Julia Gerwe, who has been living and working at Nazareth as an AmeriCorps Volunteer, has traveled to El Paso to serve for three weeks with Annunciation House, working with immigrants and refugees on the border. She shares her reflections so far… 

Day One: The emotional toll of accompaniment 

A few years ago, while attending the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, I had heard a story from a person accompanying impoverished migrants toward the border, sharing a tender “breaking of bread” that happened to be the final parcels of food that the group had. This volunteer expressed some concern that he was eating the last food they had; to which a wise person (probably a woman, OfC J ) replied:

“Tonight we share our food, tomorrow we share our hunger” 

This is solidaridad (solidarity). And nothing rings truer of my first day in El Paso than this.

This is not to say that I claim to relate to the culminations of trauma, suffering, and ailments that many migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees are facing. However, spending just today jumping into the process of meeting basic needs, my own and others, reminds me of how intertwined my own humanity is with those whom I am working.

I spent a large part of today feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused. And confused I still kind of am but writing this is helping me to process some of the others. Meeting people’s basic needs is really 24/7 work, and really that is all that we are doing here, now. The organization with which I’m working, Annunciation House, does incredible work and really stands by their mission to serve and be with the poorest of the poor – therefore, I’ve been forced to reflect often today on what are our human “needs” versus our human “nice to have-s” (not even really wants). A baby needs a diaper? Need. A person needs shampoo? Need (and something we have in abundance). A person needs deodorant? Nice to have (something we don’t have in abundance). No can do sir, lo siento (I am sorry).

Making decisions about how many pairs of underwear I can give to a little 9-year-old yearning to feel clean and loved has made me really uncomfortable today. Making a Costco run to get cans of baby formula and children’s’ outfits – again, meeting the most basic of needs for children who are sick and have soiled themselves and need nutrition – also left me uncomfortable as I worried over our budget for these basic needs whilst seeing local residents buying $100+ pet toys and basketfuls of seasonal plants (mostly because I’m generally a SUCKER for buying toys for my kitten, not that expensive, mind you, AND new plants – but today there were bigger fish to fry). Also, coming to my bed at the end of the day, typing this on my laptop, and resting easy knowing that I will have a home to return to in three weeks with many luxuries these people haven’t experienced in a year (or more) while being held in Mexico before re-entry into the United States makes me uncomfortable.

So, we find solidarity where we can. Many people stay with this organization for a very brief amount of time before travelling to their “sponsors” in various parts of the U.S. One mother and daughter (6 years old) arrived at the same time I did last night and left this evening. I was able to accompany them to the bus station, and in that moment, accompaniment looked like reassuring them that people would speak Spanish in their destination city. It also looked like sharing smiles and giggles with my new little friend as she danced in the bus station, excited to see her relatives.

When I returned to our residence after that experience, a local parishioner (church member) had prepared and delivered a home-cooked meal for all guests. “Tonight we share our food, tomorrow we share our hunger” truly never rang truer than in that moment, when joy abounded in the warmth of a prepared meal. Can’t a home-cooked meal really change everything? Besides these local food donations, this organization relies on a local food bank to provide food for breakfast and lunch for its volunteers. This generosity is really remarkable, but I can only imagine – entering a new country with a completely different cuisine and receiving what, hot oats and water for breakfast? Or a preservative-packed sandwich with grape preserves and peanut spread, instead of the tamales that have fed you for twenty years? What a culture shock. For me, my dietary restrictions have complicated my own eating, which is something I’ve become more aware of since being gluten and dairy free. My “hanger” (hungry anger) got the best of me by late morning today and I was so grateful to take a break to run to the local grocery store to buy some fresh food I could eat. I felt a different kind of discomfort, however, when I was able to eat my fresh salad, tomatoes, yogurt, and banana for lunch. Am I any more worthy of fresh food that makes my body feel good than anyone else here? Of course not.

Tension abounds in these situations, as in the operations of working at my site overall. I think a lot about “community-centered” development, but it’s almost a different ballgame when you have approximately 24-hours to meet someone’s basic needs and get them on a bus or plane to their ultimate destination. There is little room for cognitive dissonance, which I really did struggle with today.

While there were difficult and exhausting moments of this first day, hope really does abound. Horrible situations can bring out the worst and best in humanity, and it is clearer to me than ever that refugees and immigrants fall in the latter (the best). Gratitude, patience, and kindness run rampant here. There is hope that, despite being constantly tracked via an ICE ankle monitor, what’s coming is better than what has been. There is beauty, power, and freedom in the unknowns for this community. I walk with them in feeling a little lost in the current moment. Sometimes laughing at having to repeat the same sentence with my repetitive “que”s (what?) is all one can do when I end up as the gatekeeper of the organization’s supply room. I am grateful that there was laughter and not anger. We are all on some journey.

Finally, a note on one of my real passions: policy. Until this moment, I have spent years wrapping my head around the policies that have shaped that past, present, and future of immigration in the United States. From U.S. foreign policy throughout Latin American that has devastated the region to assisting asylum-seekers in their asylum legal process; my view of what is happening at ports of entry and along the border fence has all been conceptual. It is becoming starkly more real to me now that the intake/detention/interview process of immigrants and asylum seekers at our country’s borders is somehow more complicated and devastating than I imagined. I am disappointed in DECADES of policy that has shaped a lack of care and concern for human rights, and I am infuriated that so little is happening now to address this crisis on federal, state, and local levels. Annunciation House is the sole organization working in El Paso with the capacity to house migrants with no place else to turn (besides a shelter run by the Office of Emergency Management for COVID-positive immigrants and people experiencing homelessness). Where is our president; where are our representatives, our local government officials with their promises to protect my hermanas y hermanos (sisters and brothers)? I have studied and heard stories of the terrors of journeys to the United States, but my eyes are only beginning to open to the real horrors of newly arrived people’s experiences on American soil. More to come on this.

In conclusion, I can see some STUNNING mountains on the horizon from my residence (including mountains across the border in Juarez!), and I’m seeing even more stunning work happening on the ground, finding the humanity in all. Dare I say I’m a part of this work? I wouldn’t go that far yet – after all it’s just day one – but amidst the overwhelmed-ness, I do know more today than I did yesterday; and I am a changed person because of it.

Con amor,

Julia

Julia Gerwe

AmeriCorps Volunteer | Ecological Sustainability Team

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth