Presbyterian volunteers find new, innovative ways to make the journey easier
by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE – They may have been traveling for days or even weeks, but asylum seekers hoping to start new lives in the U.S. are finding a bright spot in their long and difficult journey. A Catholic church in McAllen, Texas provides a rest stop for the weary travelers, giving them a place to rest, eat and fellowship with volunteers who have come to help.
The First Presbyterian Church of McAllen recently opened a new Presbyterian Disaster Assistance hosting site for volunteers who wish to come and work with the families. Recently nine volunteers from churches in Winchester and Fairfax, Virginia spent a week meeting, greeting and loving the families making their way across the U.S.
“Many come directly from the Border Patrol and arrive at all hours of the day and night,” said Carolyn Thalman, a retired teacher and volunteer from Winchester. “They come in, register, receive hygiene items in a back pack, have a meal and get a shower. Many haven’t had that opportunity since they left their country of origin.”
Thalman, a member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team, says many of the families arrive with small children and immediately learn that this is a place of support for them.
“When they arrive, all of the volunteers form a line at the door and applaud and smile as they come in,” said Thalman. “They don’t know what they’re walking in to because of the difficulties of travel, going through border patrol. Then they show up here and see us clapping and smiling and their whole demeanor changes.”
In addition to food, supplies and a good shower, the families can also receive a fresh set of clothes.
“They tell us the sizes they need and we go and find it for them,” said Thalman. “They’re not picky about what we give them. They’re relieved and thankful. It changes how they are feeling coming in.”
Thalman says that during their week, the center averaged approximately 200 people a day.
In addition to the hospitality, the McAllen group has begun to offer the Pillow Project, giving children 12 x 16 inch size travel pillows they can keep.
“I thought it was a great way to engage our congregations in Virginia and those who can’t come but wanted to do something,” said Thalman. “We now have over 400 pillow covers and visited every Wal-Mart in the region to buy pillows. The kids have been so excited to receive them.”
Thalman says the week-long visit to McAllen has left her group both blessed and broken-hearted. She says she was particularly moved by a 14-year-old girl traveling with her mother.
“I sat with her and smiled. She didn’t say much but I finally asked if I could give her a hug,” she said. “The girl put her arms around my neck and squeezed. That was both joyful and heartbreaking. I don’t know her story or what she’s running from but I know what the possibilities are.”
Since 2009, there has been a growing number of children and families from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who have fled to the U.S. and neighboring countries, in search of safety. National and international studies have reported on the escalating violence in the region tied to the spread of cartels and other organized crime groups in these countries, including the takeover of gangs and even filtration into public offices in some localities.
Young mothers and their children often leave to escape extortion, death threats, rape and other physical abuse. A recent report noted that an average of 24 people are killed every day in El Salvador, that’s one person an hour in a country the size of Massachusetts.
The border along the Rio Grande Valley receives the majority of Central American asylum seekers – just over 33,000 parents, children and unaccompanied minors in the past year. Once in the U.S., the families go through a complicated immigration court process where they can present their asylum claim.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has begun working with other Central American countries to carry out a regional protection plan. Never the less, until the root causes can be effectively addressed, Presbyterian leaders say people will continue to flee their homes and countries.
“It is amazing to see the outpouring of love and support from Presbyterians and other people of faith through their volunteering and donations. Places such as this respite center in McAllen are truly a safe haven from the storm for families who have already faced tremendous difficulties,” said Susan Krehbiel, refugee and asylum catalyst for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. “We pray that in the offering of these very basic items and a colorful pillow, they may find the hope to face the many challenges that still lie ahead.”
PDA supports congregations and Mid-Councils in the development of their refugee ministries. Several PDA staff and national response team members worked with people in Texas and Virginia to help design a mission trip model, by assisting in setting up the host church, meeting with staff at various local ministries, including the respite center, to identify volunteer opportunities, designing sample itineraries and a reflection guide.
For more information on this work team opportunity, go to the PDA Call Center website.
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