Serving refugees at the Mexican border – a reflection

My time volunteering with refugees in El Paso was hard work – serving refugees and volunteering doing anything and everything I could for an understaffed organization. My work and the days melted together, not only because we were all working from morning through the night, but because the unrelenting heat affected us all!


I worked with refugees from South America (Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Argentina) as well as all Central American countries and even Turkey! Knowing a bit of Spanish is not as high a priority as it used to be now that I have learned to utilize Google Translate. This helps especially when working with Portuguese and Turkish speakers.

The first week, I stayed overnight with 3 sisters in a very old and semi-unused building. When they left, I would be staying overnight as the only person in at that old, large somewhat abandoned building. So, I moved the next week and stayed with the other six volunteers, all very young, enthusiastic, and interested. I was still scheduled for the day shift but living there 24 hours a day put me into both shifts until 9 pm. One night I had to do the overnight shift being available to the refugees if needed. That was a bit spooky!

A story of service

I was tending to the Turkish couple whose only English words were “thank you.” “Ali,” the gentleman, was discharged from the hospital after a great toe amputation. This called up all my nursing background of daily cleansing and redressing. Using Google translation for the first time, I was able to go through some of his medical papers. He was diabetic, overweight, had a cardiac stent and high blood pressure for starters. Wow!

I got through all that but what he really wanted was clean clothes – especially a belt. Truly fixated on getting a belt he, his wife, and I went to shop in the clothes room. He was soooooooo excited to get the clothes especially the belt, he bowed. Then thanked and kept thanking me, kept putting his hand over his heart and smiled and then indicated he wanted to dance. We did a very short version of “Zorba the Greek.” I worried about his foot pain which seemed to be secondary to him. I had a daily job to clean his wound. He was fun.

The Turkish man finally moved on to his destination in New York. It had been a struggle for him and us. I was having visons of seeing him sitting on my steps when I arrived home, but he is on his way to New York.

Daily work and struggles

Daily work was whatever needed to be done – food preparation working with Salvation Army, serving meals, fixing food, clothes, and beds for late arrivals etc., I filled in as needed like in the laundry, clothes room, sendoff room, at the bus or the airport. I would also run messages across the building which is over a city block long with space of 230,000 square feet). The heat was close to unbearable for all of us volunteers and refugees with little to no AC in most areas. It took its toll on all.

Travel was a big issue for those refugees leaving with flight cancellations and the need to reschedule. Trips to the airport, much anxiety, tears and apprehension over and above what they had amidst unrelenting heat.

Coming home and letting go

I was ready to come home. It was a remarkable 2 weeks for me, and I am ever so grateful and energized in my social justice heart to continue refugee work in some fashion. I do know that this is my “last hurrah” to this type of ministry. I was exhausted. The call remains ever present in many other ways of responding to our brothers and sisters.