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Saturday, 29 June 2019 16:09

At the El Paso Migrant Refuge

Written by Don Gonzalez
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Don Gonzalez – Hawaii Chapter

Last November I volunteered at the refugee center located within the grounds of the Diocese of El Paso. It is a good-sized room with its own kitchen and eating facility. The bishop of El Paso and seminarians reside nearby, and most volunteers stay in the seminarians’ sleeping quarters, where they are comfortable and have a regular bed unless there is a lack of space; then volunteers might sleep on a cot.

Volunteers learn how to perform a number of functions, then do what is requested as needed.

Intake. When the refugees arrive at the center, they are guided to a room where they are interviewed to verify information that was provided them by INS and to inform their sponsor that they have arrived in the US. The interview and contact of sponsor process are usually conducted in Spanish. The refugees are allowed to speak to their sponsors to assure them they have arrived, are well, and are waiting for the sponsor to arrange their plan of exit. Then they collect clothes and other items that the center provides. All the clothes and other items are donations from various sources within the Diocese of El Paso.

Besides greeting the refugees, volunteers help them find their sponsors and arrange for the sponsor to purchase either a plane or bus ticket. For this task, it helps to speak Spanish since most of the sponsors are Spanish-speaking. Contact is by phone, and each communication is documented, with each refugee’s travel plan noted near the phones. Dates and times of departures and transportation methods, are recorded.  

In the refugee center, the refugees sleep on cots and have a bathroom available within the facilities. About 40 to 60 refugees arrive daily except Sundays. Before the refugees come in, the volunteers get the sleeping quarters ready. Then they follow a procedure for assigning cots.

Cleaning. Volunteers may assist with cleaning the facility. Refugees are asked to help keep their quarters clean and to assist with arranging chairs and tables. They also help clean the bathrooms. The refugees are very cooperative since they get free board and because they need to feel productive.  

Food. Volunteers can also help clean the kitchen and at times assist with the cooking. Volunteers from the Diocese usually provide the meals, but there were times they did not arrive or arrived late. Sometimes the volunteers have to prepare and serve breakfast. Three meals are provided to the refugees. The volunteers eat the same kind of food that the refugees are provided—if they are given beans and rice, the volunteers eat the same. The refugee center is located in an isolated area, and opting for an alternative would require driving to the nearest restaurant or fast food place.

Night Duties. Volunteers may be expected to perform some duties that they have not thought of doing, such as staying overnight in the refugee center. The center tells the refugees that at least one person is in the room with them at night. Volunteers who do not feel comfortable with this responsibility, possibly lacking resources or training to handle emergencies, are free to refuse.

Transport. Volunteers arrange for the refugees to go to the airport or bus station. Diocesan volunteers usually provide the transportation, but when they are not available, volunteers need to seek out people at the center who can provide the transportation.One volunteer ended up renting an SUV to transport refugees. The refugees can’t miss their plane or bus: the ticket has been paid for by their sponsor, and rearrangement is difficult and time-consuming.  

Overall, my volunteer experience was a good one and very satisfying. I spoke to some of the refugees and their stories are very sad. All of them were from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. 

One of the best things about doing volunteer work is meeting other volunteers from different locations. The volunteers I met were from the San Antonio, Texas, area and sent by Catholic Charities. I was the only Maryknoll Affiliate and the only one from a great distance. I will volunteer again in the future, but this time not travel as far—maybe to San Diego, California, if there is a refugee center there.


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