Pandemic piles suffering on suffering for migrant families

Rosalia with children at the Papa Francisco Shelter in Ciudad Juarez. Photos: Rosalia Basada

Rosalia with children at the Papa Francisco Shelter in Ciudad Juarez. Photos: Rosalia Basada

I had a forced stay in El Paso on the United States side of the border that separates it from its twin city of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. The twin cities host the most sought out crossing point from Central and Latin America into the United States and Ciudad Juarez serves as a collection point for people on the run from violence and poverty.

I had been working as a lay missionary at the Papa Francisco Shelter in Ciudad Juarez with another Columban, Fr Bill Morton. Our shelter, along with others, supports some of the scattered people that can lay no claim to any soil on which to place their feet.

I had heard tragic stories during my time in Mexico, but with the onset of COVID-19 travel restrictions I found myself in El Paso and unable to return. There, I felt more overwhelmed than ever by the stories I was hearing from migrants and their children, as I realised that entry into the United States did not bring an answer to their prayers, but only new pain and struggle.

I often heard that one or other parent, a brother or sister was in the United States, but their exact location was unknown. Families without immigration documents had been split while smuggling themselves across the border. Frequently, parents have been jailed; their children placed in foster care. These things break my heart.

I have been visiting these families in El Paso, as well as helping with the cultivation of vegetable gardens they have planted as they wait in the limbo of asylum application processes. Recently, however, with the lifting of travel restrictions, I have been able to make the short journey through the fortified immigration barriers to return to my usual work in Ciudad Juarez.

Rosalia playing monopoly with the children at the Shelter. Photos: Rosalia Basada

Rosalia playing monopoly with the children at the Shelter. Photos: Rosalia Basada

I have been able to continue facilitating activities and teaching art and craft to children. Although I often reflect that my thoughts are not God’s thoughts, I do identify a little with the separated families when my time comes to cross back to the United States to apply for a new visa. I also had the experience of being due to go home to the Philippines on vacation, but my flights were cancelled on four occasions. I feel something of the pain of separation from family. 

On one occasion, a family from the shelter asked me to go with them to the airport. I waited until they cleared immigration and still remember the sense of relief and the joy I felt seeing a family able to head together for a new home. I pray God will continue to sustain them and help them find the strength they need as they continue along the journey of their lives.

 

The first year of the pandemic was perhaps among the most stressful of recent times. The previous Christmas, I was mapping out my plans for the coming year. The excitement, joy and happiness the New Year promised came to an abrupt halt, replaced by sadness, stress and even fear.

COVID-19 reached the United States border with Mexico in March of 2020 throwing our plans into chaos. It was difficult to adjust to the norms and ways of the new reality. We had to adapt to life without Mass or the sacraments, and lockdown. There were no classes; only unemployment, travel restrictions and health department regulations. All these left people afraid, hopeless, frightened, stressed and even depressed. 

The pandemic forced people to stay home. As the days of lockdown continued, the poor became poorer and their suffering more intense, sometimes even unto death.

We continue to serve the poor and the migrants, the most vulnerable in our community, in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The missionary spirit in me propels me to reach out to those in need. I adhere to all the health protocols, but always pray before leaving home for the courage, strength, patience and passion to do my work.

I believe God’s love and compassion are with me. I have not caught the virus, despite contact with those that have. I thank God every day for his protection and work to extend that protection to others.

Columban lay missionary, Rosalia Basada, works on the United States/Mexico border.

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