by Lisa Dittmier, Executive Assistant to the Pastor
HT staff and students from Centro Santo Niño
I believe it was my love of children that brought me to participate in the Holy Trinity Social Justice visit to the El Paso border. Together with my colleagues, I spent five days visiting the Texas city and Ciudad Juárez, México, just over the Rio Grande River. Having spent my entire life living in east coast cities, the experience was heart-wrenching. The people we met, both those there to assist and those living in poverty, showed me a world far more grim than I could have imagined.
We first met with Father Rafael García, S.J. and Brother Todd Patenaude of the Encuentro Project, who have both dedicated their lives to helping and obtaining funding for both the migrants trying to find a place in the U.S. and those who live in such challenging conditions, probably never imagining what it is that we sometimes take for granted. Padre Rafael acted as our guide as we crossed over into México.
Just driving over the unpaved roads into the Anapra section of Juarez, I noticed the make-shift houses and wandering children. Our first stop was a school for disabled children called Centro Santo Niño. In the middle of a dust covered desert, we found Sister Carol and Sister Andrea in a large colorful room filled with toys, games and books. They serve up to 50 children each day, recruiting local volunteers to transport them to school. Generous funding from private donors, including Holy Trinity, enabled them to improve the building and purchase supplies for the students. I was drawn to Reyna, a girl of 12 with Downs Syndrome, and Beto, an autistic boy a year younger. They were working with a teacher volunteer learning their numbers using magnetic cards. They were both so proud to show me what they knew. In the next room, physical therapists worked with two young children with cerebral palsy to improve their muscle strength. A young mother sat by her son while her toddler played with a toy. She had many times left her abusive husband. As like before, she would be returning to him at the end of the day, with nowhere else to go.
We next visited Libro Para La Vita, funded entirely by two families from Kansas City and St. Louis. Estele and Bertha are the co-founders of the library and provide books to the community. Bertha told us her story which left us all in such amazement of her bravery and love for her children. Living in an abusive household, Bertha packed up all her belongings and five children 30 years ago and left her husband to find a place she could call home. Moving into a 4 x 4-meter house made of wooden pallets, she lived without plumbing, water or electricity. Anapra had no roads and no school and Bertha taught her kids to look for firewood and cook what they found. Each morning, her children would cry to go back “home”. She told them that this was now their own home and encouraged them to work together. One year later, her home burned to the ground. With the help of a local priest, the house was rebuilt and supplied with furniture and electricity for appliances. Bertha’s children are all now grown and successful thanks to scholarships received from donors.
Although I cannot write about all our experiences, I cannot forget Sister Betty Campbell. Now 88 years old, she lives alone and for 26 years has provided support for those in Juarez who suffer from domestic violence, the influence of cartels, and political prosecution. She tells stories of children as young as 11 years old, who are coerced by the cartels to sell drugs. Many try to say no and some are shot. Others cannot get out once they start. Their families are victimized and the children never get the chance to live a peaceful life. Sister Betty has an outside memorial with the names of thousands of children, women, adults and journalists who have died or gone missing in the city.
We learned much about migrants seeking asylum and we were able to cook my husband’s chili recipe for 50 people at Casa Vides, a migrant shelter. We met Baby Brian, born in captivity by coyotes (human smugglers) as his mother was trying to cross the border. I believe my favorite time was spent with Rose Anyeli, a four-year-old Haitian refugee waiting with her family to join relatives in Florida. Rose and I sang songs, learned numbers in English, and sampled different flavored lollipops. Rose and Brian are fortunate. While they have been forced to flee their homelands, they have been welcomed into a community that offers hope despite the continued challenges their families face in seeking asylum.
I pray that Rose and Brian will be granted asylum and I carry prayers and hope for all of those suffering due to violence, greed and poverty. 3