The Humanitarian centre in McAllen, is located at the southern tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley bordering Mexico, a Catholic charity, full of the spirit of the people of the Valley. Much of this can be attributed to its director, Sister Norma, also referred to by locals from both sides of the border as the “living Saint of the Valley”. She is a saintly woman indeed. A lot of the work she does is behind the scenes but when she is present at the centre she can be seen stuck in the middle of chaos with her beautiful smile. She is very placid, unassuming, passionate and compassionate woman of God. but when asked about the centre she speaks from her heart of the total injustice of the whole refugee situation. "To prevent inhumanity one must first fight for justice”.
I first arrived in McAllen, Texas on Jan. 6th in the company of two Marist brothers from NY, David, Peter and Luis, a postulant with the Marist Brothers. We dropped our suitcases off at our accomadations and headed straight to the centre to meet Sister Norma. She never told us what to do except that the afternoons would be a goodtime for us to help as its busiest then. When we first sat down together to strategize our month of volunteer work the only thing we could plan was morning prayer at 7.30am, followed by mass at 8am and breakfast. We planned to have dinner at 1pm as it would be to late when we got home from work each day to have dinner.
At the centre we had no particular tasks, just fall in where we felt we were needed. We settled in immediately helping in the kitchen to feed the incoming refugees, predominantly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Then we would clean up the centre which meant sanitizing the kitchen, preparing food for the following morning, putting away all the chairs, mopping the whole place, cleaning out the toilets and refilling the bathroom essentials.
When the refugees came over the border from Mexico, most of them had often been travelling for 3 or 4 weeks, some even longer. The went through immigration on the border and were given the refugee status. In order to get this, they had to have had a legal sponsor in the USA. Often a family member or someone close. Once processed at immigration, they would call their sponsor and he/she would purchase a bus ticket for them from McAllen, TX to wherever the destination would be. Usually, to the home city of the sponsor. Once that was in the place the border patrol would drop off the refugees to the bus station in McAllen and inform the refugee centre of the drop time and the number of persons. Usually between 70 and 150. Some days, there were up to 400 refugees coming through the centre. The refugees would be picked up by mini bus or if an exceptionally large group walked from the bus station to the centre. It wasn’t far, 3 or 4 blocks. When they arrived they would be warmly greeted by a rousing applause. Their exhausted, famished appearance would lend a weary smile. They would all be seated on small chairs, much like the old classroom chairs from my school days.
There was a system in place for the arriving Refugees at the centre. Firstly, they would have to go through registration which was done by Sister Norma and several other members of the volunteer staff who spoke fluent Spanish. Each refugee carrier an large brown envelope which contained all their personal details and most importantly their sponsors information and destination city. Once each family had completed registration they went onto the next area where they were given toiletries, a change of under garments, socks, toothpaste, toothbrush, razors etc. Then, they use the bathroom, wash their hands and their teeth before coming back to the dining area to be fed. The food was very simple, usually soup with bread or tortillas. The kids might get a banana, if lucky and if the gathering wasn’t too large. After the meal, volunteers would help pick out a change of clothes for them, pants, T shirts and sweaters. I must mention, the refugees were not fed altogether but rather in dribs and drabs depending on how quickly they were being processed through registration. This was very helpful for us in the kitchen as we didn’t have to deal with a large number of people sitting down at once. Once they had there change of clothes they went outside to shower. The showers consisted of a portable unit on loan from the city of McAllen. It consisted of 8 individual shower units. Each unit was small in size but large enough that the shower curtain divided the cubicle so that parents could wash their kids without having to get under the shower itself. When all this was done, everyone came back inside and we determined their final destination. This was very important as those that were travelling to northern states where the weather could be as low as 4,5 or 6 degrees Fahrenheit would need and be given warm jackets, hats, gloves and shoes. Once everyone had everything they went back outside into large military size tents which had AC and individual mattresses. Here people would rest for a while.
The groups of refugees would start coming in the morning from 7.30am and the last group at around 7.30pm. There was an average of 4 or 5 groups a day. The buses leaving McAllen for the various destinations would be at different times, but most of them were between 9pm and 11.30pm. Therefore, there were often times when the centre would get over crowded. All the refugees getting the evening buses would be escorted down to the bus station before 8pm and those who were not getting buses until the following day would go to bed at 8:00pm after having their evening meal at 6.30pm. This often comprised of more soup, hot dogs, pizza, rice, beans, burgers and various combinations. Those leaving that evening would be given To-go bags which included, four ham and cheese sandwiches, water, juice, fruit, potato chips and a bottle of insect repellent. The repellent was to help prevent the spread of the SIKA virus.
When all were fed, clothed, bathe and on their way that’s when clean up began. Br. David and Br. Peter would normally clean the kitchen and Luis and I would clean up the rest of the centre. All the chairs, maybe 70 or 80 would have to be stacked away in a closet, the floors would be swept and then mopped. The toilets would be sanitized and restocked with the essentials, toilet paper, soap, deodorant spray, shaving cream, etc. We would normally be done by 8 or 8.30 pm.
So that was our daily routine in a nutshell. It was great to be able to be part of all that but this experience goes way beyond the physical duties. In the beginning I mentioned the spirit of the RIO Grande valley. This place here in McAllen, is very special. The centre offers a lot more than food and clothing, etc. Every one of those families and individuals that pass through here including staff and the many volunteers are treated with the utmost respect and dignity. Sister Norma, through her faith in God and humanity has shrouded this city and people in a bubble of spirituality. In most charitable and non-profit organizations worldwide, it seems very difficult to persuade volunteers to give up their time to help out but here it’s just the opposite. Teenagers from all the local schools help out every weekend, local men and women stop by to assist anyway they can daily. All surrounding non-profit organizations offer whatever assistance they can especially with food and clothing. Last weekend there was a group of 12 volunteers from Houston, TX, a 5-hour drive from McAllen. Two college girls that heard Sister Norma give a talk on humanity and injustice spent a week. They were from Las Vegas and Michigan. Our group of Marists volunteer travelled from NY to volunteer for a month. It goes on and on. A young doctor from LA comes to the centre every 2 weeks to volunteer. All the local churches help out and even tonight one of local banks donated super for 130 refugees and even came to help feed everyone and clean. I could go on and on.
Sister Norma and her crew work hard every day to make sure all that happens at the center keeps going. They are all very humble and special in their own way. Sr. Norma has instilled Grace, respect, dignity and pride in the center. They have all the qualities we should strive to have and to teach.
There are many heart-breaking stories in the midst of all this inhumanity. Even though, many are leaving their homes and families in search of a better future and are influenced by hope, it doesn’t always work out. There is a family here at the centre, a dad and 2 boys, who travelled for 28 days from Honduras, by foot and hitching rides along the way. When they finally made it here to the Mexican border, they were exhausted, suffering from dehydration and starving. When they got to immigration their sponsor fell through. Through local influence here in the centre they were allowed to enter the USA but now they are in no man’s land. One of the guys in the centre has opened his home to them. This can only be short term. The boys’ sister and mother are still in Honduras and their future is so uncertain. Similarly, a mother and 3 kids arrived here. She went out and found work illegally to help feed and clothe her children. She was caught and sent back to Mexico. Her children are still here and the state have appointed the kids a guardian. The guardian came looking for money to help feed the children. In a humane society all human beings have a right to life, to bodily integrity and the means suitable for the proper development of life. Primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and necessary social services. Our faith teaches a basic solidarity among all citizens and a responsibility to work together for the benefit of all. Here at the centre of humanity in McAllen, TX, and throughout the Rio Grande Valley Sister Norma has instilled in a spiritual way this teaching of solidarity.