by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The call of Pope Francis for the world to listen to the Cry of the Poor has several dimensions. One of them, clearly, is that of refugees who wander rootless across the globe, estimated to number some 25 million persons.
That statistic, like all of them that catalog these human tragedies, is staggering. However, the sheer magnitude of such situations numbs the mind. Pope Francis’s seven-year plan calls for a different way of approaching the numbers: in this case seeing through them to the sub-human existence of individuals, women, men and children, with names and histories and yearnings.
We should, however, know something of the numbers — how many people are fleeing from which countries, where are they finding any sort of welcome, how are they being treated/mistreated at the doorways of “safer” destinations. These facts are easily accessed with a search of the Internet. For example, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other such agencies report that two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from Syria (6.6 million), Venezuela (4.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million), South Sudan (296,000) and Myanmar (700,000 Rohingyas). And we have heard of their brutal treatment on the border of Turkey, loss of life in Mediterranean Ocean crossings, rejection by xenophobic Western European countries — and on and on.
For Christian/Catholics who happen to be citizens of the United States of America, the refugee situation on our southern border has to occupy our minds in a particular way. It is scandalous, sinful, a national crime against humanity. Again, we could do a review of the statistics here; they are readily available. But, following Pope Francis’s process, let me refer to Sister Norma Pimentel of the Missionaries of Jesus who has worked in Matamoros on the Mexican side of the border for 12 years. Hers is the Cry of the Poor from that dreadful place. She puts a face and personhood on one place where the lives of hundreds of our sisters and brothers are being destroyed by our country’s policies.
Sister Pimentel has become an icon representing the wonderful people who are endeavoring to do anything they can think of to help these victims of our current illegal Migrant Protection Protocols aka “Remain in Mexico” (euphemism for deportation or exclusion without due process), issued in January of 2019. She works in a makeshift tent city situated in Matamoros, Mexico with some 1500 of the people affected by our inhuman policy. Not one of them has any chance to enter the U.S. legally. And now with Covid-19 a constant threat, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute forbids the camp to accept any new arrivals. So now new refugees are being turned away and have nowhere to go.
Sister Pimentel presents a grim picture of life in this camp. The Cry of the Poor echoes in her words. “They are living in donated tents at the mercy of extreme weather … the temperatures can rise above 100 degrees, and when it rains the downpours knock down their only refuge and leave them in mud pits … Such basics as running water are nonexistent … you have to depend on outside organizations for food, which you have to cook over a campfire … the [camp is] a breeding ground for the virus.”
Sister’s Cry is directed to us. In her heartrending op-ed in the Washington Post this week she pleaded with Americans: “I urge you to not look away from the border in this moment. Do not ignore the suffering occurring here.” And she promises, heroically, “We will continue to help those who are defenseless, whose only real ‘crime’ is trying to seek protection for themselves and their families.”
They are daughters and sons of God, our sisters and brothers, each one.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.