Reflections from the Border: Catholic Charities New York in Arizona

Posted on May 13, 2019 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

Photo: Catholic Charities of New York, Tuscon, AZ

The Department of Homeland Security is releasing thousands of detainees at the southern border to relieve overcrowding, overwhelming Catholic Charities agencies that serve these immigrants. The increasing stream of asylum seekers is expected to continue throughout the summer.

To show solidarity and provide support, Catholic Charities NY deployed a team of staff volunteers to help one of our sister agencies in Arizona.  The need is both great and varied as the local Catholic Charities agencies are inundated. 

Our volunteers are sharing their eyewitness updates.  Today we publish our first, this one from Debbie Panek, a director at one of our affiliated agencies, Mercy Center.

Water. Oranges. Chicken soup.

By Debbie Panek, LMSW, MPH
Director of Family and Youth Programs
Mercy Center

Sunday, 5/12/2019

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drop off migrant “travelers” on a regular basis at the former Benedictine monastery in Tucson, Arizona.  The monastery is organized by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, and staffed by hundreds of volunteers from the greater Tucson area.  The migrant families, mainly from the “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, are seeking asylum in the United States after fleeing extreme violence and poverty in their countries of origin. When they arrive to the monastery after days in the custody of US border officials and weeks of travel on foot, they are exhausted, traumatized, hungry, and often sick.

The travelers are greeted with smiles, with words of welcome, and with water, oranges, and chicken soup.  Water to quench their thirst, oranges and broth to begin to revive their bodies and settle their stomachs.   Their government-placed Tyvek wristbands are cut off, and the children offered stuffed animals.  The joyful transformation that a stuffed bear or dog provoked in children who might have gone weeks without being free to play sparked smiles as well from their parents.

Catherine McAuley believed that mercy manifested itself in the response to whatever needs arose in that era.  The countless volunteers who provide hospitality, medical care, food, and a safe space for migrants at the monastery brought that mercy to life for me last week.  Our team of five – Aster, Brian, Cami, Debbie, and Sagrario - from various departments of Catholic Charities integrated ourselves to support the work of the volunteers and staff in providing that mercy to the travelers.  We served water, oranges, and chicken soup; we completed intakes, packed travel bags of snacks, drove families to the bus station, played with children and sorted clothing.  We were exhausted at the end of each day, and deeply moved by the consistent presence of people from Tucson who gave their time and talents to keep the monastery a functioning and welcoming space.

Photo: Catholic Charities New York, Tuscon, AZ

I was fortunate over the last several years to participate in trainings on trauma-informed programming through NYC’s Department of Youth and Community Development.  The hospitality shared with the travelers reflects the basic pillars of trauma-informed care, an approach that is becoming the gold standard of social service providers.  The volunteers at the monastery help individuals feel safe, feel seen, and return to them some sense of agency.  As most of the travelers were in the shelter for 48-72 hours before taking a bus to their family sponsors, we did not dig into the stories that will form the basis of their asylum cases, to avoid provoking deeper emotional distress.  Instead we offered kindness and hospitality, recognizing their humanity and helping the dedicated volunteers to keep the monastery a safe and hospitable transit point for the travelers.

Water. Oranges. Chicken soup.  Signs of mercy in our time that our team was grateful to witness and be part of last week in Tucson.


Photo: Catholic Charities New York, Tuscon, AZ


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