El Paso – 2016

by Guest Contributor

Julia Corcoran was a Columban Faith in Action Volunteer in 2016/17. During Holy Week in 2016 she participated in the Columban Invitation to Mission programme visit to El Paso, Texas, and visited Columban missionaries and partners working with the migrant community on the USA/ Mexico border. She reflects on the experience.

As we come to the end of our time in El Paso and most of the group flies back to the UK today, it is time to reflect on the whole mission exposure here at the border.

We have heard and seen a lot of different experiences over our 10 days here in El Paso and Juarez, which have left us feeling an array of emotions including happy, confused, scared, unsure, saddened and shocked. All our experiences have left us feeling challenged and at times feeling uncomfortable about our thoughts, words and actions.

From the first moment we arrived in El Paso we were made to feel welcome by the Columbans that live and work here, especially Fr. Bob Mosher. Now leaving, 10 days later, we feel like we are leaving our second home behind. It has been brilliant to share this experience with him and we can’t wait to invite him to the UK in July on a similar mission exposure.

For me, the greatest challenge of this exposure has been thinking about my attitude and how that affects those around the world. I wrote in my blog on day three about the uncomfortable reality that the refugee crisis is the fault of the actions I make everyday. And having read blogs written by other members of the group, I think their group’s thoughts and feelings have been changed in a similar way too. At the beginning of this trip, none of us really knew what to expect, but we all had some preconceptions of migration. For Rosie, she was challenged by the attitudes of those we met when when we were introduced to members of the border control.

“How often do we make accusations about immigrants that are totally without foundation? We know so little about these people and their suffering and yet we are quick to condemn them with our hearsay and prejudice.” Mark wrote in this blog on Good Friday.

Before this talk I had a very negative impression of the words ‘border control’ but this talk made me feel humbled by the sheer passion these people have for both sides of the fence, and the concern these officers have for the humanity they are trying to sustain on a daily basis.” he explained.

We had the opportunity to visit the same part of the border but on different sides of the fence. We got to really feel how oppressive the fence is, and the real difference it makes to be on either side of the border. We’ve all considered at some point why people might want to migrate and I’m sure the whole group would agree that after this experience, we’re going to try to be more open minded back in the UK.

There have been times in the last ten days when we have been left shocked and upset by the legal system in the US for asylum seekers and other migrants. In our first few days we had a variety of talks about the issues and I think the one thing we all noticed was the lack of dignity that is given to each human being involved. Ellie, in her blog which detailed our first day, shared some of this information. “All women and children, including babies and toddlers, have to wear orange jumpsuits in these detention centres, which are, to all intents and purposes, prisons.” It appears that someone who is in the USA without the right papers is treated as though they aren’t human. The name they are given is ‘alien’. Every time I get annoyed with the USA system I have to remember that the immigration system in the UK isn’t much better.

One of the real realities we have had to face this last week or so is how messy the issues around immigration are. It isn’t a clear cut issue no matter how people try to make it. It isn’t a case of you live on this side of a fence and you live on that side and that’s the way it is. By the way we live our lives, we really are a global community. If we look at the clothes we wear and the food we eat, then we can see how far each of our responsibilities to our fellow man goes. Pope Francis visited Mexico just a few weeks before us and we can see how he has inspired so many here. There is no doubt that he has inspired each of us too. Venus in her blog on Wednesday mentioned how at one of the projects we met Carlos who ran the farm workers centre. He had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis. “Carlos challenged us when he spoke of Pope Francis’ message of being in solidarity with the poor. Solidarity he said is not something we do as one good deed every day but something we do 24 hrs every day.” wrote Venus.

We have been challenged in a variety of ways over the course of this visit. The most obvious way is by the language. We’ve been lucky to have Nathalie and Fr. Bob translating for us and we’ve even picked up a few sentences. “Hola Amigos” is my personal favourite greeting! Whilst we’ve been lucky to have translators, there have been times when it has been difficult but in a way this has given us a smaller understanding of what migrants face.

Wonu wrote in her blog on Thursday “Although at some points we may have felt a little disorientated by the language barrier, it forced us to all consider the challenges some migrants may experiencing when trying to connect with fellow believers in a country where services are in a language they do not understand.”

While our time here has been challenging, it has been filled with joy. We have spent lots of time laughing and now as we are leaving we feel like a family. Not only has the time we spent together be filled with joy, the people we have met have filled us with joy. As Nathalie wrote on Saturday “I feel that in both, the Way of the Cross and the Easter vigil here in Mexico today, mercy and joy have met. The mercy of so many in and out of the church communities which we have found accompaniment, encouragement and love to those struggling in the margins of society.” The mercy we have seen has definitely been accompanied by joy.

As we focus on sharing the stories we have heard here, we have to remember everything we have learnt. Fiona shared the following in her blog “ I was lucky to have the name Fiona Murphy implying my Irish descent which has so far generally served me well as the Irish generally are welcomed well in most countries, however if my name was something different I may have had very different welcome.” This statement was the quote from someone else’s blog that struck me the most. Also having Irish descent I can understand what Fiona means and it reminds me how fortunate we all are, both in our upbringing but also in having this experience. As we reflect forward I’m sure we will all have many thoughts and stories to share.