Consider the person you love most in this world. Your mother, your father. Your sister, your brother. Your child, your cousin. Your best friend, your spouse. Consider all that you would do to protect them, to keep them safe, to help them have a good life. Would you travel hundreds of miles in drastic conditions to new places with different languages? Would you leave behind the familiar and accept the unknown? Would you choose to leave your own support system? Consider the depth of love, bravery, and necessity required to make each of these choices.
Now, consider making these choices, only to find more challenges around each corner. You travel with one bag or maybe nothing at all. No one you encounter speaks your native tongue. You are separated from your loved ones. You are detained, and when you are released you have only temporary shelter. There are still miles to travel.
At Catholic Charities in San Diego, these are the heartbreaks faced daily by immigrants who have recently entered the United States. People arrive at Catholic Charities’ shelter, housed in a repurposed hotel, from all over the world: Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. After weeks of travel and days in ICE custody, immigrants are released to Catholic Charities, where they receive food, water, a COVID test, and access to a clean hotel room. Then, they once again begin the travel process, seeking bus, train, or plane tickets all over the United States to reach their final destinations. Some immigrants quickly purchase tickets with the help of their sponsor, while others encounter unexpected roadblocks. Imagine facing each of these realities, yet maintaining patience, generosity, and hope.
These are just glimpses into the journeys of the many people I met at Catholic Charities in San Diego, most of whom I could not speak to due to our language barriers, but all of whom will stay with me for years to come. In particular, I will remember three groups of people, whom I accompanied at the San Diego airport.
First, I was humbled by the joy and generosity of a woman travelling with her two daughters. Though limited in our communication, I helped her and her two daughters navigate a pharmacy and fast-food restaurant while they waited for security. These tasks were simple, and they felt like the bare minimum to help this family, yet the woman was overjoyed. She invited me to sit with her family, continuously attempted to buy me coffee, and hugged me as they reached their gate. To see that someone with so little could want to share so much, I realized that generosity lies in the depth of our respect for our neighbors, not the amount one gives.
Later at the airport, I spoke with a young man from Jamaica, who adamantly searched for a family he had met at the shelter. The young man asked the Catholic Charities volunteers to check on the family’s boarding passes, and he later decided to wait for the family so that they could go through security together. Though they had only known each other for mere days, the family and young man had formed a connection, as they helped one another as long as they could. Glimpsing the meaningful relationships formed amidst an isolating, challenging experience, I recognized that humans are capable of great care for others, even those we have just met. In these connections, hope is fostered.
Finally, I sat with another St. Joseph Worker and a man who had purchased a plane ticket and needed to return to the shelter. My fellow volunteer and I had communicated that we have very limited knowledge of Spanish, but this man began speaking rapidly with intense hand gestures. While we only pieced together fragments of his story, his pain was apparent. He told us about his hard work, his separation from his family, and his detainment by ICE. He was made to feel less than human by a country for whom he had risked it all- a country whose flag he had tattooed over his heart before he ever arrived. His pain revealed the failures of our immigration system. In labelling countless individuals as “others,” this system alienates immigrants from both their countries of origins and the United States. It separates people from their friends and family. It treats humans as “faceless” rather than “neighbors.”
In these memories lie the complexity of serving the immigrant community. At once, it is an experience of humility, hope, and connection, as well as alienation and heartbreak. Immigrants share stories of resilience and joy, but they also encounter great injustice and pain. It is an experience of feeling inadequate in one’s service, yet being thanked countless times. To serve requires actions that often feel insufficient to overcome an injustice, but are absolutely essential in valuing the lives of individuals. It is an experience of receiving more kindness, authenticity, and generosity than one could ever hope to give. Learning from those who treat others with care and concern, even in the face of their own struggles, we are challenged to recognize immigrants as our “dear neighbors”: our fellow humans of dignity with whom we share our home.