ST. HELENA — Several groups of St. Helenans have flown south of the border in recent weeks and come back determined to raise awareness about the Latin American refugee crisis.
“The stories we hear about drug dealers and bad folks coming across our border – I saw none of that at all,” said Susan Shay. “I saw desperate families.”
Shay was part of a group of parishioners from Grace Episcopal Church and the St. Helena Catholic Church who visited Mexico in February to meet with refugees and aid workers.
Marty and Rita Bennett, who organized the trip, have been working since 2013 to increase awareness about international refugees and forcibly displaced people around the globe. Their efforts, sponsored by the Catholic-affiliated Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), included a 2017 fundraiser at Flora Springs Winery featuring singer Emmylou Harris.
The United Nations invited JRS to provide humanitarian aid in Tapachula, the southern Mexican city that serves as a rallying point for people fleeing poverty, violence and chaos in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and other Latin and South American nations.
“We visited Mexico because we wanted to educate ourselves more,” Marty Bennett said.
The Bennetts were part of a group that visited Mexico City and Tapachula. A separate group visited refugee camps in the Mexican border city of Nogales, as well as a soup kitchen run by the Catholic-affiliated Kino Border Initiative that caters to refugees.
“They’re running away from these governments that have no control over the drug cartels,” said Shay, who was part of the Nogales group. “People are being literally terrorized into leaving their homes. They don’t want to leave their homes any more than you or I, but they’re seeking sanctuary in a place where they won’t have their lives threatened.”
Most of the refugees Shay met were families. Others were single women whose husbands had been separated from them or killed. There were few single men, the group said.
One elderly woman had traveled from Guatemala through Mexico with her two great-grandchildren, a 4-year-old boy and an infant girl. After witnessing the murder of her granddaughter – the children’s mother – the old woman had resolved to leave Guatemala and try to give them a better life in the United States.
The woman spoke an indigenous language and didn’t understand Spanish, let alone English. But Shay said she bonded with her, cradling the infant great-grandchild and holding the woman’s hand while she cried.
“You couldn’t help but be moved by that human experience,” Shay said. “If everybody saw that, we would have a very different approach to how we treat people who are seeking asylum in our country.”
The asylum process is complicated, stressful and full of uncertainty.
Fresh off a stint volunteering for the Peace Corps, St. Helena’s Eve Breckenridge was troubled by reports of children being separated from their parents, “and I wanted to see what I could do about it other than be upset,” she said. So she visited the Tijuana-San Ysidro border in February.
She joined up with a nonprofit called Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side) that gives migrants legal help and practical advice on navigating the asylum process. For example, dress in layers and wear your warmest clothes on the bottom in case the top layers get taken away during processing.
Asylum-seeking parents used Sharpies to write the names and phone numbers of friends and relatives on their children’s arms in case they got separated, Breckenridge said.
She said she was surprised that asylum-seekers usually weren’t “the poorest of the poor.” They tended to be relatively middle-class and well-informed beforehand about what life would be like in a migrant caravan.
“They’ve often moved from village to village because of government atrocities or gang atrocities, but people in their new village didn’t trust them,” Breckenridge said. “Our government says they should relocate within their own countries, but these people have tried that and it didn’t work.”
Some asylum-seekers are ordered to stay in Mexico while the U.S. processes their applications. They far prefer staying in the U.S., partly because of pervasive prejudice against migrants in Mexico.
Those who are allowed to stay in the U.S. are generally reunited with their families in San Diego, fitted with ankle bracelets, and directed to live in various parts of the country while their cases are processed. Breckenridge plans to go to Sacramento to teach asylum-seekers how to sell food at farmers markets to support themselves.
“The people in these caravans are leaving behind a place where they were fearful for their lives,” she said. “They dream of getting to a place where they don’t feel that fear and can raise their children safely.”
The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga of St. Helena’s Grace Episcopal Church is active in the Episcopal-affiliated nonprofit Cristosal, which works to advance human rights, primarily in El Salvador but also in neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala. She visited El Salvador in February along with four Grace parishioners.
Salvadorans flee their homes for various reasons, Zuniga said. Some are small business owners who refused to pay “la renta” – the extortion money demanded by local gangs. Some are parents whose sons were targeted for forced recruitment into the gangs. Some were threatened because they were suspected of being police informants, in neighborhoods where even an innocent conversation with a police officer can put someone’s entire family in mortal danger. Others had witnessed the murder of a friend or family member.
“There were some good friends of mine who had to leave the neighborhood of the church they’d worked in for three years because they witnessed the murder of their boyfriend and their son, respectively,” Zuniga said.
Having to leave home, sometimes suddenly and with no more possessions than what they can carry, is a traumatic experience for families, the travelers said. The children are pulled out of school and away from their friends and teachers, medical records and other important documentation are lost, and refugees are vulnerable to exploitation, robbery and violence.
Cristosal was able to relocate 15 families within El Salvador last year, Zuniga said.
“But it’s such a small country and the gangs have such strong networks,” she said. “Your face goes out on a cellphone across the whole country and you become a target.”
‘Signs of hope’
One of Cristosal’s goals is to address the origins of the migration crisis by promoting healthy communities and presenting positive alternatives to the gang-driven culture of violence and fear that drives people to leave their country behind.
That process involves residents negotiating with gangs to reduce violence, creating safe gathering places like soccer fields and youth centers, and generally “taking back their communities,” Zuniga said.
“You see signs of hope,” she said. “I think of gang violence like an illness or a virus or a cancer. It can attack anyone at any time, but if a person’s body is not healthy the illness is going to have an easier time attacking. Everything we can do to give people economic options, to give kids hope for an education, to give people viable work solutions – that increases the health of the community so it can be more resistant to gang violence.”
Edie Kausch, who’s worked to fight human trafficking as a member of Soroptimist International, joined Zuniga on the trip to El Salvador. She said she was struck by the dire poverty and ever-present violence, “but also the hope of everybody who’s fighting for human rights.”
“There are a lot of young people who are just on fire, who want their country to be better,” Kausch said. “That hope was there in everyone I met. It was an inspiration to me.”
Kausch was also touched by Salvadorans’ ongoing love for Oscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop of El Salvador and human rights advocate who was assassinated in 1980.
“Oscar Romero united the country and gave hope and dignity to the people,” she said. “He told them they were important intrinsically and deserved the full spectrum of human rights. That’s why he was assassinated, but the people never forgot what he told them and they’ve never lost hope.”
The tragedies and hardships experienced by migrants occasionally capture the world’s attention, like the drowned Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Greece, “but then they’re quickly forgotten,” Marty Bennett said. Groups like his want to serve refugees and keep them in the spotlight continually, whether they’re in Nigeria, Mexico, or somewhere else.
Shay had a similar take.
“We’re showing up to tell these people, ‘We actually care about you as human beings.’”