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Compassion on the Border

August 19, 2015


A mother and her three young sons entered the parish hall at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. She stared intently at an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe breaking into tears when Alma, the registration volunteer, asked what was troubling her. "My son, I can't believe what they did to my son!" she exclaimed. She proceeded to tell the heartbreaking story of how her son, who worked hard at his job in Honduras to support the family, was robbed and killed on his way home from work one day.  However, this was not an isolated incident. It had become a pattern over several weeks that on each payday, the young man would be stopped on his way home by a local gang who would steal his paycheck.  The mother spoke of how angry her son became because losing his paychecks meant that food was scarce and the family could not pay their bills.  The son became desperate, but the mother pleaded with him not to retaliate when confronted by the gang.  The next payday, the boy did not return home from work.  The mother was worried, and later that night, when she opened the door of her house, she found her son’s mutilated body on the doorstep with a note attached threatening violence against her other three children.  At that moment, she realized her family wasn't safe and decided that it was best for her and her children to make the strenuous and dangerous journey to the United States.


The scenario that this family faced is extreme but not uncommon.  Violence, poverty, and poor living conditions are just a few reasons why people leave their native countries.  The journey that most of them face is daunting, and there are many risks involved.  (Disclaimer: I'm not here to talk about immigration in a political sense; rather my focus is on people and their struggle.)  Yet, even though there is a high level of risk, they make the journey hoping for a better life for themselves and their family.  Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were in this same predicament, and they too came to America hoping for a better life. 


So with all of this in mind, Sr. Norma Pimentel started the Humanitarian Respite Center last year with the purpose of helping and showing compassion to refugees who have just arrived in the U.S.  They are located in McAllen, Texas, which is on the southernmost border with Mexico, and it is one of seven refugee centers across the state.  It is open seven days a week, and Sr. Norma has only three full-time employees, with the rest of the help coming from volunteers.  The entire organization is financed through donations.  Whether it is soap and shampoo, or shoes and shorts, everything is donated by individuals in the area with some help from local businesses.  This is what I admire most about what Sr. Norma is doing.  She is the facilitator for kindness, and people respond with what they can give, whether it is their time or supplies.  


My uncle, Fr. Paul Galetto, decided to volunteer in Texas for a week at the end of July.  While there, he met high school students from around the country who also wanted to help.  They were tasked with passing out food or clothes as well as welcoming each person with open arms and helping the immigrants recover from their journey. For many, this stop at the Humanitarian Respite Center is an oasis of hospitality in an arduous journey to a land where they know neither the language nor the culture. But here, everyone speaks the language of generosity and human dignity. After leaving McAllen, Texas the refugees are bound for American cities from coast to coast.


Fr. Paul spoke about his experience at the Humanitarian Center saying, "The entire experience was rewarding and it shed light on how personal acts of compassion help those who feel defeated.  These people come in with no emotional affect so hardened have they become by their grueling journey.  It is amazing how a cup of water, a bowl of soup and shower can restore one’s humanity.  On top of that they are met with smiles, given a clean change of clothes and a chance at a new life.  Within a few hours I would see their demeanor change. They are smiling and I saw how thankful they are to be here.  I'm grateful that when my grandparents first came to America they were treated with kindness and compassion, which helped them establish a firm footing to life in a new country.  I wanted to do my part to help out and give back the kindness that was afforded to my grandparents and which eventually benefitted me." 


Sr. Norma has dedicated her life to giving back to others.  The Humanitarian Respite Center is still in its first year of service, and it needs help so it can continue to make a positive impact for those coming to Texas.  Donations are always accepted, so if you can help out, contributions are greatly appreciated, but more conveniently, all that you need to do is an act of kindness to someone who needs to feel human again. It is amazing what a simple cup of water can do for those who thirst.  I have faith in humanity, and people like Sr. Norma remind me of the different ways in which we can help bring a positive change to the world around us.  As the stigma grows with regards to immigrants, it's refreshing to see Sr. Norma recognize the need to lend a helping hand to people who are desperately seeking kindness and compassion.


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