A big and beautiful truth

A big and beautiful truth

“Thanks for treating me like a human being”.  These were the words of Carlos, a migrant from Central America just after being served breakfast at the comedor (soup kitchen) run by the Kino Border Initiative. Many are those who, appalled by the treatment reserved for migrants in many parts of the world ask me: “What can I do to help refugees?”  And my answer always is: Let’s start by treating them as human beings.“

This is precisely the type of welcoming response I witnessed during the month of December which I spent helping out at the comedor of the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) in Nogales, Mexico. KBI was established in 2008 as a bi-national organization by six organizations from the United States and Mexico: The California Province of the Society of Jesus, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, the Mexican Province of the Society of Jesus, the Diocese of Tucson and the Archdiocese of Hermosillo.  Migrants who find their way to the comedor are offered a hot meal twice a day as well as clothes and first aid attention. They can call their relatives and some are offered accommodation in two emergency shelters. All migrants are also given talks and presentation about their rights and invited to share their stories with KBI members of staff for advocacy purposes.

Among the many reflections which such an experience provoked in me, I must admit that the reality of  pain and violence and what can be considered to be an adequate response to it featured prominently in my thoughts and prayers.

The pain carried by the migrants spoke of multiple forms of violence. Many  of the people I spoke to were of course fleeing the gang violence which is destroying whole communities in many Central American countries. But  migrants have to contend with  other lesser known forms of violence. Some are  fleeing from excruciating forms of poverty. In this case, many are those who dismiss these people as “economic migrants” who don’t deserve any form of protection. But this type of dehumanizing poverty can and should be considered as another form of violence unleashed by those same forces which after exploiting people for private gain, “discards” them when not needed. And these are the “lucky” ones. Others are considered to be unworthy of exploitation and just excluded.

Moreover, in the absence of safe and legal ways to migrate, the people I met at the KBI were often at the mercy of merciless smugglers who demand huge sums of money from migrants. Not to mention the “mafia” gangs who control the Mexican border and who have to be bought off for the “right” to cross the border. Those who fail to do so are physically beaten up. Others are kidnapped and only released when their relatives send over the money requested.

And once in the United States, the ordeal is not over. When they are caught by agents patrolling the border, migrants are often subjected to verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Another form of violence occurs when the rights of migrants are explained in a language they cannot understand. It’s not unheard of for family members to be separated during deportation proceedings and when someone is deported from prison, their monetary possessions are returned to them in the form of a cheque which can only be cashed in the United States!

The violence is ubiquitous and multifaceted. And the extraordinary men and women who accompany, serve and defend the migrants who turn up at KBI respond courageously to this dehumanizing violence with faithfulness, openness and tenderness. Their faithfulness is shown, for example, in the fact that the soup-kitchen is open Monday to Sunday, 365 days a year. The migrants know that in Nogales there is always somewhere where they can go and feel safe and welcomed. Moreover, faithfulness is expressed in the willingness of KBI staff and volunteers to keep advocating for the rights of these refugees and migrants, in the midst of a social and political atmosphere which has become extremely hostile. 

Secondly, in stark contrast with the wall separating Mexico from the United States and which stands a few metres from the soup kitchen, at KBI diversity is celebrated. Jesuit priests work alongside religious nuns; American college students serve food alongside Mexican volunteers; a Mexican migrant eats alongside a Guatemalan family.

And in the midst of all these painful challenges, I also discovered that, surprisingly enough, tenderness is also part of the answer. Speaking of tenderness as an adequate lived out response to so much injustice and suffering might seem to be ridiculous, if not utterly disrespectful of the persons involved. All that changed when, on Christmas day, during Mass, I witnessed the Mexican tradition of the “cradling of the baby”. Accompanied by a lullaby, all those present were invited to cradle the statue of baby Jesus with the same care, respect and tenderness with which everyone at KBI is treated. Everyone present found it difficult to hold back tears during those few precious moments which brought to mind our loved ones, near and far. 

In that simple gesture we met each other in our common humanity, in our shared need of being loved and of loving others. The Son of God tore down the wall which separated us from one another and from God by becoming one of us and dying for us. We are all precious in his eyes, brothers and sisters of the same loving Father. No wall, however high and strong can ever separate us from this big and beautiful truth.

Mark Cachia sj

This article had originally appeared in Servir

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