If you keep up with the daily news in this country, you have surely heard much about the immigration situation and the many unaccompanied children crossing our southern border. We are bombarded daily with the numbers of children and families desperate to begin a new life in this country. Less frequently, we read or hear something of their stories. I have worked for the last year and a half at Bethany House of Hospitality in Chicago, a home for young women asylum seekers (aged 18-22), where I get to know the persons as well as their stories.
Memorable 18th Birthdays?
At Bethany House we provide a safe home and supportive services to young women, some with children, as they journey toward independence and as their cases wend their way through a labyrinthine asylum system. A few come to us directly from the border; most come to us as they “age out” of children’s shelter/detention centers. On their 18th birthday, if they have no place else to go, the women are handcuffed and taken to adult detention centers (in our region, generally the Kankakee or McHenry County jails). A “memorable” birthday indeed. For that reason, the majority of our residents at Bethany House arrive on their 18th birthday. Here, they are more than nameless “numbers” and their lives are more than a political football to be used against those at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Not a single issue
We hear much about immigration as a political issue, but it is not a single issue. It is a complex intersection of many issues: violence, poverty, corruption, and climate change being only a few of the complexities that drive people to flee their homes and families. If you are a parent, imagine how painful it would be to send your child alone into another country, not knowing what they may face on the perilous journey or once they arrived. What desperation and concern for your child’s survival might drive you to such an act of loving surrender? One parent answered the question of how she could expose her child to such danger and trauma saying, “I would rather have my daughter take this risk than have her murdered here before my eyes.” Hope is stronger than fear. Only the strongest hope can overcome the fear of being separated, possibly forever, from those we love. I invite you to ponder some of the reasons people flee their homes as you watch and listen to this 3-minute video, Home by Warsan Shire.
Why they come
Why have 13,000 children arrived at our southern border in the last month? Their homes are not safe. Violence is rampant in their countries. Hurricanes or drought have destroyed their towns and villages. The effects of climate change on farming and water access has decimated livelihoods. Dictatorships and corrupt government officials and law enforcement, sometimes supported by the U.S. over the years, threaten families of those who seek justice. Human trafficking in domestic, farm, or sex workers flourishes, too, often with impunity. Ever-growing economic inequality and debilitating generational poverty push people to seek alternatives. Some come to be reunited with family who came to the U.S. before them. In other words, the vast majority of immigrants are coming to the United States for the same reasons our ancestors came, however many generations ago.
Bethany House: An Act of Justice
Bethany House of Hospitality opened its doors to young women in October of 2017 through the collaboration of Catholic sisters in and around Illinois. Since then we have welcomed 52 young women and 9 children from 18 different countries in Africa, the Middle East, South and Central America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. At any given time as many as 16 women and their children share life together in a 20-bedroom house in Hyde Park, thanks to the Scalabrini Fathers who generously provide the house rent-free. The small staff reflects the diversity of our residents, with countries of origin (or parents) from Africa, South and Central America, and the U.S. The base of support for Bethany House is expanding to include friends and associates of the sisters, churches, temples and mosques, universities and foundations that want to partner in an act of justice for some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.
Partners in the Mission
Bethany House is able to fulfill its mission thanks to a broad network of partnering agencies. Child advocacy is provided by Young Center; legal services by the National Immigrant Justice Center and Heartland Alliance in Chicago. Children’s shelters and foster programs around the country directly serve our residents. Less direct, but equally important partners are human rights groups who advocate for a more just immigration policy.
We invite you to partner with us as well. There are many ways to help, depending on your circumstances.
- Educate yourself on immigration issues; seek greater understanding of the current situation and related issues; study possible solutions; study Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti calling us to new understanding of how we are all connected to one another;
- Pray for those who are immigrating and all whom they will encounter along the way: human smugglers, border agents, shelter providers, lawyers and judges. Pray for their safety and for a deep recognition of each person’s human dignity;
- Take action: talk to your neighbors and friends; befriend an immigrant family in your neighborhood or city. Ask how you might support them;
- Advocate for policy changes and make your advocacy visible on your social media accounts;
- Welcome immigrants and help them integrate into your neighborhood.
How to Help
If you’re not sure where to begin, volunteer with Bethany House of Hospitality or other local agencies in your area. (In Springfield, the Springfield Immigrant Advocacy Network is doing great works and can always use volunteers, in-kind, and cash donations.)
At Bethany House we always need tutors, mentors (for financial and practical issues), someone to prepare a meal (even if, because of COVID restrictions, you may not be able to eat with us), or help with grocery shopping. Volunteers assist residents with transportation to appointments or “field trips” to the park on Lake Michigan and other locations. Even leading a simple bike ride through the neighborhood is helpful. Through any of these actions—and so many more, limited only by the imagination—you can show the women and children we serve at Bethany House that they are welcome, they are visible, and their inherent human dignity is recognized.
And, as your circumstances permit, you can donate to help support Bethany House. Our finances are dependent on the generosity of so many like you. It’s a good financial investment, too. The cost of maintaining an immigrant in a government shelter or detention center is estimated at $140-$200 per day. The cost per resident per day at Bethany House is less than half that, approximately $50-75 per day. You may also donate gently used clothing appropriate for young women or household goods. It takes a lot of personal products, paper goods, and cleaning supplies to keep Bethany House running!
You may partner with us or with agencies that serve immigrants in your own region. Doing so will deepen your awareness of immigrants’ compelling stories and—more importantly—with the rostros concretos—real people, our brothers and sisters, whose stories are more than what you might hear on the news.
Sister Kathlyn Mulcahy has been a Springfield Dominican Sister for 40 years and has ministered as an educator and pastoral leader in the United States and Peru.
Photos used with permission from Bethany House Facebook page.