Holy Cross Sisters Esther Adjoa Entsiwah, Mary Ann Pajakowski and Suzanne Brennan traveled to San Antonio, Texas, April 18–23 to minister with migrant children separated from their families and living in shelters at the Mexico/U.S. border. They joined Catholic Charities of San Antonio’s outreach efforts at the Freeman Coliseum shelter site. Below, Sister Mary Ann and Esther share what they encountered at the facility and some of their experiences with the teenagers they met.
Sisters Esther and Suzanne and I went to San Antonio for a week to help Catholic Charities of San Antonio with unaccompanied minors—teenage boys ages 13–17. When we arrived last Sunday, we went to the Freeman Coliseum site, were tested for the coronavirus, and received badges for access into the facility and an orientation, so that we could start right in the next day.
When we got our first look at the facility, the enormity was startling—picture 900-plus cots, 1-foot apart, demarcated into pods by blue painter’s tape on the floor. Each pod held about 25 boys. The Freeman Center serves as home to conventions and livestock and rodeo events. So, you can imagine convention-center-size rooms, although we are hard pressed to find something to compare it to. The next morning we signed in at Catholic Charities of San Antonio, and then we were scanned in at the shelter site and assigned our pods to spend the day with the teens and their schedules—lining up for showers, COVID-19 testing, meals, outdoor recreation, snacks, education (basic English) and other scheduled pieces of their day.
Learning and connecting
The teens, transported to Freeman from where they were collected at the border, mostly seem to be from Central American countries. It is hard to determine because we were requested not to ask personal information from them. Some of them, as the days went on, did share in conversation, tutoring, or prayer some things, like the languages they speak, or that their mom lives in the United States, or they wanted to study mechanics—little things. More than a few were bilingual in Spanish and either K’iche’ or Quiché—Mayan languages of Guatemala.
The group I was with all week—23 total—seemed to be 15 or 16 years old. Really great kids—they were bien educado, or polite and well-mannered, and funny and sweet as you spent more time with them. They lined up constantly for showers, meals, bathroom breaks, snacks, outdoor recreation, English class, COVID-19 testing, phone calls home — and always someone would hold the door open, clear the traffic in the narrow aisles, offer to get a chair, or help you get up off the floor. There were no tables for games or writing, so we sat on the floor, either in the narrow aisles between pods or in between the cots.
Duffel bags were under the cots, and sheets, blankets and pillows on top. So, if the boys wanted to read, tutor, play Uno and other games, do art, or pray, you either stood in the aisle, sat on your cot (and nobody else’s) or sat on the concrete floor in the 5-foot aisle between the pods. There was one folding chair in the aisle for the one staff member in charge of the pods. So, most of the time we sat on the floor to do things—and when it was time to finish, they were always pulling me up off the floor and having great laughs about it. They were just nice kids you could laugh with—and of course they did not speak English, and my Spanish is so bad. But it all worked for us—lots of charade-type communication, finding Spanish speakers for more complicated things, and in the process, we worked on some English phrases. Can we go to the restroom? I want to play, but I can’t now. I don’t have clean underwear. I don’t have any socks. What is English for, ‘You cheat at Uno — you are hiding the cards.’?
Catholic Charities of San Antonio helped the volunteers learn things like how to reinforce English, how to pass the time in productive ways, and how to be a welcoming, friendly and affirming presence for kids away from home in a high-stress situation—just living in a huge space with 900 other people.
Approaching trials with faith, hope
The U.S. disaster relief handled all basic services—cots, bedding, staffing, meals, clothing (all white, black or grey—very careful not to use “gang related” colors—even to the point of pulling those colors out of marker boxes), case management, transportation, with public health resources for medical and COVID testing and care. All of us—teens, staff, volunteers—had to get tested every three days.
Catholic Charities of San Antonio helped the volunteers learn things like how to reinforce English, how to pass the time in productive ways, and how to be a welcoming, friendly and affirming presence for kids away from home in a high-stress situation—just living in a huge space with 900 other people. As we spent more time with the kids and could see their individual personalities, the realization of their situation became more clear—that they had left families, that to get from Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras they needed to travel through Mexico and were prey to potential assaults, extortion, threats, physical hardships, abandonment, hunger—and all that at age 15. Yet, the temporary nature of the Freeman facility did say to them that they would be going someplace else in the states—to a “sponsor” who could be their cousin or aunt, or mom! And they had that hope—they would be on their way to a home in the states. So, we were with them in that little waiting space, and they could be their 15- and 16-year-old selves.
They have great faith. They liked to pray. We prayed for them and always for their families and for the other kids there. They were very comfortable praying. When they went to lunch and were seated 3-feet apart, all facing one way at long tables because of COVID, they put their lunch down, folded their hands, closed their eyes and prayed—not just a quick, “Bless us, o Lord,” but a good minute or two of silent space. It was in them to be with God. So, to bring a rosary if they were just sitting around on their cots was often a welcome respite for them—they appreciated it.
Need for comforts, discovery
Several boys in my pod had come from an education session on numbers and counting and wanted to do more, so for two days we counted to 100, and we sisters hit a dollar store on our way home to look for math flash cards. We told representatives from Catholic Charities that the kids were interested in following up on their numbers and math, and they put flash cards on their Amazon “wish list.” In the meantime, we made up sheets to practice counting and we counted out loud numerous times to 100, 200 to practice pronunciation, especially the teens, and 20, 30, 40 and so on—all pronunciation challenges made more difficult by wearing masks that hide your mouth, lips and tongue.
The other thing that we became very conscious of was the lack of contact with nature. They were outside maybe once a day for either organized physical education, or free play or walking to the showers—but that was it. No windows in the convention center, no trees, grass, birds. So, we bought flowers to set on the prayer table. At first they were kept in paper cups, but the next day one of the staff members brought in a beautiful vase and actually arranged them—a little bit of beauty to share the table with La Virgen, and the many origami tulips and lilies, and notes with prayers and intentions on them.
When we first got there, the staff told us the boys loved to color—even with books that are for much younger children. So, we raided the store again for books on how to draw, and that worked for so many of them. Suzanne had one fellow who just looked through the book, picked the page with an elephant, and just drew it expertly in seconds—he didn’t need the step-by-step instructions. We saw those glimpses of talents, smarts, observation, kids who are a “quick study” often, as well as those who truly struggled with comprehension, languages, math, and those who were looking always for action — and our teaching backgrounds fell into place quickly. My 24 years of high school teaching made me feel at home. One of the boys beat us all very badly at Spot It, a game given by a good friend of ours to take with us. The idea is to find similar images—sometimes of different sizes—on two or three cards set down at the same time. He was instantaneous. Another boy used his fingers to find them—which sort of didn’t let the rest of us to see them, but oh well.
Finding goodness in relationships
There are so many images or impressions from the week—I will be sitting with them or processing them for a long time. In general, I would say that they revolve around the goodness of people and the decency we find in one another. The moments become like sacraments for me, and that’s why I like to stay with them for a while. One was on the Sunday we first arrived—when we got our first sight of the 900 beds—overwhelming to see the numbers, almost shocking. As we walked in, we heard yelling, clapping and whistling, which started at one end of the room and moved like a wave across the whole space; one of the boys was leaving. The case manager had come in, found him in his pod, and he had his duffel bag zipped and was leaving to go to his U.S. home! And the happiness and love of those other 900 boys in the room was instantly shared as they realized someone was going—they all were so happy for him. And it gave them hope too—one day.
And for all the political wrangling and meanness we often experience around immigration in the U.S., I was glad to have a chance to be proud of some government policy that put together emergency shelters, sometimes in two or three days, because these are kids. That’s the reason—they are kids. The basic compassion and decency we have as people to keep them sheltered, safe, fed, clean—that’s what we did. They are going to be OK, and we all are going to be OK. And the care that is being taken—even though it is taking longer to vet the persons they are going to and the process is not going as fast as they would like (they were hoping to be able to move 100 kids per day)—means that we know where they are going, where home is for them, how they are getting there, and where they will be. In a few months or years from now, we are not going to discover that there are 430-some children that we have “in detention” and that we don’t know where their families or parents are.
Embracing humanity, offering support
Having had the privilege of accompanying the boys, Catholic Charities and all the other persons and agencies who get the teens through the day, identifying ways to support and love them is so important to share. Catholic Charities of San Antonio supply needs are on their website. Their main need is cash donations. They use the money to provide the things that make a day good, stimulating, fun and sometimes special. One staff person told us that when a boy turns 18, he is pulled out of his pod and occupies a cot against one of the walls. Then, at some time before midnight, arrangements are made for him to leave with staff, who take him out for pizza or burgers for his birthday and get a place for him to stay overnight, and then the next day he leaves for his U.S. home.
It made us think of all the other kids who have birthdays while they are there—it’s your birthday, you are not at home, no one knows it’s your birthday—very sad—so the efforts made by Catholic Charities to mark a very special day are just nice. Catholic Charities also supplies volunteers who work on “COVID Hill,” the tent that houses the boys in quarantine. They don’t advertise for volunteers for this service, but people do volunteer. One boy who had received a rapid test registered positive but had no symptoms, and he was immediately placed in a separate area until they could do verification. Behind the curtain, you heard him crying, frightened with the news. Again, they are just kids, and scared. Catholic Charities is sensitive to these vulnerabilities.
The other thing that we became very conscious of was the lack of contact with nature. They were outside maybe once a day for either organized physical education, or free play or walking to the showers—but that was it. No windows in the convention center, no trees, grass, birds. So, we bought flowers to set on the prayer table. … a little bit of beauty to share the table with La Virgen, and the many origami tulips and lilies, and notes with prayers and intentions on them.
We met several religious who had also responded to the call from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—two Maryknoll, an Adrian Dominican, a Little Sister of Jesus, a Missionary of the Sacred Heart—some in ministries, or retired, or on a sabbatical. They were housed in either a discounted hotel or with friends, and had various lengths of planned stays. We rented a car and a nearby home, as meals would be easier to manage for the three of us. San Antonio Catholic Charities volunteers are required to register and undergo Safe Environment Training, and are tested for COVID-19 on arrival and every three days. There is a badge for security and a badge for tracking volunteer hours. All in all, you check in in some way five times when going in to work and four times when leaving. The Freeman is scheduled to close at the end of May. There was talk of using Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio as well, but no one knew of any immediate plans for that.
—Sister Mary Ann Pajakowski, CSC
Before embarking on the trip to San Antonio, we had to obtain certification that included Safe Environment Training, which we completed virtually. The three parts of the training covered sexual harassment training, protecting God’s children, and vulnerable adults training.
I was assigned Pod 16 A, which was 24 boys, ages 13, 14 and 15. One boy spoke beginning English fairly well, the rest knew a few English words. This did not limit my interactions in a big way, as I made up my own sign language. Just being present with them, participating in some of their games and activities and leading them to the places they needed to go, made them so happy. Knowing Spanish would have made a huge difference, but having a bilingual group leader at the pod helped a lot.
One morning, one of the boys just broke into tears because he felt he had been there far too long and wondered if the processing of his documents had been halted. The sadness and fear in his eyes hit me hard. I pray for him and the others as they hope for a better life in the United States. I believe the boys felt comforted, cared for and loved by our being with them. It was a satisfying experience to have had this opportunity. The memories of the experience will live on.
—Sister Esther Adjoa Entsiwah, CSC
The sisters express their gratitude to the Holy Cross Sisters, Holy Cross Associates, families, friends and co-workers who continue to hold these children, their families and their situations in their prayers. To learn how to provide additional support, visit the Catholic Charities of San Antonio website or contact Kristan Schlichte, firstname.lastname@example.org, for ways to donate and volunteer. You may also contact the following organizations.