A Boy from a “Shithole Country”

 

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You may have a reaction to this vulgar term. Maybe you’re tired of hearing it already.

I get it.

But please stick with me. I have a story to tell. And it matters that you read this.

My new friend – I’ll call him Mathias – sleeps on a mattress so thin, he feels the cold steel of the springs underneath him. A bullet lodged into his left side presses into him, aggravated by the hard coils of his assigned bed. He tries to sleep only on his right, but even then, the pain barely diminishes. The bullet, put there long ago by police who were supposed to protect him.

Mathias is a 25-year-old asylum seeker from one of those African countries.

He’s not a criminal. Yet, he is a prisoner.

He’s one of the detainees I visit weekly at the El Paso Detention facility.

We’ve never hugged. I’ve not been able to touch his shoulder or squeeze his hand in support. Even though I’ve longed to.

I speak to Mathias from the other side of a glass. With a phone to my ear, my body hunched forward, as if straining will help me hear his words more clearly, I listen. To stories of hardship and trauma I’ve never known.

Stories of the challenges of living in confinement.

Stories of hope.

Because Mathias does have hope. Despite all he’s experienced.

He hopes in a country that values liberty, justice, and the dignity and right to life. He hopes in a court system that will do the right thing.

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I wish I could share that hope.

Mathias was just a boy, away at school, when his entire family, threatened by corrupt police, fled the country.

It’s been years since he’s seen his mother.

He smiles when I come to see him, asks how my week was, if I’ve heard from my son, who’s only a year older than he is.

I think of Mathias’s mother, holed up in a refugee camp in Kenya. She didn’t get to say goodbye.

Mathias tried to live a “normal” life without his family. Continue school, then hold down a job, save money. But the police threatened him. He had to flee. By that time, crossing the border wasn’t easy. He couldn’t join his family in the camp. He had to get help.

His story of how he made it all the way to the El Paso port of entry is more than admirable. It’s an amazing story of the human spirit. Of faith, hope, trust.

He trusts in the promises of a free and democratic society.

Still. In spite of his shock that, after pouring out his story to Border Customs, they handcuffed him and tossed him in detention to await his fate.

And he’s not unusual.

More weary asylum seekers have been arriving at our ports of entry, fleeing violence from places as far as Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Congo, as well as from El Salvador and Guatemala. Countries that are not on the U.S. list of favorable places to migrate from.

Whether our president used those exact words or not to describe these countries is not the point. The real concern is his intention.

And ours.

Words like “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” and “immigrant” have become associated with something evil. Or, at least, something undesirable.asylum

Yet international law supports asylum seekers. International law says a Government is prohibited from returning someone to their country if they will be subjected to torture or persecution or death. But a recent report compiled by human rights organizations at the border documents cases where we have not been following that law.

It shows that more punitive and inhumane deterrence practices are being implemented towards asylum seekers under this administration. More human rights violations are being recorded.

Surprisingly, the report also shows, El Paso courts have one of the highest denial rates for asylum seekers. It’s a sad reality that makes no sense.

Yet, the outcome of a case is determined by the judge assigned rather than the severity of the asylum seeker’s life-threatening situation and the credibility of their supporting documentation.

I may be going against the grain here, but I am actually praying that Mathias wins his asylum case and remains in the U.S.

I am praying that more and more of these violations come to light. And that they matter to people like you.

And I pray that one day winning an asylum case will not be a rare occurrence in many of our courts.

It’s worthwhile noting that National Right to Life Day is January 22. The right to life, the dignity of a life, extends to all human beings, not just the unborn. Not just those who were lucky enough to be born in the United States.

For me, Mathias – and thousands others like him – is the voiceless little one who needs me to stand up and say, you are a child of God. You have a right to live.

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Davis Gets It…Again

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Annunciation House in downtown El Paso

I had Davis to myself for nearly five days over the Christmas holiday. That has to be a first.

Usually, whenever he’s home, he has friends to catch up with, numerous social engagements to attend, and at least one overnighter at a best friend’s house. But I’m not in Virginia anymore.

Here in El Paso, he had nothing on his social calendar except visiting me.

Despite my glee, I wasn’t stingy with him. I didn’t hoard his attention. I shared him with El Paso.

After all, he was the first of my intimate circle of family and friends to visit, and I was anxious to show him around. To introduce him to life at the border and expose him to the people and places that mean so much to me. I wanted to give him the full effect.

And I hoped he would understand.

On Christmas Eve, his first day, we attended the annual Las Posadas and intimate Christmas Eve Mass and dinner at Annunciation House – a hospitality house for migrants and refugees that has been operating for 40 years in downtown El Paso. Entirely run on donations and volunteers, the building is old, but it’s filled with the precious hearts and stories of those who have passed through its doors.

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A woman prays by her bed in her assigned room at Annunciation House

 

This was Davis’s first Las Posadas.  He didn’t seem to mind as we walked the street, knocking on doors, singing in Spanish – a language he doesn’t know. We followed a little girl posing as Mary, a lace shawl draped around her head, accompanied by her raggedy-dressed Joseph – both of them real-life refugees.

When we gathered back at Annunciation House, he didn’t seem to mind the peeling paint and cracked walls. Or that he had to stand during the service because there weren’t enough seats. He toured the house with one of the 20-something year-old volunteers who’ve made a year-long commitment to work and live here, and he asked thoughtful questions. He listened to fellow volunteers share stories about what this place means to them. Posole-Dish-1

Then we ate a simple Christmas Eve meal of Posole, a traditional Mexican stew made with hominy, while sitting on a hard bench alongside refugees from the Congo, Guatemala, and Honduras. Davis even scrounged up the courage to practice his French with the African woman. Not knowing either English or Spanish, she had been silent until he engaged her in conversation.

The next morning at breakfast I asked what he thought about our unique Christmas Eve celebration.

Without hesitation, he said, “I can see God is present here.”

As he spoke of the volunteers’ commitment to the people, of all the “good” and the generosity he’d witnessed, my heart filled.

He’d seen what I’d wanted him to see. After only one day!

During the rest of his trip, in quiet moments, Davis asked questions about his dad. He wanted to remember the quirky aspects of David’s personality. Hear more about his father’s childhood and the early days of our marriage.

I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I became acutely aware of David’s presence in our conversations. I felt immense warmth and gratitude.

I never wanted Davis to suffer this loss at such a young age, in the middle of the most important stage of his relationship with his father.  Yet I know he is wiser because of this experience. His life is richer, his insights deeper, his compassion more genuine.

It’s what enabled him to stand in this place at the border with me and see what I see. With an awareness and understanding that comes from the heart.

Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who’s worked with gang members in LA for 30 years and wrote the best seller Tattoos on the Heart, spoke about this in a recent interview with Krista Tippett. He says that “standing in the lowly place with the easily despised and the readily left out,” he finds more joy, kinship, mutuality. He’s discovered that “the measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship.”

Kinship

Sometimes that kinship comes in the guise of wounds.

As one of Fr. Boyle’s homies, who’d been abused and beaten throughout his childhood, explained, “How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?”

So, we have to welcome our wounds. These hurting places within us. And I think if we are not afraid to acknowledge them, and know that we are loved unconditionally in them, we will be better able to stand in that “lowly place” offering kinship to those whom society considers dismissible, disposable.

And we will see with different eyes. The eyes that saw what Davis saw in El Paso.

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