Tag: IHM Border Mission

Border Mission: Sister Kathy’s Tale

Sister Kathy delivers supplies

Sister Kathy Benham, of the IHM Literacy Center, was among the first to volunteer for the IHM Border Mission last year – a combined operation of the three separate Monroe, Scranton, and Philadelphia branches of IHM sisters, offering humanitarian assistance during the refugee surge at the U.S. southern border after President Biden’s inauguration. That she was among those first IHMs to go for three weeks starting in April 2021, was due to chance or the Holy Spirit: when Catholic Relief Services asked for women religious volunteers, many of her Literacy Center pupils were observing the month-long Muslim season of Ramadan — a time when class attendance tends to be erratic — so it seemed a reasonable time to be away!

Sister Kathy was actually on the committee that chose the relatively remote site of El Centro CA, diocese of San Diego, for the mission. She went down with Sister Mary Elaine Anderson of the Scranton IHM Sisters – a nice reunion, since they had met years before – to set up. There, the two sisters employed their special skills as religious – with a heritage of hospitality and a talent for organization — to build an efficient operation. Sister Mary Elaine, who was able to stay for the full three months of the mission, even found use for her art therapy training to help anxious children!

Sister Kathy reports that immigrants to El Centro did not stream in, steadily, in long processions, as in some other areas. Instead, they crept across the border quietly, one family at a time. Many were desperately poor. Most, at the time, were Brasilians, fleeing the repressive Bolsonaro regime, hoping to find humble jobs to feed their families.  They went west to California because they hoped it would be easier to get in. Picked up there by the U.S. Border Patrol, they had no idea what to expect, and, since the Brasilians often spoke only Portuguese – no Spanish or English – language was an extra challenge.

Immigrant families were split up just inside the U.S. border, with men sent to one facility, and women and children to another, for covid testing and paperwork. Those with covid were then moved into quarantine in a large motel at Holtzville. Those who tested negative were taken to El Centro. Boys over 18 years old were considered independent adults and generally sent back across the border to Mexico, which was an incomprehensible and unexpected tragedy to those accustomed to living together in big multigenerational families; most had no phones and no way to keep in touch. The rest had no idea what would happen next, so they were surprised, and sometimes moved to tears, when they were reunited on a bus, enroute to a motel room in El Centro, to be met with the relief of a welcoming smile, clean beds and a bathroom, and meals. Once there, they had 48 hours to contact relatives in the United States who could pay for their plane tickets, and to get to the airport. Sister Kathy and her fellow volunteers organized a clothing room to provide clothing (since shoelaces had been confiscated at the border, these were especially prized!); distributed meals; and, muddling along in a mixture of Spanish and google translate, helped their charges to work through the English-language airport bureaucracy. The airport was an hour away from El Centro, so the nuns and volunteers drove families there in vans supplied by Catholic Charities. A knowledgeable former border patrol officer wisely advised them to explain to the families that the long bumpy ride would take them to the faraway airport, since they were in unfamiliar remote territory, with people they didn’t know, who spoke a different language, and the families were stressed, terrified, and confused about everything happening outside their control.

Sister Kathy highlights the amazing efforts of Catholic Relief Services to make a real difference, and feels humbled by her experience.  Now, the IHMs hope to return to the border! They are in the planning stages for a combined mission of all three IHM groups and the related Sisters of Providence. The hope is to set up a permanent “unretreat” center – a place where volunteers can come, not for solitary soulful meditation, but to offer their time and energy to help others. They have also received funding from SOAR – the funding for retired IHM religious – which hopes to involve retired sisters who still want to contribute.

2021 Border Mission: Pod 23A

Sisters Constance and Jeannette in San Antonio, TX, May 2021

When two thousand anxious immigrant children were separated from their families at the U.S. southern border in early 2021, Catholic Charities summoned its unique superpower — nuns from orders across the country – to help in the crisis. Among those IHM sisters who answered the call, were several familiar names: Sister Kathy Benham of the IHM Ctr for Literacy, who worked with families in CA; and Sisters Constance and Jeannette, formerly of SFDS School. Snippets from Sister Jeannette’s San Antonio TX diary hint at the size of the task there:

This morning we reported at 6:45, police, security everywhere….Covid test…Dept Homeland Security lanyard and ID, then… Catholic Charities…took pix, got ID there…gave us Catholic Charities vests and gave us instructions…We were given total charge of a pod ourselves!! 23A.   The place took our breath away. A Huge coliseum with maybe 1,000 cots in it!!!!!  And 1,000 boys to match the cots…They gave us a map and a list of names and information and told to go watch them, that the overnight person had just left…23A was Only 21 boys ages 13 to 17… We couldn’t see the end of our cots and the beginning of the cots on the pods around us…Some were sitting on their cots and a few tried to talk to us…They were scheduled for ‘indoor activity’…Our pod is scheduled to go outside to a small yard tomorrow. Around lunch time we were told to line up our pod for lunch. They are really good at getting in line and waiting to be told when to go…It’s amazing Totally organized…We picked up boxes on the way in and ate with them: sausage, beans and salsa, potatoes and a roll. It was hot and good. The minute you’re finished they move your pod out and more are coming in all the time. After lunch they are supposed to ‘rest’ and they did. Lots were reading paperback Bibles in Spanish, of course, or playing UNO. But Most of All, they were using pieces of yarn and had beads and they were making beautiful bracelets.  They were so earnest about this…The boys are so gentle and thoughtful…Three different times there was clapping, whistling, cheering and it meant that a boy from some pod was being taken out because they were reuniting him with his family…they were happy for the lucky boy and really showed it…”

Day 2 was exciting:the boys “each got to make a telephone call!!… They were arranged in a line according to bed #, then seated in chairs….The boys were called to the tables and the volunteer called the number on the paper and asked for the person to verify the info. Then they gave the cell phone to the boy and he talked. We heard one to a mother and another to a priest. They talked for 12 minutes (there was a stopwatch), then they came over to us and the next boys were called to the table. It’s like musical chairs here….”

As days went by, some boys were released to relatives, and the rest waited patiently for their turn. Indoors, “along the side aisles there were soccer ball games going on all over. It reminded me of the schoolyard (small) at St. Francis de Sales…” The sisters bought craft supplies and games at Walmart. The boys studied basic English phrases and looked at a map to see the states where they would someday live. They had haircuts and figured out how to make elaborate folded paper swans. “The shrine on the table to Our Lady of Guadeloupe has been cleaned, straightened and added to. It looks very nice.  A picture of St. Martin de Porres has been placed there, also.”

The Sisters ound out that “All the boys here are from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua…The US is allowing these in as a safe haven” because “their lives are in danger. If they stayed in their countries “they would be forced into gangs for drug running or sex or killed for refusing.”

At the end of their two exhausting weeks, Sister Constance called together the remaining boys in their Pod 23A “family” to tell them “this will be our last day.  We are going back to our school…” (St. Matthew’s). Explanation was important so the boys wouldn’t feel abandoned: “We learned that lesson… at De Sales. When Sisters were changed, the kids often thought that they didn’t like…them and that’s why they went away…Because we can’t touch them, we fist-bumped each one. It brought tears to us and them. They presented each of us with a RECUERDOS bracelet – remember, regards, memories.”