We’re standing in a circle, having just said grace before our evening meal. One of our shelter’s guests, Liliana, a beautiful 70-something grandmother from Mexico who stands just over 4 feet tall, begins singing a traditional mariachi tune about swallows in flight. Her clear, pitch-perfect voice fills the room with bittersweet notes of nostalgia for home and hope for the future and grief for all that has been suffered by the refugees and asylum seekers gathered in the circle. It would give goosebumps to a stone statue.
El Paso is a town with a proud history of welcoming new arrivals with kindness and compassion. It’s not an especially wealthy city, but it is rich in fellow feeling. Churches, nonprofits, citizen organizations, local businesses, and thousands of individual citizen volunteers provide shelter, food, transportation, clothing, safety, rest, refuge, and healing.
I’m here volunteering for two weeks at Casa Papa Francisco, one of a network of shelters operated in El Paso by Annunciation House, which has been welcoming and caring for refugees for 45 years. I came here hoping to be of some small service to the work carried out at the shelters. I’m not sure how much I’ve been able to do for the shelters, but in two short weeks the shelters have given me a priceless experience of the courage, fortitude, and resilience of refugees and asylum seekers.
What’s really surprising, though, is how much fun this is.
We’re in the dining room, having just finished a meal. It’s the birthday of one of our guests, Mateo, who made the perilous journey from the far south of Mexico. He crossed the border into the U.S. while he was still a minor and was therefore placed by the U.S. government into foster care. But it’s Mateo’s 18th birthday, so he has “aged out” of foster care today and arrived at our shelter earlier this afternoon. Carol, the indefatigable, ever-cheerful volunteer who deftly manages Casa Papa Francisco, comes out of the kitchen with a piece of cake festooned with a birthday candle. She keeps cake on hand because Casa Papa Francisco receives a guest celebrating an “aging-out” birthday a couple of times a week. As Carol places the cake in front of Mateo, all of the guests burst into song — first the usual “Happy Birthday to You,” then a joy-filled rendition of “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song. The radiant smile on Mateo’s face reflects the love pouring out to him from this room full of total strangers who aren’t really strangers at all. His smile is brighter than a thousand birthday candles.
On a scale of 1 to 10, my Spanish stinks. But at Casa Papa Francisco that matters far less than I expected it to. I use Google translate on my phone, and that helps resuscitate the Spanish I learned decades ago. The guests are incredibly kind and make me feel like I’m doing just swell as I mangle their beautiful language. I do my best, though, and they muster up the English they know, and we communicate surprisingly well.
One of the guests, Isabella, a lovely woman who had a good job and prosperous life before she was forced to flee Mexico with her daughter, is a natural-born teacher. She’s helping us volunteers improve our Spanish. She has time on her hands because she broke her ankle in three places coming over the border wall, and she’s still confined to a wheelchair.
The previous U.S. administration spent $15 billion making that wall over 30 feet tall in places (about as tall as a telephone pole). It doesn’t stop people from coming over — if you’re fleeing for your very life, if you know that behind you in what was once your home town lies torture and death, then you have no choice but to try to get over. Some make it safely. But many, like Isabella, sustain terrible injuries that will trouble them for the rest of their lives.
Looking at the wall through binoculars, I think about Lady Liberty standing in the New York City harbor, holding her plaque for all the world to read:
“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
"A mighty woman with a torch, ... and her name Mother of Exiles.
"From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome;
"Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’"
Here on our southern border stands not a golden door but an ugly wall. A dystopian monument to all that is mean and greedy and heartless that says “Go away, you huddled masses yearning to breathe free! But if you don’t go away, we hope you fall and die. Or, if you don’t die, we hope you break your legs.” How can these two entrances to the same country carry such different messages? Which country are we? Who are we really?
It’s lunchtime, and I’m enjoying a plate of the best meatballs I’ve ever eaten. Casa Papa Francisco’s guests do most of the cooking of the three simple meals we share each day. Our guests from Venezuela make us home-cooked meals in the Venezuelan style; our guests from Mexico make us home-cooked meals in the Mexican style; and so on. They perform culinary alchemy with whatever ingredients we have that day. Earlier this week it was a huge flat of Brussels sprouts. Of course, this is not exactly a traditional ingredient in Latin America cuisine, but the guests cooking that day created a delightful, spicy Brussel sprouts soup you could sell by the quart for a pretty penny in any farmers market in the U.S.
We’re not really sure how Ruben Garcia, who has been the driving force behind Annunciation House for all of its 45 years, manages to keep us in Brussel sprouts — and all the other supplies needed to keep all of the shelters going. But he does. He gets donations; he gets grants; he calls in favors, he pulls rabbits out of hats; he prays. And he keeps anywhere from a hundred to a thousand guests at all of the shelters fed and housed and clothed.
I have somehow picked up a head cold. Aliana, one of the guests from Venezuela, made me a bottle of a potent traditional remedy involving garlic, aloe, honey, and lime juice. She used it to keep her family healthy during their 3,000 mile trek from Venezuela, so I can feel my head cold accepting defeat as I take my first swig. Aliana's standing over me laughing at the faces I’m making as I swallow my dose.
That’s the thing about volunteering here. The border is no longer an issue or an intractable problem or a set of ludicrously complicated policies and laws. It’s where my new friend, Aliana, a woman with an infectious sense of humor and a great love of life and a huge heart, is stuck trying desperately – in the teeth of a broken immigration system – to figure out what she’s going to do next. She made a truly horrific journey with her two little kids through the Darien Gap, up through Central America, and across Mexico. She can’t go back to Venezuela because she had the courage to speak up against the government, and the paramilitary group that broke into her home made it clear they will kill her if she tries to return.
Aliana hoped for the Lady Liberty version of the U.S. soul, but even in the face of the cold-hearted reality of the golden door slamming shut in her face, she has not lost her sense of humor, nor her love of life, nor her big heart, nor her determination to somehow make a life for her children here in the U.S.
I’ve been on all kinds of vacations in my life, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them. But never have two weeks anywhere enlarged my soul in the way that two weeks at Casa Papa Francisco have. I’m already making my plans to come back — next time for longer.
(All of the names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of Casa Papa Francisco’s guests.)
Article written by Cynthia Pulham Wolfe, the communications team lead for PCC4Refugees.