls going on requiring language translations. Some are able to be transported to a bus or plane in just a few hours while others’ arrangements take longer, requiring an overnight stay with us at the shelter.

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)

Listening to the stories certainly causes your heart to ache and your prayer list to grow.  The first day I volunteered, I went outside when the first bus arrived, because of course I wanted to see the souls that Jesus guided to us. A young woman with a preschool aged child asked where she was. I told her she was in Laredo and she then questioned for clarity if she really was in the United States. When she realized she was truly in the U.S. she became tearfully joyful while holding her child close. It became common for those arriving to see the Catholic Charities sign just above where we perform intake and the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church across the street, to jubilantly exclaim to their sponsor families on the phone “I’m at a church!“.

Another group that we would receive at La Frontera are part of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), who arrive at the border but then are detained in Mexico waiting for their asylum hearing.  They would always arrive at the shelter on a specific day, and volunteer attorneys came to help them understand their rights.

On one of these days, a man (not one of our migrants) came to our shelter in haste stating his family was here and he wanted to pick them up. He was very emotional, but polite, and was pacing up and down our one little hallway between the various rooms as we were trying to locate his family (as there are other shelters along the border also run by Catholic Charities). Then his wife and son came walking out of the one of the rooms, and they saw each other and engaged in an emotional embrace with tears of happiness. They asked permission to leave (all migrants are our “guests” and have the freedom to leave at any time). “Of course,” we said, and they jubilantly walked out continuing to embrace as they walked away like a little family of three moving in unison not wanting to let go of each other.  Apparently, the mom and son had been detained in Mexico for more than a year.

Another busy morning after a large group had arrived very late the prior night before, a man with his toddler son approached me about transportation to the bus station.  After discussion in my broken Spanish, we realized his bus was leaving in 30 minutes! I scurried to get him a travel food bag, diapers, milk and even found a backpack (we don’t always have many to give out). He was driven to the bus station in haste arriving with only minutes to go. They printed a string of tickets for him as he was travelling to New York which would entail many stops over multiple days. With shaking hands he signed his name and quickly made his way onto the bus. My concern for our guests when they travel is always will others be kind to them? With no money or phone, will they make it to their final destination? With the fear of being deported, will they ask for help? Will others help them when they have to make a transfer and don’t speak the language?

Dear Jesus, please hold these families in your loving arms and guide those who they meet on their journey that they will be treated with dignity.

(Margaret Ruckstuhl is a member of St. Benedict Parish in Falcon and a Salesian Cooperator.)


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