The press has gone.
Photographers no longer shadow us down the hallways as we tend to our guests. No more wanna-be volunteers show up at our door unannounced after having driven for hours from places like Denver or Phoenix. No more “angry moms” spend their mornings preparing breakfast and lunch for our migrant families as a positive response to their outrage.
Gone are the headlines about crying toddlers torn from the arms of their mothers and fathers. Gone are the news reports about abuses at detention centers.
Our lives are back to normal. Whatever “normal” is these days.
For those of us on the border, it may feel like we’re on our own again. It may seem as though people don’t care.
But I know that’s not true. I know you are listening, dear reader. I know that you do care. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.
So, I’d like to make you aware. Better inform you about the “norm” for so many who do feel as if no one cares. About the maltreatment asylum seekers face, especially when they hail from African countries. About the abuses that occur. About the loneliness and isolation.
Once you know, my hope is that you will not forget. And that you will take some small, positive action from where you are. Make a difference in at least one other lonely or abused person’s life that will add to the growing wave of merciful acts done in the name of humanity.
So that others will know they are not alone.
As you may know, I have been visiting asylum seekers detained at the ICE El Paso Processing Center through a nonprofit called CIVIC. CIVIC stands for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, and Jan, our local program administrator, has done a super job of connecting volunteer visitors with lonely people holed up in these prisons.
Some detainees have not had a visitor in over a year. They wait for Jan to connect them with an available volunteer. They feel so alone. Forgotten. Powerless.
Until last month when African asylum seekers at our detention facility became empowered.
They risked creating and signing a petition against the El Paso DHS ICE Field Office for “improperly and impartially” denying their parole and treating them unfairly. They claim they escaped persecution in their home countries and came here for safety, only to be persecuted at the hands of ICE officers and detention guards.
The majority of them have been in ICE custody for more than a year. They all arrived legally as asylum seekers at one of our EP ports of entry and had positive credible fear interviews, yet they remain in “immigration proceedings.” Proceedings that seem to have no end to them.
They have a right to parole through the Damus decision. And they have watched as parole is granted to Latin American detainees, especially to Cubans, awaiting their hearing, while their parole is unjustifiably denied.
At an alarming number.
A little background on the Damus decision. A teacher from Haiti, Ansly Damus has been confined in Ohio for more than a year-and-a-half. He fled his homeland fearing violence and political persecution and asked for asylum. An immigration judge granted him asylum not just once, but twice. But the government appealed those decisions and Damus remains locked up indefinitely even though he poses no threat and is eligible for parole. The judge has ruled that ICE violated its own procedures by not granting Damus release under what’s known as humanitarian parole.
That’s what our African detainees are petitioning for. Humanitarian parole.
On a personal note, I’ve been seeing my young Ethiopian friend, whom I call Mathias, for nearly nine months now. He’s been locked up for over a year. His birthday is coming up in early October. He’s told me he doesn’t want to spend another birthday behind these walls. Celebrate another year of his young life on hold.
It feels like such a small thing. To visit someone only once a week or a few times a month. It never feels like enough. And then he sends a letter saying how I make him strong and comfort him, how he is happy to have someone “on the outside” who cares. He says it’s not easy to be in detention, but he is “learning about life” and learning that there are “good-hearted people in this world like CIVIC.”
He is learning…and so am I.
I am learning that sometimes it feels like our hands are tied. That it feels like we are alone to face the wall or the tempest before us. But we are not.
Sometimes God shows up as the person accompanying us. Or the one accompanied.
Don’t forget this. Be the one who cares.
.NOTE: I am creating a new blog – same theme, different look. I hope to link it to this one, and I hope you will continue to follow me on this journey.
I love Virginia. I was so thrilled to be back visiting my former home that I pretty much wandered around with a continuous smile.
First there was the effects of all that spring rain. Virginia’s mountains and hillsides glowed with a vibrant green carpet. Trees and vegetation along the roadsides were so full, they seemed to reach out to embrace me.
I treasured hikes and gatherings with dear friends. Enjoyed surprise encounters with old friends at a special wedding. Spent time with Davis – always a treat – and got to see the wonderful adults some of his high school friends have become.
Virginia has given me so many precious memories and such special heart connections, who wouldn’t smile?
Even crossing the state line and seeing the familiar “Virginia is for lovers” slogan got me.
But I can’t say my entire trip was filled with goodness and happy thoughts.
Back home at the border things were heating up. Even before I left El Paso, we were seeing cases of asylum seekers being jailed and their children taken from them. In the week that followed my departure, a difficult and painful situation had deteriorated from bad to worse.
Not that I was watching TV news. But between emails from friends and contacts back home, along with snippets of Internet news, I couldn’t ignore what was happening.
Soon, along with the joy of being back in Virginia, I was carrying a heaviness on my heart. It accompanied me into bed at night and awoke with me every morning.
Seeing faces in the news similar to those of the families I accompany, knowing the pain and distortion they were being subjected to, I couldn’t rest easily. After all, I’ve listened to their stories, played with their shy children, prepared and eaten plate after plate of reheated rice and beans with them.
Maybe right about now you’re asking, how does this relate to the title of your blog post?
I admit that finding words to express all I’ve been experiencing these days is challenging.
But I’ll try.
Sunday while hiking in the Gila National Forest, I met a Navy veteran who’d lived in Virginia. When he discovered Virginia had been my home for 30 years, he shared his not-so-positive opinions about the commonwealth.
Far from the “Virginia is for lovers” motto, he saw Virginians as racists still living in the pre-Civil War era, honoring the Confederacy, stuck in time. (I should note he was Caucasian.)
Clearly, his “reality” differed greatly from mine.
Not that there aren’t people who act this way, but this is not the Virginia nor the Virginians I know.
This guy’s stereotype was not indicative of the special place where we raised our son.
Davis learned about love in Virginia. He learned compassion, not judgment. Acceptance, not racial profiling. He learned to meet people where they are and be generous with what he has.
My heart connection with Virginians has created a different reality.
It’s those heart connections – both in Virginia and on the border – that prevent me from lumping people into derogatory categories. Or labeling them “racists,” “animals,” “criminals” who are “infesting” us.
I could not malign and dismiss the people of Virginia any more than I could the families of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who come to our hospitality houses.
Why? Because living on the cusp of what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve experienced a different “reality.” Thankfully, a reality many of my Virginia friends wanted to hear about. And I’m so grateful for their listening open, loving hearts.
“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.”
― Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom
I agree that love IS the strongest force in the world. Love can turn things – and people – around.
And something else about love.
Love is strong and fierce in defense of those it loves. Love is not cowardly. It takes risks. Lovers do not sit quietly by while those they love are maligned.
I don’t intend to be silent in support of people I have come to love.
I make no apologies for the pain and anger I feel in my heart when I see a video of a Guatemalan mother, reunited with her 5-year-old son at the airport, sobbing into him as she tells him in Spanish that she loves him.
The pain that we have been inflicting on these children is a violent act. It is anything but love. It goes against the grain of what love is.
It goes against who I am.
This is not a time for silence or inertia. It’s a time for lovers – lovers in the true sense of the word – to speak up.
I experienced paradise for nearly two weeks. Every morning in Costa Rica I’d wake up happy.
And that’s despite getting up much earlier than usual.
The cacophony of birds greeting the dawn just wouldn’t let me sleep. Nor would the howler monkeys. With their loud calls seemingly so close to my window, I felt as though someone had planted my bed smack in the middle of the jungle.
But I’d jump up, no matter the hour, excited and eager to get out there and see what amazing colors and species of bird, animal, and plant I’d find today.
Costa Rica defines abundance.
For such a small country – it accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface – Costa Rica has nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity. An overabundance in my book. I couldn’t even keep up with the numbers. Something like 600 species of birds – more than the United States and Canada combined – at least 150 species of frogs, over 500 species of trees.
Every day was an adventure in joyful exploration. An encounter with tremendous beauty.
Daily, I found myself expressing gratitude for this incredible earth we’ve been placed on.
But everything wasn’t perfect. Neither in Costa Rica nor elsewhere on the planet.
While on vacation I wasn’t watching the news, but I couldn’t get away from what was happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. I continued to view emails and messages from friends and reliable news sources.
So, I was aware that the caravan of Central Americans had been denied entry to the U.S., with the claim that Border Patrol had reached its capacity and was unable to accept and process the asylum seekers, most of whom were mothers and children. I knew, too, that this was a charade. The caravan had been anticipated. It had been in the news for days. There was no reason, other than political, as to why Border agents weren’t prepared to receive them.
Meanwhile, back in El Paso, my fellow volunteers were helping an unusually high number of migrants. Texts and emails were coming through, rapidly and daily, for more volunteers, as ICE delivered more than 400 asylum seekers to our “hospitality houses” during the week I was gone.
It was such a contradiction. One border outside Tijuana unable to process a little more than 100 people who had been expected to arrive while another port of entry was taking in an unexpected 100 or more a day.
I couldn’t help but think about it. I imagine a hard stone wall, filled with anger, fear, and prejudice, stacked up against some people’s hearts, to keep from feeling their humanity towards immigrants. It is this wall, I suspect, that keeps us from feeling the pain and outrage over our government’s practice of now separating children – as young as 2 years old – from their mothers at the border. Mothers who have fled their country in order to save their children. Now suffering even greater heartbreak.
It felt like such a contradiction within myself, too.
One minute I was telling a co-traveler how Costa Rica makes my heart happy, and the next, I was explaining to another how the tragic and troubling situation at the border hurts my heart.
And both were true.
I don’t pretend to understand why there is such pain in an abundant universe.
This is the world we live in: one that can be both paradise and prison, both filled with immeasurable joy and immense sorrow.
And my faith lives in the midst of these seemingly contradictory experiences and emotions.
When I ask my inner being, what am I to do, I hear that my task is simply to learn to love. Love those in sorrow and pain, and love those who wound and hurt them because of their own pain and ignorance. Learn to hold all of this suffering and let my heart feel and expand in the process. Which really isn’t that simple, is it?
But this is what connects me to the One who has created such inexpressible beauty in nature and such vulnerable hearts capable of unimaginable pain.
It may seem contradictory, but both are gifts – treasures hidden in plain sight.
It’s Friday night. And I’m indulging in chicken smothered in a spicy chocolate sauce while a Fandango dancer clicks her heels on a small wooden block in the middle of the room.
I can’t say I’m a big fan of mole. It’s not something I would order in a Mexican restaurant. Not something that leaves me with a healthy feeling in my stomach.
And the Fandango dancing is basically one enthusiastic woman and two instrumentalists.
But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
I’m surrounded by good friends, lots of like-minded folks who want to support a good cause, and an awareness of what is possible when one person takes positive action.
Tonight, that would be my friend Cristina.
She totally planned and organized this evening’s fundraiser to rebuild a migrant center in Oaxaca. A safe haven for refugees passing through Mexico that was severely damaged by the recent earthquake. She’s volunteered there, as have others here tonight, and she wanted to help. She’s made all the food for the evening, from the Mexican hot chocolate, to the cheese and bean quesadillas, to her famous mole. She even found the Fandango dancers.
Earlier in the day, Cristina, who lives in Juarez, crossed the bridge to begin preparing. Arms loaded with Mexican chocolate, fresh Oaxaca cheese, freshly made tortillas, and gallons of milk, she wanted this to be an authentic Oaxacan meal.
Yet she had no idea how many people would show up. How many plates to prepare.
There she stands in the kitchen all night long – her smile bright, her energy unlimited, as she loads up plate after plate.
No sign of slowing down from the cancer that has invaded her body. She says nothing about it, speaks only of God’s goodness. Her face shines.
To me, Cristina is “full of the Spirit.” She sees what is needed and responds. And she does it with grace.
Like the center she opened for abused and traumatized teens in Anapra. Through games and dance and art, she teaches them body, mind, and spirit practices to help them heal.
Like the volunteering she does at the clinic for disabled children where she patiently teaches children who can’t speak how to mouth letters.
Cristina has chosen to fully live. No matter what is attacking her body.
And she reminds me of the good that one person can do.
I see so much of that. So much good in humanity. Not just in Cristina.
It’s true, we all know the tragedy one person can inflict. We’ve seen it again this week in Las Vegas. But I see so much more out of that tragedy. I see the people who responded with goodness. Those who risked their own lives to rescue others. Those who lined up and waited 8 hours to give blood. Those who responded to the “Go Fund Me” site set up for the victims. Another example of an event planned without knowing how many would respond. Who could have anticipated that they’d raised $1M in 7 hours?
Time and again I witness the good in humanity.
And it’s worth repeating. Miracles can happen through the actions of one person. It’s amazing.
I may even become a fan of mole.