Sisters answer call at the border: April 25-May 9
Closing Reflection - May 10, 2021
by Pat Ruda, FSPA justice & peace coordinator
Mixed emotions surface.
May 7, 2021, was our last full day in Arizona at the U.S. border. As I ponder my experiences, I have a lot of mixed emotions. Together with Sisters Kristin, Meg, Rose and Theresa, we carry the lessons we learned and will share what we have been privileged to experience with anyone open to hearing us.
Our volunteer activities at Casa Alitas kept us busy many days working two shifts to feed, clothe and drive guests to the airport. On our final day we served 70 guests breakfast and dinner last night. We were rewarded with two packs of cookies from a sweet little girl and her mother. A couple gave us this drawing and thank you note in Spanish. Both guests and staff were very appreciative of our service and I am the lucky one to be able to be present at this time.
Forced migration will not stop and this summer will continue to be very busy here at the border. Many will still cross the desert in search of a better or safer life. More will perish, with temperatures already climbing to 100 degrees. The water that we placed while we were there may help a few, but the desert is harsh and unforgiving.
Update 7 - May 7, 2021
by Sister Rose Elsbernd
Who would guess what one might get into? The type of job one might be asked to do?
Sister Kristin came looking for me at Casa Alitas while I was working in the clothing department. She says, “Will you come with me to get some flowers?” My thought is we’ll get a few cut flowers to give to someone in appreciation.
The next day, Kristin finds me again. She has the keys to Casa Alitas director’s pickup and his credit card. Now the message is a bit clearer. We head to the lawn and garden place and buy plants for the 30 large pots that line the wall of the exercise area of the former detention complex.
So off we go, with GPS guiding us and Diego’s trust in us.
My experience in a garden center set me free to get a trolley and look for plants in flats. “Oh, these are pretty; I like these colors” was my guidance from Sister Kristin. With instructions to “go for it,” we enjoyed our experience. We ended with three of four different flowering plants to give to each pot.
As we check on the pots, we find they are arranged in various areas, enhancing the room with color and delight. And the smiles seemed to follow.
Helping the cause, continued …
The large bag of bread rested on the table. Certain that no food is rejected as it comes in the door, the question arose: “what are we to do with all this?” Off the top of my head I mentioned bread pudding. Pat agreed that while I was going to use the potatoes, carrots and onions for soup, I might make the pudding, too. A quick Google search gave us a simple recipe that included milk and eggs and cinnamon. That sounded simple enough, except that Casa Alitas does not have an oven or a kitchen stove. All they have are the large roasters — and yet we feed 50 migrants breakfast.
So while we went home for lunch, the kitchen at our Airbnb took on the smells of cooking and baking. We returned to Casa Alitas to help with the dinner...and now they will have dessert. The soup we will package and freeze. Each day, soup is provided as the migrants come in on buses from Yuma or Nogales. A little thing, soup and providing a dessert. It is my delight to serve. Even as we return to La Crosse, a gift remains in the frozen soup that will be used another day.
Update 6 - May 6, 2021
by Amy DuPont, WKBT News 8
Update 5 - May 4, 2021
by Pat Ruda, FSPA justice & peace coordinator
A day at Casa Alitas
It has been my experience that one never knows what to expect when she embarks on a volunteer mission at the U.S. border. Each day looks very different depending on what the mission needs. In Tucson at Casa Alitas there is a rhythm to the days. Volunteers arrive at 8 a.m. and may be assigned to work in the kitchen or clothing room, float positions or help desk. Medical personnel are there when needed or upon request.
The breakfast shift personnel get to work right away cutting fruit, setting up the breakfast carts with hard boiled eggs, cereal, sweet breads and a coffee cart. We served 40 for breakfast on this Monday morning. Lunch is served at noon and is always a hot meal. Many residents from Tucson donate hot dishes, baked goods and a variety of cold salads. Dinner is served at 6 p.m. and usually consists of cold salads, rolls, fruit and baked items.
Seven paid staff and over 400 volunteers serve Casa Alitas. Much of the food, clothes, shoes and personal hygiene products are all donated. The people of Tucson are very generous, sharing their talents and treasures.
Today there were sixteen families at Casa Alitas. Their home countries include Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and India. The predominant languages include Spanish and Portuguese. Nine pregnant women and an individual with intestinal issues received medical attention.
Families arrived on two buses late in the day from Yuma; all 36 people were welcomed to Casa Alitas. Earlier in the day, seven arrived from Nogales. One of the first “faces” they see is this statue that was handcrafted by and donated by a Casa Alitas volunteer. It sits in the entryway near intake.
Upon arrival, they are offered soup and fruit during intake. Families are COVID tested and assigned to rooms where they will await departure to their sponsors. For the majority, the turnaround time at Casa Alitas is only a few days. Most are now leaving by plane to their final destination at this time in the U.S.
It has been a privilege to serve these migrant people and of course I am particularly drawn to the children as I serve them. Everyone is appreciative and says thanks in multiple languages and I smile at them through my two masks I am required to wear. It’s a blessing to serve during a day at Casa Alitas.
Update 4 - May 3, 2021
by Sister Meg Earsley
Last night, I finally finished the "shoe project" of sorting and labeling all the shoes (from infant to men's size 12!) that they had. I found just a few that had no laces and I wondered if Border Patrol makes the children remove their laces like they make the parents. I also wonder if these shoes were given back to us when a little girl was given shoes that fit her better. I found some bright pink laces that match well with these happy shoes and said a prayer for the little girl who receives them. Today, in addition to helping families with clothing needs, I will work on organizing the toy room and my prayers will be lifted up for all the little ones who will be happy to play with them. I am so blessed.
Sister Meg also shared this photo and description, "It’s what we purchased and donated to Casa Alitas with donations sent along with us from sisters and others. Casa Alitas didn’t have any of those children’s shoe sizes and were low on certain sizes of women’s and men’s underwear.
Update 3 - April 30, 2021
by Sister Theresa Keller
The days for our group are starting to melt into each other. We all continued service at Casa Alitas getting to know some of the volunteer staff and engaging in opportunities to interact with guests. The general turn around for a guest is usually one to three days but can be as short as an hour and as long as a week. Gathered in a large open space that was the detention center courtyard, upon arrival the migrants are grouped by families. The staff is off and running providing liquids and simple food like yogurt and soups. Medical staff make quick triage assessments for dehydration and illnesses. Quickly, all are COVID-19 screened.
Staff sit in a circle with families gathering information and destination. It is unknown how long the journey has been for many and the fatigue is heavy on faces. Children stay within arms reach of parents. This circle repeats many times a day. Once a family is through the initial contact at Casa, a small room in the former detention area is assigned. Showers, clean clothing, shoes and backpacks seem to lift the load so many are carrying. The children begin playing and voices are stronger. Folks leave and the circle continues.
I am told by the medical staff these are the lucky folks who make it this far. But the journey for the asylum seekers will not be simple. I am struck to my heart by the resolve to have better — not more — but a better life.
The Casa medical staff provides support and treats simple medical problems. The Casa staff is a long-term devoted group of volunteers. The picture of medical care at the Kino Border Initiative varies greatly from Casa. Kino is not as blessed with consistent medical volunteers and the pandemic made the situation worse. Kino staff remains diligent to the medical needs of the asylum seekers but lacking the medical volunteers only offers limited assistance. It is a very complex situation with no easy solution.
I ponder, how does one help? What are the better questions to ask?
Here are a few scenes from our days at Casa Alitas, Sister Meg (top photo) and Sister Rose (middle photo):
Update 2 - April 28, 2021
by Sister Kristin Peters
Los Besos y los Embrazos (kisses and embraces)
As we approach la frontera (the border) Shura our friend and guide pulls over and parks the van at an old gas station. She is a volunteer with Green Valley Good Samaritans. She responds to the needs of immigrants on both sides of the border; we learn it is something she can’t help but do. At 80 years old responding in any other way would not fit. I walk with our group in anticipation toward our destination on the other side of the border. Rod iron fencing accompanies us across the territory claimed by North Americans. Upon reaching Mexican soil a few people greet our seasoned guide and good Samaritan. One man is selling things, another washing windshields, one waves and calls out from under covers. He is resting under a concrete footbridge. We are visiting Kino Border Initiative (KBI). Arriving at our destination I look up; I am both struck and touched by the hands on the outside of the building. The image is evocative. I realize it is because I have just crossed a border where so much struggle and pain has been lived out. People on both sides of the border contend with who is kept out and who is allowed in.
On the Mexican side of the border I find a place of hospitality and support. The hands indicate this message powerfully. Viscerally, I feel connected with this place. People who were deported that morning and others who are seeking reentry are standing in different lines. There is another group of people waiting to meet with a psychologist or for the children’s program. Psychological and legal aid, food, shelter and education are all offered here for free. My community, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA), supports the KBI’s ability to provide legal aid.
Standing near the entry Pat, Meg, Theresa, Rose and I greet and talk with some of the people. We hear how Jesus was deported, how he arrived in the states as a child, how he was arrested for driving without a license, and was incarcerated for three years. He was deported to Mexico in September and is waiting for the program that will support him in applying for re-entry. His voice cracks as he shares about wanting to return to his spouse and three children. We listen to his experience with reverence and anger and offer prayers. He says he is grateful for our prayers.
I greet a mother with two small children. One of the children, perhaps three years old, takes my hand and kisses it and then kisses it two more times. I notice she kisses where I have a band aid. I had surgery there about 6 months ago. At first I smile, look into her eyes and then into her mom’s eyes. I respond to her and to her mom that she is giving me los besos. Mom shares about her recent deportation, of not being allowed in again, her eyes tear. My heart is moved and I feel her desperation. I long to embrace her in the pain we now share. Because of Covid I do not offer an embrace; instead I put my hand on my heart and offer my prayers.
Children know about band aids, about pain, and suffering. The first thing the child does in her desire to connect is to kiss the place where I have a wound. I question, what if we met others’ pain in the way this child did on our border lands? What if we took time to consider the pain and wounds of those on the other side of the wall? It takes time not only to see my own pain and longing and also that of the other. It takes time for reverberation to occur with the other; it requires presence and a pause and attention to consider the significance, causes, and draws that lead another to migrate. Jesus’ family fled violence and went to Egypt. They were rejected and they found a place to stay. They were not separated as families who cross our borders are today. Joseph was not put in detention while his spouse received an ankle bracelet.
Update 1 - April 27, 2021
by Sister Meg Earsley
Organized chaos. That’s how I describe my first impressions of Casa Alitas as we came into the office for our first day of volunteering at the center. Formerly one of the housing units of the Pima County jail, the shelter was bustling with activity. There were volunteers meeting with residents to help with various things. Ali, a Jesuit Corps volunteer, was answering phone calls, talking to residents and getting a driver ready to take a family to the airport – all while giving us a tour. Donations were coming in, and lunch was just finishing. It was bustling with activity, but in an organized and flowing manner. There was a color-coded television display with a chart of all the sleeping units and who was housed in them. At that time, 31 families were being sheltered, and 22 more were planned to arrive in the evening. They will stay at Casa Alitas for a short time as they transition to be with their sponsors.
I spent the majority of my day sorting and organizing clothes in a large room. Racks and bins of clothes were ready to be provided to the people who came, along with toiletries and nourishing food. Bags were prepacked with outfits so everyone would have something clean to wear as soon as they arrived. COVID precautions limit the interactions between volunteers and residents but I had some opportunities to smile and wave with a “hello” and a “hola,” which was quickly returned to me.
A few times, residents would stop by to ask for something specific, like a bigger shirt. I was fortunate to be able to help a little girl with some flip-flops for her to wear in the shower. Her young father had previously stopped by asking for a pair of pants for his little boy. Even though I don’t understand much Spanish, he was able to tell me that the shelter was “bonito” with a big smile. He also offered to help with mowing the grass or raking while he was at the shelter. His warm smile, outgoing spirit, and compassion toward me when I was having trouble communicating, was really inspiring.
Our group decided that we would volunteer to help in the evenings in the future, as that seems to be their most challenging time for volunteers. Buses come from Yuma, Arizona, in the evenings normally. We will help welcome and get newcomers the things they need upon arrival. Backpacks filled with clothes, bags of toiletries and activity packs for the kids – along with food and a safe place to sleep.
I look forward to returning to Casa Alitas. As I think of the young families I met today, I can’t help but think about my great-great grandparents who came to the United States of America for a chance at a better life. I wonder if their faces held as much hope as those from today. Hope that after all their struggles, they would find a safe and happy home.
Article and action
Sister Theresa Keller forwarded this article as an educational piece regarding language, noting the use of words migrant, immigrants, migration, asylum seekers, asylum request and refugees. Included is an action item to urge President Biden to end the misuse of the Title 42 public health authority to expel asylum seekers and migrants at the border.
Read and act: What is happening at the border
April 26, 2021
Departing for the border: CBS's WKBT affiliate shares the story
An FSPA team departed for Tucson on April 26 and returns May 9. They will volunteer at Casa Alitas and at the Kino Border Initiative. Pictured are Sister Rose Elsbernd, Sister Kristin Peters, Sister Theresa Keller and Pat Ruda. Meeting them (not pictured) is Sister Meg Earsley.
“Any time people are suffering, I would hope that we as a community would be attentive to that. And if we can help out in any matter, we should choose to do it,” Sister Rose Elsbernd says. Watch the WKBT story here.
In the spirit of the FSPA provocative movement to build bridges of relationships that stretch us to be people of encounter who stand with all suffering in our Earth Community, and educating ourselves on the intersection of climate crisis, racism, and migration, the FSPA Encuentro@TheBorder group has commissioned a team to respond to an emergency call from Catholic Charities.
According to the request received via the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, “... the 19 Catholic Charities border sites in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are all facing the challenges of caring for many families and children. The specific points of entry are fluid. As of now, Laredo, McAllen, Tucson, Yuma, San Antonio, and San Diego are facing significant numbers of arrivals, but that can change tomorrow. Currently, the most urgent needs are volunteers who speak Spanish and financial aid to buy clothes for the children."
In response, an FSPA team departed for Tucson on April 26 and returns May 9. The team includes: Pat Ruda, justice and peace promoter for FSPA, Sister Theresa Keller, nurse practitioner, Gundersen Health System, La Crosse, Wisconsin, Sister Rose Elsbernd, spiritual director, Franciscan Spirituality Center, La Crosse, Wisconsin, Sister Meg Earsley, host, administrative assistant and program presenter, Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center, Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin and Sister Kristin Peters, counselor, Chicago, Illinois.
The team will collaborate with Casa Alitas in Tucson and the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.