A family seeking refuge at the Soluna Hotel and Budget Inn stops to pray at the shelter’s displayed Nativity scene.
A family seeking refuge at the Soluna Hotel and Budget Inn stops to pray at the shelter’s displayed Nativity scene.
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One night in late December, a young mother and her newborn child went out in search of a place of shelter and refuge. 

This isn’t the story of Mary and Joseph, although it may sound eerily similar to the events of that first Christmas; this is the story of a 21-year-old mother and her 4-day-old child, Angelita, who arrived in El Paso, Texas, after fleeing their home in Central America.

The small family battled strenuous travel, and was sent by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to a refugee shelter operating out of the Soluna Hotel and Budget Inn in El Paso. The hotel is one of many shelter sites overseen by Annunciation House, a Catholic organization offering hospitality to migrants and refugees along the U.S.-Mexico border 

After her arrival, a volunteer showed the young mother how to nurse her child, while another refugee mother — who had traveled to the United States with five children of her own — showed her how to bathe her baby. 

“These people are fleeing for a better life. They’re trying to make a better life for their kids,” said Sister Doreen Glynn, CSJ, who left the comfort of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cardondelet Provincial House in Latham to serve along the Texas border this month. 

Native to the Albany Diocese, Sister Doreen has been volunteering in El Paso since 2015. As justice coordinator for the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Sister Doreen has been active in various social justice movements at home, such as fighting human trafficking and increasing access to food for the needy. A major inspiration for her involvement, she said, has been Pope Francis, whom she sees as close to his people, especially those who are struggling. 

Every December, Sister Doreen flies into El Paso to volunteer for two weeks in a shelter run by Annunciation House.

“I’m delighted to have this opportunity,” Sister Doreen told The Evangelist. “I know I’m coming home more compassionate.”

Annunciation House

Sister Doreen started volunteering with Annunciation House after seeing a need to help immigrants seeking entry into the United States: “It enables me to respond to the Gospel message to the see the face of Jesus in everybody, especially in the poor and suffering,” she said. 

Annunciation House oversees numerous shelter sites across the border. Refugees are sent to each of the shelters from either CBP or Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE). Each family or individual must have a sponsor in the United States in order to be placed in an Annunciation House shelter. 

This year, an average of 80 people per day were brought into the Soluna Hotel, said Sister Doreen. A majority are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras, she added. 

According to Pew Research, immigrants entering the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras rose by 25 percent between 2007 and 2015.

There’s such violence and poverty [there],” she explained. “People live in constant fear, and protection is non-existent, so refugees try to cross the border.”

Once families are brought in, volunteers immediately start working to contact their sponsor. During this time, refugees are provided shelter, a place to shower, a bed, sheets, clothing and food. Most refuges stay in the shelter for one to three nights before meeting with their sponsor. 

Before arriving, refugees are already assigned a date to appear in an immigration court close to their sponsor’s location. This year, many refugees are going to New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin or Michigan, Sister Doreen said. Sponsors are typically responsible for purchasing either a plane or bus ticket for their sponsee, and ensuring they arrive to their court date on time. 

Volunteering

Sister Doreen described each day of volunteering as something new. Her assigned shift runs from 7 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m., and daily duties can range from calling sponsors, to cleaning up the shelter or fixing breakfast. 

While the shelter is responsible for breakfast, various groups from the local area will donate food for lunches and dinners. Other locals have donated shampoo, soap, and towels for refugees to take on their journey: “The people of El Paso are unbelievably generous,” said Sister Doreen. “On and on it goes in each of the shelters.”

Sister Doreen said that one of her most remarkable volunteer stories in El Paso happened on Christmas Eve in 2016. Petrona, an indigenous woman from rural Guatemala, sought to cash a MoneyGram before leaving to visit her sponsor. Sister Doreen helped take Petrona to multiple MoneyGram offices, but despite having the proper documentation, was turned away from each one.

“Like Mary and Joseph, who in the strange town of Bethlehem knocked on doors looking for a welcome and being refused, Petrona, too, was turned away,” Sister Doreen said in a blog about her experience.

Growing need

This year, Sister Doreen said the need in El Paso was even greater due to the growing uncertainty around U.S. immigration policies.

Back in June, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that domestic violence or gang violence would not qualify refugees for asylum under federal law. Last month, the U.S. Border Patrol fired tear gas at migrants from Central and South America who rushed a border crossing in Tijuana, demanding faster processing speed of U.S. asylum requests

“Our immigration system is broken and we’ve got to have a bi-partisan solution to fix it,” said Sister Doreen. “We are all one, and when one person is hurting we’re all hurting.”

For now, Sister Doreen plans to continue her work in El Paso every December for as long as she can. 

“It’s so wonderful to see [refugees] leaving the center with clean clothes, care packages and a big smile on their face,” she said. “It’s so satisfying.”