Thursday, March 7, 2019

They meet at the U.S. Mexico border: The needy, the helpers and the guards

2/27/19 The Chatterbox 
Cottage Grove, Oregon
Betty Kaiser

Chris Heritage is a born helper and she is one busy lady. I first got to know her as the talented bell choir director at 1st Presbyterian Church. She’s also a loving wife, mother, grandmother, sister and friend. Plus, as a PeaceHealth Certified Midwife, she has always felt a call to help refugees around the world. But most of the places she hoped to go were too far away.

Then she heard about the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas—across from Reynosa, Mexico. The Center was started in 2014 in response to exhausted Central America refugees arriving in the U.S. to escape violence and poverty. They were alone and bewildered upon arrival.

Enter the church nuns. Their missions statement says in part: “We believe that human beings who have no food, no security, no access to shower, etc. are people in crisis. We will continue responding to the needs of these families in crisis as long as there is a need.”

Last year a request went out from the clinic for help from Spanish speaking medical volunteers. Dr. Lauren Herbert, M.D., a PeaceHealth pediatrician, answered the call and invited Chris to come along. This was an opportunity not to be missed. Travel to a crisis at our own border was reasonable, people were suffering, she speaks Spanish and the timing was good. She thought, “I can do this.” Another nurse from Bellingham, WA joined them.

Upon arrival at the clinic on Jan. 13, they were put to work immediately. Buses arrive daily from the ICE detention facility with several hundred refugees who have been released to enter the country. Here, they are greeted by the volunteers with smiles and given help in connecting with their U.S. sponsors, a hot meal, warm showers and bathrooms, beds, clothing, shoes, medical help, phone services and safety courses.

Chris says, “Most of them are headed east. They stay for a day or two before continuing on their journey. People who felt especially sick came right away to the clinic for medical help. There was usually a surge of children and adults needing our help in the afternoon and into the evening. We would go to bed and the next morning there was a line again. We took care of everything from minor colds to bruises, scrapes, headaches, stomach aches, athletes’ foot and occasionally more serious illnesses. People with life threatening problems are sent to the local hospital ER.

“They have so much hope,” she says.  “Even the ones with ankle monitors who would likely be sent back to the dangerous situations they are trying to escape. I have met and worked with similar families here in Oregon. They are hardworking, kind, hopeful. They have strong family values, are attentive to their children. So happy to be here. Now, having worked in Texas, I have a new respect for their struggles.”

The volunteers occasionally had opportunities to take a break around lunch time to learn firsthand about the border situation.

“One day we visited La Posada, a place where Catholic nuns provide longer term housing and support for refuges that don’t have an immediate place to go. Another time we visited a 19th century chapel that will be torn down if the wall is built. Then, the next group would arrive, and the work would start again until the early evening.”

Chris’ stories about the common humanity of the people she encountered are heartwarming. There were the needy, the helpers and the guards. The needy, of course, were the most obvious. There was a 12-year-old boy, separated (and later united) with his father in a truck accident, where people were killed crossing the border. Another boy had an infected leg from the wreck.

A woman who was 6-1/2 months pregnant fell in the Rio Grande River and was tossed about by the current. She was worried about her baby. Chris got out her stethoscope and they both laughed out loud as they heard the baby’s heartbeat. There were tears of happiness.

People from all walks of life come to help. There are clothes to be sorted, floors to be mopped, meals to be prepared and cleaning of all kinds to be done. A group of Mennonite men and women come regularly and prepare the soup of the day. A local church group comes often as does a church from Iowa. A Facebook group helps people in the McAllen area to donate pizza dinners to the Respite Center.

One day, Chris observed some official looking men with clipboards watching the children play. She was suspicious. Turns out they were sketching plans to build a playground. Kindness abounds.

And then there was an hour-long discussion with a border guard. The government was shut down, but this man was working without a paycheck for his family. Chris began their conversation by thanking him. The guard’s response was, “If I was not working, people would die. I could not live with myself if that happened.”

So, what can we do? These are not illegal immigrants. They are legal. They had a destination. Still, they are needy. Getting from their country to ours is not easy even when they’ve done the paperwork. Of course, the easiest way to help is by direct donations to organizations like the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande.

Advocating for just treatment of the immigrants is another way to help. Sometimes government needs a little nudge to tell them that what they’re doing is kinda crazy. Here’s an example from Chris:

 “When people cross the border and turn themselves into the border patrol, they are sent to ICE detention. Their shoelaces are removed and taken away. Everyone needs a new pair of shoelaces when they arrive at the Center. One of the volunteers tried to get the shoelaces back from ICE, but so far, ‘NO” is the answer. There may be a logical reason for this, but to have them replaced days later by donations and volunteers seems pretty inefficient.” Betty sez, “That’s government for you.”

Many thanks to Chris for sharing her story and to all who care for these newcomers with open minds, hearts and expertise.

 God bless them all and God bless the USA!

Contact Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox by email