S. Kathy Crowley's Border Experience

Stories of Justice

Solidarity in the Unknown

By Mary Flick, CSJ

When Sister Kathy Crowley left for El Paso in late-August to help at Narareth/Loretto House, a shelter for immigrants who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, she thought she would return with lots of stories to tell: why they had come to the U.S., how they made their way to the border, what trials and troubles they had experienced on the way. “But I don’t have those stories,” she confessed when she returned to St. Louis in mid-September. “And that’s good.” She found that the unknown is what most closely united her with those she served.

“We were told that we have these people for a very short time,” Sister Kathy recalls. “They have just been through multiple countries, through the Immigration process, and all of a sudden, they have come to us. So we were encouraged not to ask them questions about their journey. Those kinds of questions were more for the benefit of the questioner than to really help the person.”

S. Kathy spent two weeks making the nation’s newest refugees comfortable for a day or two before they moved on to stay with family members elsewhere in the U.S. and wait for their immigration court date. Most came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador; few came from Mexico. 

As she reflects on her time in El Paso, the image that stays with her is the sight of 20 to 25 families exiting a windowless immigration bus in silence. “We would shout, ‘Welcome! Benvenido!’ They would look at us and smile, but they had no idea where they were being brought,” S. Kathy said. “Some did not even know they were in El Paso.”

That sense of the unknown was encountered countless times by S. Kathy and the refugees during their stay. The refugees had declared themselves political refugees. “They cannot make a case to stay because their family is starving,” S. Kathy tells. “Rather they have to have been fleeing their country because of political upheaval or violence.” But even their legal refugee declaration does not guarantee they will be granted a stay in the U.S.

Most refugees do not have cell phones and have not been in touch with their relatives during their arduous journey. So the phone call from the shelter, though frequently anticipated, was usually a surprise for the relatives. S. Kathy often had the opportunity to deliver the news in Spanish that their loved ones had arrived and were in need of a bus ticket or airfare to join them within the next 24 to 48 hours.

To combat their unknowing, S. Kathy says, “We (volunteers) told them were from the Catholic Church and I introduced myself as ‘Hermana.” She says, “That seemed to give them the assurance they were safe.” And before they left Nazareth/Loretto shelter, staff would encourage the refugees to find a Catholic Church as soon as they joined their family, to see if the Church could provide any services for them.

Two things S. Kathy could provide were her time and conversation in their native language. She had recently returned to St. Louis after almost 20 years as a clinical social worker at a hospital in Los Angeles. Now on sabbatical, she says, “I wanted to make time to serve and have my eyes opened to the new realities [of our world].”

Before her time in L.A., she had lived in Tucson, working for a clinic where she registered patients who had no health insurance. Many of them were undocumented immigrants. And prior to that, she had spent four years in the Peru vice-province. There she became conversant in Spanish. “I never realized how much Spanish would help me the rest of my life,” she says.

There was one other valuable commodity S. Kathy brought to the refugees: her smile. “[During the orientation], we would tell them they would have a room, meals and a shower. They all would smile,” she says, “because they had slept on the floor and had not had a shower in the four days they were in Immigration.”

And while all had left their home country with identification, it was taken from them at the border. “All they had when they reached us were immigration papers that they have to show all the time,” S. Kathy said. “They would ask me if they would get their identification back at the hearing. I would tell them, ‘I don’t know.’ We had been told not to provide answers because everything is so arbitrary.”

One of S. Kathy’s primary jobs was to take the new guests’ personal information: their country of origin, their destination, and whether they had come alone or if there were family members they had been separated from.

S. Kathy says one woman had come with her 7-year-old niece, who had been living with her for a year, after her mother had migrated to the U.S. “The Immigration officials took the child,” she says. “I had questions about where that child would be. But I didn’t know any more than the aunt knew. Not knowing gave me a sense of solidarity with the guests.”

Nazareth/Loretto House tries to create a totally positive experience for the refugee, S. Kathy says. “We welcome them with smiles and hugs, give them food and shelter, and help them connect with family, then send them on their way – hopefully to a better life.

“It was not important for me to find the whys of their situation, or if their cause is valid. Our job was to be compassionate and positive. What’s important for me, as a follower of Jesus, is to make as positive an experience in this mess as can be made.”

And often, that would involve the children. “I would talk to the kids,” S. Kathy says, “and try to get them to speak English. They would love it. Their mothers would smile. I taught them to say, “Thank you very much,’ Because that’s really key.”

The positive experience she helped create for the refugees created the same for her. “I have a lot of positive memories of people seeming to relax a bit when they came fearful,” she says. “I tried to give them a little smile on the way of what will be a difficult journey.”

10/21/16

*** 

The needs continue for the refugees in El Paso. And Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet continue to go to meet those needs. Sister Sandra Straub will leave tomorrow, Oct. 22, for two weeks. She will take with her a suitcase of donations from province members, filled with tote bags, toiletries, new underwear and socks, as well as gifts of cash. Several additional boxes of collected goods will be sent to Annunciation House. Sister Joan Tolle will leave Oct. 26 for two weeks. On Nov. 7, Sister Patrice Coolick and Sister Lorraine Polacci (LA) will leave for a month.  

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