RPCVs Helping Refugees In El Paso

On February 16th, I posted an article and request from the Bishop of El Paso—sent to me by his cousin Patricia Silke Edmisten (Peru 1962-64). You can read the Bishop’s request here:https://peacecorpsworldwide.org/rpcvs-needed-in-el-paso/

On February 19th, Dale Gilles (Liberia 1964-66 & PC/W 68-73 & 90-93) reposted my request on two Facebook pages relating to Liberia RPCVs and Friends of Liberia (FOL) which he follow closely from Thailand where he lives.

In both cases he received a few “likes” and comments, and recently he wrote me, “in the last couple of day, I have indeed, once again, seen firsthand the positive power of communication, the internet and Facebook. Funny how the pebbles we drop make such ripples.”

The following thread of emails come from Sean Sullivan, a long time friend of Dale and Peace Corps colleague, who was on the staff in Liberia 1971-73, and was also on the Peace Corps Staff in Swaziland 1973-74, and the CD in Mauritius 1974-76.

The messages from Sean Sullivan, as Dale writes, “speak for themselves.”

Email from Sean Sullivan 7 March 2019 

Dale, thanks for sending out the Bishop of El Paso’s appeal for Peace Corps people to come down and help. I am here. The Bishop wasn’t exaggerating the situation. Everyone is overwhelmed with the numbers pouring in. The Church is doing a great job in helping the refugees. In fact, the Bishop himself said mass for the refugees at the home where I am working, and passed out ashes, it being Ash Wednesday. The Church has 5 or so centers to house the refugees before they move on. My first job was to make hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an area where I have significant expertise. Other jobs are serving rice and beans, etc. They have a tremendous need for transportation, so I have rented an 8 passenger van, so I’ve become the transport maven, among other things. There’s one other PC person here, a recently returned volunteer from Mongolia. The El Paso community is wonderfully supportive of the refugees, which are streaming in literally in the thousands per day. Yesterday our center alone had 800 “guests” as we call them. Anyway, thought you’d like to know the appeal didn’t go unheeded. I’m here for about 10 days and will probably be back later in the year.  Regards, Sean

Dale’s response  8 March 2019

Sean, this is such a wonderful email … thanks so much for thinking — in the midst of it all — to share with me.  Must truly be an awesome experience. Amazed that you actually bit the bullet and headed south during the winter!!! And to think that I might have actually had something to do with it …. WOW!!!

Here is a headline from a New York Times  article on 5 March  “Border at “Breaking Point” as more than 76,000 Unauthorized Migrants Cross in a Month”

I just cannot imagine such numbers … reminds me of the old days when I dealt with refugee camps in both Somalia and Liberia.

Sean’s response 9 March 2019

Hi Dale, I appreciate the thrust of what you do is to rally volunteers like myself to come down and help out. We don’t have to speak Spanish — I don’t. But obviously would be helpful. There are places to stay, not the Ritz of course, in some cases 4 cots to a room. But other accommodations are better. It’s the luck of the draw. I have the advantage of staying with my nephew, his wife — Spanish speaking native of El Paso — and their two young children ages 4 and 2. My job is to do whatever I am assigned, whether mopping floors, making the sandwiches I mentioned, throwing out trash and, mostly, providing transportation in my rented 8 passenger van.

The process here is, if you manage to get into the U. S with a child, you have a free pass to stay, at least temporarily, IF someone — cousin, friends, etc. — pays for transportation to wherever they live. So, if you get over the boundary, the refugees turn themselves into the border patrol. The border patrol turns them over to ICE, which checks background to the extent they can, and then give them papers that gets them to a refugee center, like where I work, or other centers throughout El Paso.

About 70 percent of the “guests” do get a tickets from friend or family, so they only stay in a center for a day or two, then move on to friend or family. Most get where they are going by bus, since they don’t tap a wealthy community. I take them to the Greyhound bus terminal, and they follow me like chicks, because they are scared and confused. Some have to change busses three times (like LA and New York), and I feel like I’m dropping off my children into the unknown. I give them as much information as I can, with the help of a translator, but some 30 percent don’t get any support, and they are returned to Mexico.

The need for hands is great, as the numbers you quote indicate. We had 113 for breakfast this morning, with more arriving frequently. We have 120 cots in a big, rancid room, men and women separated by a bit of air. We had so many coming to us today that we had to break out more cots and put them in dining area. Cleaning is a constant requirement. Once someone vacates a cot, we have to take it outside and wash it down. Most meals are provided by the local Catholic community. Like magic, 80 refugees will show up, on a bus, and 15 minutes later, like more magic, parishioners appear with food, which they serve. Clothing too is provided by the local community. I understand there are 5 centers like ours. The needs are great!  Thanks Dale. I’ll stay in touch. Sean

Sean then wrote me as well sent a photo of three other RPCVs working with the refugees in El Paso.

Those RPCVs are: Emma Davis (Mongolia 2016-18), Kathleen Mahoney (Togo 1983-85 & Honduras 2001-03), Dan Rusthoi (Iran 1966-67)

Hi John.

I don’t think I need to add much more to the situation here. It’s grim, but the Church — and I’m sure many other agencies– are doing a great job managing the crisis. Most — perhaps all — of the support comes from volunteers, mostly from local parishes. We could use more Peace Corps volunteers, as is obvious.

I haven’t said much about the refugees themselves. Not surprise, they mostly come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The “guests” from Honduras are the poorest. Some don’t speak Spanish — they speak a Spanish-based dialect or perhaps a language from a far-away group of communities. There are a few that are obviously gaming the system. They are the few Brazilians — we hosted was a gorgeous Brazilian that looked like she could go right to Hollywood. There was also an African family. I asked how they got here and was told they probably took a flight to Mexico City, then got themselves to the border. But these are the possible exceptions. Surprisingly, most of the refugees appear to be in good health. Perhaps ICE separates out those that are sick; I don’t know. There are some with colds, but most actually appear well fed and healthy. I can’t detect rapists and murders, but I would take a wild stab that there are no that we help in those categories. They appreciate the help they are given –care, dignified. And they pitch in to help.

OK, got to head to work.

 Sean, Kathleen, Dan, and Emma





Leave a comment
  • Thank you, John, for posting these messages from El Paso. I personally want to thank the returned volunteers who have left their homes and routines to help with the crisis in El Paso. It is gratifying to know that their experiences, while challenging, have been rewarding. I wish fervently that I could be working beside them.

  • Sean, we always knew you had a heart of gold. You are the very best. Thank you for all you are doing.

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