Ellen’s Reflections – Welcoming the Stranger – Week 1 of 2

One week here and so much to take in. This Sunday-Palm Sunday, I’m pondering the week and trying to remember and hold on to each and every encounter on this journey of service and learning. Each day is as sobering as the next. There is so much to do, so much to understand and so much to work toward to change in our society as a whole.

Summary of what I have seen and learned:

The Annunciation house is a place of hospitality and simply helping each family and person who enters to get to their next destination in the US. They are either brought here by border patrol or ICE or through the MPP program (Migrant Protection Protocol). Many MPP guests have been waiting in Mexico to enter for 2 years. We help them get in touch with family and contacts who will pay for their travel by bus, air or pick them up here. We provide shuttle to the airport and support to help each person or family get to their departing gate. Each person/family is given a travel pack, based on the length of their journey.

When arriving at the Annunciation House, we are able to provide the very basic necessities such as food, water, basic personal hygiene supplies, cots and a blanket. Port-a-potties and portable showers are available. When I say basic, I mean very basic but each and every person I have encountered is so very grateful for all that is provided. This facility is in an old warehouse that has been converted into this beautiful place of hospitality. Artwork fills the walls and services are provided by volunteers—long and short term. The director, Ruben Garcia is the founder and is still very hands-on after 40 years. Many local volunteers and organizations keep things running as smoothly as possible. There is no kitchen in the building, so the Salvation Army keeps a truck on site to prepare 3 meals daily. What a wonderful service they provide. Donations arrive often They bring the food and volunteers serve and clean up. Thus far, I’ve been a part of:

Meals – serving and clean up for each meal. Due to Covid guidelines, we take food to each table so that a few who are gloved and sanitized are touching all surfaces and food.

Laundry – washing, drying and making bedrolls for guests when they arrive

Travel Room – filling and labeling travel bags for each person/family for their journey by bus or plane. We try to have sandwiches, snacks, book or activity for kids, formula for babies and drink if by bus.

Dispensaria – distribute basic hygiene items-tooth brush, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, lotion, feminine products, socks, underwear. Only one, “uno” per person.

Roperia – donated clothing – I’ve worked a few days in this area to help organize to be able to one day soon open up for guests to get a change of clothing. Right now, due to not having enough help in keeping the influx of donations organized, this room is not open. It is only used for individual situations where a change of clothes is absolutely necessary.

This truly breaks my heart to not be able to give a change of clothes when I can see the need right before me. I have noticed that the guests that are brought here by border patrol/ICE are ALL dressed in a solid blue cotton shirt and light gray sweat pants. Men, women and children are all dressed alike. I have been told that their clothes are taken from them, “to be washed” but are thrown away. They also have huge ankle tracking devices that they must wear until their court date. It will be decided at their court date if they can stay in the country or be deported. I have heard that many will be deported based on Title 42 due to a public health issue (I need to learn more about this?). I try to give out high socks to all the adults so that the ankle device does not rub a sore on their leg.

Any free time can be spent in the above areas based on what is needed most that day. Ziploc bags can be filled with infant formula (for 2 bottles), bags with 5 baby wipes, small containers filled with lotion (10 pumps), or shampoo/body wash.

COVID Testing – each guest that arrives must be tested and all volunteers are double-masked at all times. The MPP guests are tested before they arrive. Those brought here by border patrol or ICE are tested upon arrival either in an outside tent or special area inside the building. The office of emergency management (OEM) does the testing and all long term volunteers are trained to test as well. It is the quick test. If positive, they will be transported to a hotel to quarantine for 10 days plus labs sent for retesting. AH continues to work making arrangements to connect them with family in the meantime.

Intake/I-94 form/ – Every person/family will sit down with a volunteer to complete forms to begin arranging travel to their next destination. All information is taken from the form they received from ICE. If their name is spelled incorrectly on the ICE form, it must continue to be incorrect. Every form must match exactly or they could not be allowed to travel in the country and will miss their flight. Our volunteers make sure they are able to get through the TSA check point.

Overnight Emergency Person – each night from 10 pm to 7 am, one volunteer sleeps in the “blue room” to be available if an emergency arises or help is needed. On Friday night I was assigned this task. This was probably the most stretched I have been thus far. Lights are out and the room is completely dark. I would guess maybe 75 guests were here this night. The space would be the size of at least one football field. The sound of Babies crying and mothers trying to soothe filled the sound in the room. My space had 4 walls and glass across the front. The door was labeled “Emergency only” and was large enough for a twin bed and table with an medical kit filled with medicines to use. I was given a phone with emergency numbers. A knock on my door came at about 10:30 with a mother asking for formula for her baby. I was able to go to the dispensoria to get what she needed. I laid down to the sounds of many cries—not knowing whether to reach out to the mommas or to let them come to me? I laid there for about 30 minutes praying for the babies and mothers that they may be able to rest and relax. Some of the cries were like a chain reaction, as children will do. One cry was heart-wrenching and I tried to look out to see if I could tell where it was coming from, but could not. After what felt like an hour but probably much less, a knock came to my door again. This time it was another volunteer with a little boy, about 3 years old. He was walking to his room and found the little one in the hallway. He had gotten up from his cot next to his mother and evidently got lost. I picked him up to console him and we began scrolling the large room filled with cots in search of his mother amidst the darkness. We eventually turned on the lights and found a vacant cot next to his sleeping mother. She never knew he was lost but the smile on the his face was one of such happiness to be reunited with his mother. I don’t think I will forget this moment. It makes me think of the thousands of children in detention facilities, separated from their parents. I cannot only image the fear, intense worry and the longing to be reunited.


Three thoughts…

1) Each task here can seem very simple and even mundane at times (especially with the huge piles of laundry!). But every day I am reminded of St. Mother Teresa’s words of “do small things with great love”! Never have those words felt so real for me. With every encounter, I can bring love and with every task, I can pray for those traveling to their next destination.

2) The words of Matthew 25:35-40 truly come alive here in this place:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

3) During a press conference held here at AH, several politicians (congress and state representatives) spoke about finding solutions and working together for dignity of all who enter our borders. One representative, Teresa Fernandez, from New Mexico, made a strong comparison of the beginning of Passover with the 1000 children she saw at a border detention center earlier that morning. “Moses’ mother placed him in a basket in the Nile River out of love, hope, and desperation for a better life for him. Look what Moses became! Imagine those mothers who have sent their unaccompanied minors to come to the US for a better life out of love, hope and desperation. What will they become?”

My prayer today:

Loving God, help us as a nation to welcome the stranger and help us individually to put ourselves in places where we can serve our brothers and sisters in need. For it is there that we are closest to You. Amen.