by Olivia Martin
ATCHISON — Some immigrants come to the United States to escape poverty; others are fleeing violence in their homeland.
But Emily Bauer, a postulant at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, met a woman during her time working with refugees in El Paso, Texas, whose reason was different.
She came to bury her husband.
“[Her husband] had come across the border [from Honduras] a couple months before her to start a life,” said Bauer. “He had gotten a job, bought a house — and he ended up being killed by gangs.
“They were escaping gangs to begin with. . . . It was heartbreaking.”
This is one of hundreds of stories that Bauer, Sister Patricia Seipel, OSB, and Sister Genevieve Robinson, OSB, heard during their time volunteering at Annunciation House in El Paso.
Founded in 1978, Annunciation House is a Catholic organization of immigrant shelters whose headquarters sits just 10 blocks from the U.S./Mexico border.
Sister Patricia and Bauer volunteered there last November at the request of their prioress, Sister Esther Fangman, OSB. A few months later, from March 27 to April 8, Sister Genevieve followed suit.
Every day around 4:30 p.m., about 70 refugees would arrive at Annunciation House, many transported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Most of the those who passed through the hospitality house were from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. And the majority were women with children fleeing drug cartels and violence in their homelands.
During Sister Patricia’s and Bauer’s time there, the shelter served between 60 and 100 refugees daily.
These refugees each had a contact in the United States and entered the country legally.
The shelter’s volunteers would help them call their contact and also provided food, clothes and accommodation until the refugees could connect with their contact person. The newcomers usually stayed no more than 24 hours at the house before moving on.
Even receiving basic necessities were a great luxury to their visitors, however.
“For them, everything is different,” said Sister Patricia.
“Many . . . had never used a shower” she said. “Many had been detained for a week and had been wearing the same clothes.”
Hospitality is a core Benedictine value, and the women from the Mount welcomed the opportunity to show some to the vulnerable newcomers.
“I wanted them to feel comfortable and be welcomed into our country,” said Sister Patricia.
For Bauer, working in El Paso was an introduction to the experience of the immigrant.
“Going was a big eye-opener for me,” she said.
But it wasn’t her first experience with the plight of many in Latin America. When she was a student at Benedictine College in Atchison, Bauer went to Honduras twice for spring break mission trips.
For her, that experience proved foundational.
“I saw how the poverty, gangs and violence were destroying families and making it hard for people to live, [in Honduras],” she said.
“So, when I went to El Paso and met refugees from Honduras,” she continued, “I was, like, ‘I know why you’re coming.’”
The rapid turnaround rate of the refugees in the hospitality houses was a challenge for each of the volunteers.
But it also taught each a little about herself.
For Sister Genevieve, it was a reminder of the value and needs of the other.
“It was not about me and my feelings,” she said. “It was about them and what I could do.”
With a doctorate in history, Sister Genevieve specifically studied the history of immigration in the United States, which gave her a deep care for the situation of the immigrant.
“It gave me a feel for people who have that experience of coming to a country that they know nothing about and having to adjust and find a home,” she said.
And her empathy for immigrants only grew while volunteering in El Paso.
“One of the things I felt I had to do even when things went wrong [was] to keep a loving and welcoming face,” she said. “There was no point in letting them know if things didn’t go right. I just absorbed it.”
The quick turnaround also took a toll on Sister Patricia.
Once a teacher, she has relished getting to know children and their families over the years. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a possibility for her in El Paso.
“I just knew them for 17 to 36 hours and then they were gone,” she said. “I kind of missed having a follow-up and knowing what happened to them — if they got to their destination.”
Though the refugees entered the country legally, there was no guarantee that they would be able to stay.
Each had a court date within a week of arrival that would determine if they were to remain or be deported.
This reality was a difficult one for Bauer, but the people’s gratitude helped her face it.
“They were so thankful,” she said. “It was overwhelming.
“It was a witness to me to stop worrying about the small things in life and really give everything to God and trust him.”