Advocacy in Action: Walking with Migrants
Note: The following piece was co-written by Sister Mary Montgomery, SP, along with Sister Marge Healy, PBVM, Sister Jan Gregorcich, SSND, and Sister Yliana Hernandez, PBVM, regarding their time of living and learning at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Mexico from mid-October to mid-November of this year. The opportunity came about through the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the Hilton Foundation.
“A month just went too fast!” was the sentiment of the four sisters who responded to LCWR’s, Catholic Sisters Walking with Migrants’ collaborative effort at the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. PBVM’s Sister Marge Healy from Iowa and Sister Yliana Hernandez from New York, Sister Mary Montgomery, SP, from Indiana, and Sister Jan Gregorcich, SSND, from Wisconsin, became the first Catholic Sisters team to experience Kino, a place of hospitality and advocacy.
The sisters and other volunteers spend their days preparing and serving food to 300-500 migrants, many of whom were hoping to be able to ask for asylum at the border, but due to Title 42, the border “is closed,” with very few exceptions. The volunteers also help with the distribution of clothing and other essentials for many who spend days, weeks, months or years escaping inhumane situations. Taking ‘encuestas,’ the intake process meant listening to the stories. Each person who comes to KBI is received with dignity and respect. For many, it is the first time they are able to tell their story and have someone listen compassionately.
The Stories Matter
It is the stories the sisters remember the most.
“Yes, we went to the convent often because they baked really good cookies!” said a smiling woman from the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Marge, who had once visited in Guerrero and had met Sisters who made REALLY GOOD cookies, asked the woman if, at one time, Sisters from the United States had lived in her hometown. She answered with enthusiasm, explaining she was only 5-years-old when the Sisters left, so she did not remember their names, but hurriedly added that she remembered going many times to their home for cookies! While the Mexican woman had smiled as she recalled the cookies, she had been close to tears often as she and her husband shared the story of why they had to leave their home.
Jan, Yliana, Mary and Marge wonder how there could be anyone left in the state of Guerrero as a majority of their intakes were from Guerrero. The rich farmland and so much natural beauty make Guerrero the perfect tourist attraction. It also attracts narcotraffickers who, through threats and extortion, attempt to gain land to profit from the produce. When one landowner refused the “offer,” the fingers of his 2-year-old child were chopped off. Violence reigns. The people speak of the drug dealers, mafia, common delinquents, gangs and law and order officials who all seem to work hand in hand. Disappearances, killings, extortion, and threats of “give us money or die” are so very common. Some recipients of the threats feel that the only way for them and their families to survive is to become collaborators in the evil. However, there are many who choose to migrate. They do not consult neighbors or family because that may endanger the lives of the very people they love. Violence reigns. No one can trust anyone.
Before volunteering at Kino, Jan thought the majority of people asking for amnesty were seeking a better life and work opportunities. “I was wrong. Every single intake I took was people escaping violence. There were so very many single or pregnant mothers trying to save the lives of their young children.”
Jan remembers a young mother and her toddler. Through tears, she shared her story of escape. The woman’s father died when she was 6 and her mother abandoned her at 8. Her uncle was the only family she had. He had an extensive plot of land for fruit and vegetables. Because he did not hand it over to the mafia when demanded, he was shot and killed. The woman and child escaped in the middle of the night fearing they were being followed. By God’s Grace, they found KBI.
Yliana remembers the story of a 16-year-old girl going to a store where she was approached by a gang member who asked her to take his cellphone to the storeowner. He told her he would call the owner to demand a quota that she was to bring back to him. She refused. She knew if she did it once, she would become a carrier for the gang. The following day, two men came to her house, took her outside and killed her. Her family went into hiding because the gang was looking for her 12-year-old brother. Then, Leticia gathered whatever she and her son could carry and started the journey to the north of Mexico. When she arrived at Nogales and inquired how to get to the border entrance, a young man offered his services for whatever amount of money they had. They arrived at the border and were told they could not cross into the United States. The patrol agent told them to come to KBI. KBI was closed for the night so they slept in the street. Yliana cannot describe how hard it is to tell the people that the border is closed! Leticia hopes to find a job in Nogales where they will stay until they are allowed to go into the United States.
The Healing Touch
“I felt like singing! There was something very heavy on my heart and now I no longer feel like crying,” said a woman who had experienced Mary’s ministry of healing touch … a therapy that releases blocked energy. After witnessing Mary’s first session in a small quiet corner of the dining room, people awaited their turn for this prayerful, healing experience. All expressed gratitude. Many experienced peace and felt more relaxed, some shed a tear or tears – men, women, and children. The folks escaping so much violence hold so much in their bodies. Something of great pain can be released through caring, compassionate energy work.
One day, during a noisy lunchtime, four 4-6-year-old boys, seated at a kids table, noticed Mary working with one of their moms. They all quieted as the 4-year-old stood behind one of the group and placed his hands on the shoulder of his friend. They sat in silence as the young one passed from one to the other placing his hands on the shoulders of each mirroring Mary. Together, they shared a sacred, healing moment.
The sisters are grateful for their time together which included reflection, prayer, fun and educational experiences in the desert and along the border wall as well as training in advocacy. Coming together, sisters passionate around immigration quickly bonded as community. The grant from the Hilton Foundation makes it possible for three more groups to have this experience. For more information and applications, contact VOLUNTEER@KINOBORDERINITIATIVE.org.
The days at Kino ended with a hope for change. On Nov. 17, news broke that Title 42 was vacated.