There are no words to describe what a shelter is. Only when one is a witness of the relief provided to so many people, can one value and appreciate a shelter in all its magnitude. We were blessed recently to be part of the solidarity shown to immigrants at the St. Charles Shelter in El Paso, Texas, and to see how it attracts, as a magnet, the unity of other people and institution. We arrived at the shelter on Monday, November 4, 2018. The staff toured the facilities with us and explained the policies and daily procedures.
The Saint Charles Shelter operates with a team of volunteers, most of whom are women 50 years old or older, who provide services to the migrants related to food, lodging, laundry, and telephone connections with their relatives or with those who will receive them. They also provide transportation services to bus stations or to the airport. Ten full-time volunteers live at the shelter.
The maximum capacity at the shelter is 100. Thirty to forty migrants arrive daily; at times this number increases to sixty or seventy. They come from Honduras, San Salvador, Guatemala a, d Brazil and stay for two or three days.
Volunteers cook and serve breakfast. Lunch and dinner are prepared by different groups from parishes in El Paso and neighboring places. Towels and sheets used by the refugees are washed daily; blankets are disinfected with spray.
Every day, a bus drives people from Migration Detention Centers to the eight different shelters in El Paso. Most of them are detained at these shelters from four to fifteen days where they receive only one meal a day and can bathe only once during their stay. The temperature in the Detention Centers is kept low, so when the immigrants reach the shelter, they are exhausted, and most of the children have colds. Most immigrants travel with one or two children, and some bring babies.
Many experience various forms of stress. One afternoon, a woman who traveled alone with her five-year old child fainted while she was waiting to take a shower. The child was very scared and cried. He feared that his mother could die. Those minutes seemed like hours to us until his mother, a 24-year old woman, recovered.
When the immigrants arrive at the shelter, after we welcome them, they register and contact by telephone the people who will receive them in this country. They call across the country – to New Jersey, Maryland, Maine, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, California, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, New México– and because they have no money, they ask their contacts to buy tickets for their trip. They are always hungry when they arrive. It is very moving to see how the babies “devour” food. If they drop a piece of food, they pick it up with their little hands and put it in their mouths. Sometimes the pieces of food are so small that they could be considered crumbs. It is difficult to hold back our tears when we see this. The babies are not the only ones who do this; children and adults do the same. After dinner, the atmosphere changes and they begin to feel the effects of the warm welcome and hospitality they have received.
Before their departure from the shelter, we give the migrants clothes suitable for the places where they will go. We also provide them with a backpack for their use during the trip containing items for personal hygiene, a towel, a blanket and a pillow.
But why do they come here?
Most of them are escaping from extreme poverty conditions and from the violence of organized crime which is increasing in Central America. Yesterday, a couple with three children arrived from Guatemala. They had to run away because two armed men, covered with hoods, demanded the payment of a fee for the small business they have there. Because they did not receive the fee, they shot the husband six times, at point-blank range, and they left him, presuming he was dead. Fortunately, he survived. He still has the marks of the six bullets around his waist and heart. One of the bullets broke a bone in his arm and he is wearing a metal support with six screws. Thanks be to God he is alive.
Yesterday, we received three small girls with their heads full of lice. They were very frightened and were crying. Thank God we had an excellent medicine cabinet so we could give them the first treatment. Word spread that I was excellent in treating this problem and I was told that others who needed attention would be referred to me!
Some of the immigrants arrive very ill with colds and other ailments. Yesterday, a boy and a girl with chicken pox came to the shelter. A doctor, who visits every day after work, immediately took the necessary precautions. The mothers take care of the smaller children and those who are ill.
The children are a living lesson of resilience. They arrive exhausted, sad and nervous, but the next day they are outside playing football and are happy! Usually, their parents join them.
Our experience at the shelter was very difficult because of the migrants’ suffering and struggles. Most of them arrived without dignity due to the terrifying conditions of their journey from Central America or their time at the Detention Center. It was also a joy to see them recover their dignity by the time they left the shelter. The service at the shelter is simple humanitarian assistance. We also enjoyed the team work of many, many volunteers. The donations (clothes, food, time) of many people gave us HOPE: hope in the good will of many people, hope that another world is possible.
After a week of work in the shelter, we need a pause to recover our strength.
By Sisters Bertha Elena Flores and Cecilia Zavala