Playing soccer with reunited families

“Aca! Aca!!” Yells a ten-year-old Chinese boy, standing in an open position and trying to summon the ball from his teammate who is head on with the opposing side. Standing straight legged and marveling at the moment, I just start smiling and laughing, thinking to myself this is the best day of my life.

Just yesterday, I got the idea in my head that I really wanted to take the guests to the park for a soccer game. There’s a small but mighty field about ten minutes and five blocks away, so I went up to some of the guests and asked if they wanted to play a game of futbol tomorrow at the park with the grass. The energy and enthusiasm I was met with was so beautiful – so much gladness!

I got a few more people on board – well, mostly all of the youth in the house – and some of the other volunteers. Our house coordinator had the idea of inviting all of the men from the other shelter that we have in downtown El Paso (Casa Vides) and decided as the evening approached that she would pick them up and we could all meet at the park to play!

When we finally rallied the troops, complete with large orange cones and a backpack full of water bottles (and two moms who were along for the ride), we started our trek to the park. The energy was so high and the skies were so breathtakingly beautiful; it felt like a dream. I had put on my exercise shorts (for the first time in three weeks lol) and running shoes and was ready to get back in the game.

When we arrived at the park, we were met with twelve (12!!!) guests of Casa Vides, some of whom were jogging around, the rest standing with arms crossed, as if they’d been waiting for us for years. “I better start stretching!” I said out loud in English, so no one understood me. I started remembering those stretches I used to do before soccer practice, and suddenly I thought I might be forfeiting pretty quick because, well, it had been years since I’d played a real game of soccer, not to mention that I was the only female and the only blanca on the field.

Dusk in El Paso
Dusk in El Paso

My body impressed me so much! Most of us played for two whole hours, with just a small break in between. There were kids, teenagers, and dads, and everyone was so so sweaty. Halfway through, somebody (who wasn’t with our group) turned on the stadium lights; we rallied and played some more. There were so many countries represented – China, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala. I think there were even more but I had never met the men from the other shelter so I did not know anything about them, except that some of them were parent and child and had been recently reunited after being separated for many months.

As we were running around on the field, I couldn’t help but think about the other players who were with me. Some of them had been imprisoned by the government for months, separated from their loved ones. Some of them had crossed treacherous terrain to arrive here. Still others came to this field in ways I didn’t get to learn. And yet, here we all were, running and jumping, our hearts pulsing and shirts getting soaked through. I think we even all smelled bad, but in the best way – not because we hadn’t showered in days, or had worn the same dirty clothes for weeks, but because we got to play a game together in the warm dusk of downtown El Paso.

I hope that maybe those two hours brought some relief from the trauma that they’ve experienced, even if just so they could take a full breath again.

The backdrop to our game
The backdrop to our game

My other thoughts on the field were that I was probably the best player because nobody could touch me! Or was it that nobody would touch me.. because I am a lady, I’m not sure ^.^ But when we finally got home, one of the teenagers said to his friend who wasn’t able to come, “Ella sabe jugar!” FIFA here I come!!

This night was absolutely one of the highlights of my whole time so far. I love playing soccer, especially with people like the ones tonight who play really hard and so impressively. There was so much joy and laughter even amongst a group of strangers.

As the Casa Anunciacion team walked home in the darkness, one of our teen guests started playing really loud reggaeton music from his speaker. Leading the way was a young mom from Honduras and her 10-year-old son, followed by two teens (one from Honduras and one from Guatemala), followed by one white grel from the U.S. (dats me) and one Guatemalteco father (grown man, youngest & freest spirit), a 6 and 10 year-old, brothers, from China (speaking Spanglish most of the time, yelling aca! Aqui!! When summoning the soccerball), and in the caboose, their mom, a young and brave and strong woman. We look hilariously non-threatening, even as the boys yell the lyrics into the empty parking lot next to the house. It’s adorable and funny and so special – my friends would probably laugh at me for being in this situation (it’s a cultural thing?) but they’re not here so I laugh at myself and try not to burst with the gladness I feel inside.

The south side of Annunciation House
The south side of Annunciation House

What a wonderful, holy evening, I think to myself as we settle back into the sala, everyone enjoying otter pops and asking when we’ll go back and play another game.

A Place to Start

It is Tuesday, August 14th, and I am shadowing the intake and transportation process at Loretto or Casa Nazareth, one of the temporary shelters that the Annunciation House network has been operating on and off for the past few years. Located in a former nursing home, Loretto has the luxury of wide hallways, cool air, and office spaces for private phone calls. This location is superbly organized, with charts in the office spaces and specific protocols that are not too laborious to learn. There are volunteers that come in from the community each day to provide the most basic support of the operations, like taking guests to their assigned rooms or (the much more intimidating) calling their family members in the United States to ask them to buy a plane or bus ticket and helping coordinate that.

The primary function of Loretto, as well as a handful of other temporary shelters that are part of the Annunciation House network (mostly churches) are to house and support families (and occasionally individuals) who have been released from ICE. Nearly all of these families have at some point in the past few days, months, or years, presented themselves at a port of entry and asked the United States government for asylum. The procedures of ICE in recent years has been to detain these people during the duration of their court proceedings, but because the detention centers are overflowing with detainees and there are not very many that can house children with their parents, some of those families are released to Annunciation House, usually with ankle monitors that will keep them in check throughout their process.

As far as I understand, these individuals and families who are detained or being tracked by ICE are not criminals nor did they cross the border in an “illegal” way. They traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, knocked on the front door (after sometimes many failed attempts at crossing the bridges due to being turned away by custom officers), and were thrown into prison. The sort of tale that a lot of people tell about coming to the United States the “legal” way, as far as I understand it, is a tragic farce. The truth is that a lot of people who work in the government, as well as the civilians who support them, just don’t want these people here. There is no justice in this process. We treat people like they are animals and then wonder why some people don’t like the U.S. or critique it all of the time. For many people who flee to the United States from Latin America, the first thing they encounter is state-sponsored cruelty. It’s heartbreaking.

Though I was shadowing for most of the time I was at Loretto, I got to do a few other cool things during the moments in between that feel especially close to my heart. There was a young 20-year-old man from Guatemala who had stayed overnight at the house with his 1-year-old son when I arrived and I spoke with him very briefly just to say hello. He was going to be taking a 6 am bus the next morning which meant that he had to stay the night at the station because there would be no one able to take him there at 4 am. Even though we had just told this young guy that he would have to sleep at a bus station with his baby, he just nodded in compliance and gathered his things to wait for the volunteer driver.

Around 8pm, these two Guatemalans and one other family of two who needed to go to the bus station gathered by the door and their volunteer driver started to lead them out to her car. She turned around, came into the office and said “we need a car seat, right?” and so I offered to take it out to the car for her. When we got to the car, she looked at me and said “do you know how to buckle that in? I don’t have any kids so I have no idea!”

I told her I would try my best, because it seemed like out of the six of us, I was the best bet. I buckled in the car seat and then waved over the dad to put in his baby, and then I asked him (in Spanish) if he knew how to buckle the little guy in (Well, I think all I actually said was “Sabes como…” with a hand gesture, which translates to “do you know how…?”) but he nodded his head, so I took the small bean into my hands as I wiggled him around to find the buckles and adjusted him to be comfortable. He started to cry because his dad had disappeared to the other side of the car and also it is possible that he probably had never been in a car seat before and was quite frightened by the foreignness of it. He was so small and so beautiful and I was so touched by the relationship I saw before me between this parent and his child, only 19 years apart and in search of a better life.

As I walked away, I smiled and sighed in joy and kept saying out loud, “Wow.” That could’ve been me, my younger brother, one of my friends. I can’t remember the name of this brave young dad or his son, but I think of them all the time and hope someday we can meet again.

After all of the families had gone through intake and transportation, I went into the office and asked the shift coordinator, Sister Teri, what she wanted me to do next. I had missed dinner but my technical duties were finished, so she told me I could go back to Annunciation House or I could find some food in the kitchen and reheat it for myself and for two guests who, for some reason, had missed dinner too. I chose the latter and headed into the kitchen, which had been shut down for the night.

Where are the lights in here? I thought as I looked all around the walls of this commercial-grade kitchen practically the size of the whole first floor of Annunciation House. I traced all of the edges of the room and then resigned to using my phone light. I found a platter of rice from the day before and a Ziploc bag of refried beans and I set to work on looking for microwaveable plates. Hmm, everything in here is locked up. I checked the pantry where all of the food was. Nothing.

I bet they are right in front of me, but I’ll ask sister Teri anyways. I went back into the main building and found her; she told me where to look and how to turn the lights on. It was almost 9 o’clock and everything was quieting down quite nicely.

Back in the kitchen, I searched and searched but could not find plates. I was beginning to feel embarrassed, like my mind had tricked me into thinking a stack of plates was a box of cereal. After all, I was so tired and feeling quite hungry too. After my third return to the office, she and another sister accompanied me to the kitchen, assuming that I was missing them by just a hair. But we quickly went where I hadn’t looked, into a walk-in refrigerator that was being used for storage.

“Oh, I just assumed this was another fridge, I’m sorry!” I said, feeling like I could have tried a little bit harder. She also showed me where a tray was and gave me some water bottles (cold!!!!) to give to the family.

I got to work in spooning out the beans and rice and ended up running three microwaves at the same time. Once I finally got the centers of the food to feel hot, I stacked the plates onto the plastic tray and went back across the street. With a water bottle in my pocket and another two squeezed underneath my left arm, I came across a locked door and no one in sight. Knock knock. No answer.

The tray was beginning to feel painfully heavy in my stick-like arms. Ah, why did they forget about me, I thought. Luckily, there were cell phone numbers posted on the front door and the first one I called was Sister Margaret who came and got the door for me. I stood around the office for another three minutes before asking where the family was and where I could put the food. Throughout the day, I had noticed that it was important to the sisters, in most instances, to finish the conversations they were having, even if there was someone waiting, confused, at the doorway.

Soon, I was directed to a room with a large statue of the crucifix of Jesus, an oval shaped table, and a shelf where an orange-gatorade-cantina was perched next to a stack of cups and a trash can. I pulled up two chairs and sat down, deciding to start eating right away because I wasn’t sure how long this mom and daughter might be.

I recognized the mom and daughter when they came into the room because I had been the one to check them into Loretto. The daughter so preciously had a few bites and then started to wander around the room. Her mom told me about how she had gotten medicine in Mexico for her daughter’s persistent cough but it didn’t help. She told me about how, while detained, she was fed at the most random times of day, sometimes long after the children had already fallen asleep. She told me how they were only allowed to spend five minutes in the shower, and how the ICE officers would thrust open the doors even if you were not finished. She asked to see a doctor with her daughter and they said no.

“No me gusta mi gobierno” I said, trying to communicate to her that I did not think she should have experienced that treatment. She immediately responded by telling me some officers were kind to her and it wasn’t all that terrible. She reminded me of the complexity of everything that goes on in this system, that there are things that we call good and bad and everything in between. What she experienced in detention might be paradise compared to that which she is fleeing. I just wish we would try better to not incarcerate every person who doesn’t have the resources to advocate for them self.

When I finally made it home after that intense evening, I hung onto the bravery of the people I encountered. There is no way I could ever truly come to know the depth of their experiences, but I think being there along the way to offer a smile and a warm plate of food is a place to start.

I like to drink ice cream juice

I hope you’ll forgive me for the length of this combined with the mixed up verb tenses and also the length! If you read until the end, I applaud you.

Sitting down to write reflections on my experience at Annunciation House feels quite strange. I feel so much discomfort around the idea of creating something entertaining or inspiring to read about my voluntary decision to work in a migrant and refugee shelter, even though I know that is probably a normal thing to do. I can’t help but feel that I am somehow taking advantage of the reality of the people I work with for my own benefit, whether that be my skillset, my resume, my character. I know the guests would never see it this way, but once you begin to look at things from a wider perspective, it just becomes more complicated. I want to tell the world about the holiness of this place but I also don’t want to lose site of the fact that my existence here in the first place is because of a very very hurting and broken world: a country that fails to care for (or even persecutes) its most vulnerable guests (asylum seekers and the undocumented) paired with the violent, impoverished conditions that these people are seeking refuge from.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not something I wonder about and feel constantly, because there are usually so many other things on my mind, like.. “how do I say this in Spanish?” ? But when I sit down to write about it, boy does it become more complex. It makes me realize that life is very complicated. My living here with guests exists in a complex way; at any moment, I can change my mind, throw in the towel, decide to go back to my family and try something else out. The guests here, however, usually do not have anything resembling that choice; perhaps their survival depends on them being here, apart from their families, risking persecution and even death to find a better life. I think maybe part of the reason why most people of privilege do not reach out to and accompany others whose lives are so dramatically different from their own is because it is painful and there is very little that can be done to fix the problems that make it so.

Even though I’ve only been here for a week, I care about my coworkers and the guests so much. Because they make me smile and laugh, because they are so resilient and strong and patient with my minimal Spanish, because they face adversity, heartbreak, and uncertainty quite often and still manage to wake up each day and get out of bed.

I am honored and privileged to get to be here and accompany the guests of Annunciation House in the smallest of ways. I am in the presence of Holy people who put their faith in God and I really do hope to be like them in my life.

El Paso / Juarez from a beautiful look out point!
El Paso / Juarez from a beautiful look out point!

And now, for some small vignettes:

Señor, ten piedad
On my first full day at Annunciation House, there was an all staff meeting on the second floor of Casa Theresa, one of the houses owned by Annunciation House which contains office space and a retreat for volunteers to find when they have a day off. We celebrated Mass together in this small living room, sitting on chairs and futons around a small desk that was turned into an altar. We were each handed an 11-page packet that contained all of the readings and Mass parts as well as a photo from a recent Annunciation House event.

Now, before I came to El Paso, when I was telling everyone where I was going and what I would be doing, I got a wide range of responses. Some people, knowing very little about this city or the border region in general, expressed enthusiasm and excitement for a year that would be “so fun” and would look good on my resume. Others responded with confusion and worry, asking me why I would go to such a hot place near such a violent city (Ciudad Juárez). Still others expressed open appreciation for me coming here and doing this work, and then others expressed a combination of all of that and more. I understand why many people did not respond to my decision in a way I would have loved…how can you ask that of people who can’t read your mind? It is also true that this place tends to make the news only in negative ways (but then again, isn’t it seldom when the news does not focus on that which is negative?).

Anyways, to get to the point, I found a paragraph on that day in the living room of Casa Theresa that calms all of my worries and that I hope can offer clarity on why I believe it is so important for people of faith and of good will to go where there is risk and no promise of reward; where there are weather conditions that are deemed “less desirable”; where they are called by the God of goodness and mercy.

Before the first reading, we read a “call to conversion” written by the director of Annunciation House for the purpose of this liturgy. Here is the final paragraph, which moved me beyond compare:

“God, forgive us for calculated efforts to serve you only when it is convenient for us to do so, and only in those places where it is safe to do so, and only with those who make it easy to do so. And may almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”

Three blue bowls
“Are you hungry or thirsty?” She asks in Spanish as they walk through the sala into the office. A few staggered “si”’s follow shortly after. There is a very young man, age 19, who is wearing a hat and a worried expression on his face. Then there is a 10-year-old boy wearing a button up long sleeve and pants with his hair slicked up. He is very patient. Finally, a young woman with her hair tied into a bun, only a few inches taller than her son, enters the room and takes a seat with a small bag in her hands. They wait quietly and patiently as I prepare them Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds in three differently shaded blue bowls. Then I grab them cups from the cupboard and fill them up from the cantina, and the new guests quietly eat the cereal and drink the water and me and my supervisor put away the half of the fridge that we previously unloaded to clean the refrigerator shelves. The young boy is the last to finish his snack, I take his bowl and cup, and we get settled to begin the intake interview.

El techo
El techo

Why did they think you work here?
“What about you made them think you worked here?” I ask my supervisor as we are walking to the car after a brief visit to one of our temporary shelter locations located outside of downtown in a former nursing home. She had to reload the shelter’s phone cards with more minutes and invited me to tag along to see the place. It was luxurious in comparison to the house I work in but was chaotic and a bit disheveled since ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) had just dropped off dozens of families. While I was inside, I noticed that all of the volunteers could be easily spotted amidst the congregating groups of families waiting to complete the intake process. They all wore nametags, clean clothes, and, to no surprise, were all the same race, which was different from the guests.

As we were leaving, one of them spoke to my supervisor as if she was a coordinator there, something about locking the kitchen.
“It’s probably because I’m white,” she replied to me in a bashful, sort of joking tone.
“No, you’re totally right, that’s exactly why!” I said, realizing that nearly all of the volunteers I saw were white and most of the volunteers at Annunciation House are too.

As we get in the car and start off back towards downtown, I am thinking about the complexity of this and wondering why it is so. Even though it is unsettling and there is much more to investigate, I am comforted that at least the migrants who encounter AHouse and its’ shelters know that there are people who share the racial privileges of those in high power but who resist the lies about immigrants of color that are paraded by our administration and who defy acts of racism and exclusion that make people feel unwanted, unseen, and unheard. That to me is worthwhile to note.

In the basement
On my fourth day in El Paso, my grandmother died. I had seen her six days before, drinking a blueberry and banana smoothie with a spring in her step. I was shocked to find out, even though her health had been challenged for a long time. Hadn’t I just seen her less than a week ago, happy and hopeful? At the very same time, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that I did get to see her, because I hadn’t in almost seven months and it was just a really lucky day for me that I did see her right before I left.

The day after she passed, I was working shift in the evening and we received a whole bunch of donations. There were lots of food donations, as well as personal care items like toothbrushes, diapers, and lotion. Because of the donations, I frequented the basement where we store them all, and got to see the overwhelming abundance of materials for our guests that were mostly donated in response to media attention around the shelter and its involvement in the reunification of families separated by the government.

Looking at the abundance was so consoling to me, because it reminded me of my grandmother’s generosity. I know if this place was down the street from her house, she would be bringing fresh fruit and new underwear all the time. She would ask for what was needed and provide. She might have been in support of the political individuals and party who are largely responsible for these separations, but I know she would have also given so much for the comfort and care of the most vulnerable who reside at Annunciation House.

As I stood before the overflowing crates of deodorant and shampoo, I was filled with love for my grandma and the spirit of generosity she expressed with every step. I felt that she was with me then and I think of her each time I go down there.

Cleaning muchos huevos frescos
“You can either wash them all now and then refrigerate them or leave them unwashed and they will be good on the shelf for about a week,” said a man who had delivered us roughly 125 eggs fresh from his farm.
“Wow, thank you!” I said. “How do you wash them?” I asked, realizing I had never handled fresh eggs before. After he left, I committed to hand washing the eggs even though I would have to do it after my 8-hour-shift.
“It will be a fun project… and satisfying!” I said to my supervisor, who gave me a okay, if that’s what you want! sort of look.

As the clock struck 2, I decided to take a twenty-minute break sitting in our new office chair, and then I googled how to clean eggs. It was a bit different than what the man had said, but I felt more comfortable with it because it involved bleach and these eggs were for a large group of people, after all. I set up the bowls, grabbed some clean rags, and began hand-washing and drying each individual egg.

About halfway through, I had a thought. What if I just accidentally break some of these…this is taking forever… But then I focused on the fact that this act of labor was an act of love, that each egg represented the blessing of nourishment that we have in the house. I also thought about the possibility that the eggs would somehow all break after I was finished with them, and I decided that I would be okay with that. I thought to myself, my attempts to reach detachment and indifference (in a spiritual sense) are going pretty well!

By the time I finished, three hours had passed, and I was burned out. I did the math (in the most inaccurate way, using time) to figure out how many eggs I had just washed and dried by hand. Though it is a rough estimate, I handled about 125 eggs that day. And I only broke two. ?

Muchos huevos sucios
Muchos huevos sucios

I like to drink ice cream juice
Every Monday evening, there is a junta where all the guests from the house come together in the sala and we share names and go over announcements. Each person introduces themself with their name, where they come from, and then there is a fun question to answer.

This past Monday, the question we got was “Cual es su bebida favorita?” All kinds of answers came out. Jugo de jamaica, Coca Cola, agua, te. Then, it came around to this 6-year-old Chinese boy who is learning English with a little bit of Spanish mixed in.

“I like to drink ice cream juice,” he said in his adorably squeaky voice with a big smile on his face. Those of us who understood English burst into laughter, so endeared by the innocence and cuteness of his reply. Our supervisor explained in Spanish to the others what he said in English, proceeding to further explain that what he meant was he likes milkshakes.

It was the cutest moment I have experienced in so long and it brings me laughter every time I think of it. It is moments like these that color each of my days here with discovery, compassion, and gratitude for life.

La Sala
La Sala