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Asking Guests to Move On: The Hardest Part of My Job

When I decided to return to Annunciation House, I made this decision for many reasons. One of the main reasons was that I felt like I had found an organization with an amazing mission and way of running the house, and I felt like I could contribute to that mission.  Part of this included a desire to help people in need (and in turn become much more the person I hope to become).

I love that feeling when a guest asks me if I can help him or her and I can say yes. When I find that ingredient they need to make dinner. When I help them understand a letter from a government office they received in the mail. When I went to a job fair with a guest and helped her fill out job applications that were only in English.

I savor these little or big moments for days when I cannot say yes. When I don’t have time to play a game with the kids or make the banana muffins that everyone is in love with. When I have to get on to a guest for doing something wrong. When I am dead exhausted and just want to go to sleep but still have 2 more hours of shift and am not always super friendly.

This includes saying yes or no to the core of what we have to offer: shelter and hospitality. I have to answer at least one call per day (usually more like 2 or 3) from someone who is looking for a place to stay because he or she has no other options and somehow ended up with the Casa Vides number to call to ask if there is room.

Of course, the answer is pretty easy at Vides that no, we cannot accept you here, because Vides does not actually do any intakes. New guests are only received at Annunciation House. But it is my responsibility to ask more about the person’s situation in order to get a sense of whether I should refer them to call Annunciation House to possibly begin the intake process or whether I should refer them to another shelter in town. Basically, I’m trying to see if they have any other options (usually not or else they wouldn’t be calling in the first place) or to see if they fall into the categories of people we most strive to serve (the ones most barred from other shelters): being undocumented, a migrant, or a refugee.

It is hard sometimes to answer the phone and only have to in turn refer the person out to call another shelter in hopes that they have space. Sometimes I say things like “good luck!” or “I hope everything works out okay” in an effort to try to be hospitable to even those people we do not accept into our shelter. But while my empathy for their suffering is real in that moment, after hanging up the phone I am generally pretty easily able to shake the sadness that comes over me and move on to serving the guests who do live in my house.

It is an entirely different matter of trying to refer out a guest who is already staying with us.

All guests who enter A-house are assigned a volunteer to help them accomplish whatever plan they have described to us when we do the intake. In general, the guest stays in the house either until that plan has been completed or the volunteer decides that the guest has not been working towards that plan hard or fast enough and then they are assigned a “departure date,” a date by which the guest must move out of the house.

I am currently in the process of having to ask a guest to move on. And it sucks.

For privacy reasons, I obviously cannot give the details of her situation, but basically things have changed since what she said to us when she was accepted into the house. I do not believe that she intentionally lied to us; I believe she was misled by an official who told her wrong information. However, both houses are basically at capacity with more people soon to come (including a group of college students to come learn about the border!) and the honest truth is that she is going to need to stay here much longer than she initially told us. And for these main reasons, I have begun the conversation with her that she cannot stay here much longer.

Because of this I had my first guest welfare session in which a guest cried to me. She begged me to let her stay. That this whole process has been terrible on her and her family. Please don’t put more hardship on them by asking them to move to another shelter.

The thing that breaks my heart is that I completely understand that. I completely understand that her family has suffered enough without having to move from first A-house to Vides and now onto another shelter. That her children are crying because they just want to  have a secure place to call home. And that I am being part of the organization that is saying no, you have to leave.

And so while I am having to put on a tough face and be sympathetic yet firm about this while talking to her, my heart feels a little like it’s breaking. And the crappy part is that I know it is just the first heartbreak of many to come from my year of being here. And part of me just wants to curl up in my room and escape the pain through TV shows or books (which, okay, I’ll admit I did for most of yesterday afternoon and night).

But the other part of me knows that while this is really hard, that nothing comes easy. Annunciation House is the experience of the joy and the pain. And thankfully the joy really does greatly outweigh the pain. So while I absolutely despise having to ask them to move on, I can keep in mind that this is opening up the opportunity to get to say “welcome” to another family who also really needs shelter and hospitality. And really, I think that is one of the best parts of my job.

P.S. Shout out to my wonderful House Coordinator Beth for helping me have the official conversation this morning about the details of when they have to move on, as it was sooner than they thought it would be and lots of tears that I would not have dealt well with on my own. So thankful for such a supportive volunteer community.

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How Annunciation House Began: Ordinary People Being Willing to Follow a “Crazy” Calling

Last weekend the Board of Directors of Annunciation House had their big meeting of the year. Normally, this would probably not be something that would be particularly interesting or exciting for the everyday staff of a non-profit. But there is very little that is “normal” about Annunciation House. A big difference: everyone on the board of directors is a former volunteer. Which means they all have awesome stories about how the house used to be, as much of the history is only passed along orally. And all board members, current volunteers, and community people involved with Annunciation House were invited to a cookout Saturday night to get to know each other.

While I heard about many wonderful and unique stories (including a little bit about what it was like when we used to have a location in Juarez!), this post is dedicated to a woman who was one of the original five who moved into Annunciation House. I was so inspired by her story that I felt compelled to share it, as close to as she told me it as possible…

It was the mid 1970’s and a group of young Catholics got together for about a year to discuss what it truly meant to live the Gospel. They discussed many ideas, but especially focused on the idea that they, as Christians, were called to serve the poor.

But what does that REALLY mean?

Some people answer this question by donating some money to charity or doing occasional mission projects. This group, however, felt called to something much more extreme: to move into the top half of an old, dilapidated building to do something.

Let me be clear at this point- they did not initially feel called to create “Annunciation House.” They did not decide that they needed to serve the immigrant population as an emergency homeless shelter. They had very little idea about what that something meant.

Instead, their discussion lead them to decide that they felt called to give up almost all of their worldly possessions, to live simply, and move into this building that the diocese was generous enough to lend them, because they felt certain that God was calling them to do so. And that His vision would eventually be made clear in how it was that they were to help the poor.

And so, of the more than one dozen that were meeting regularly with the group, five took up that calling and moved into the building. The woman telling me this story described what this meant for her: she had 15 credits left to finish her college degree and she dropped out to move in (though she did finish her degree a number of years later). She gave away her car. She gave away most of her clothes.

She faced many challenges from others about her decision. Her parents were especially upset with her, saying “We didn’t work this hard to get out of the barrio for you to move back into it!” (the barrio referring to Segundo Barrio, the poor section of El Paso where Annunciation House is located).

But she followed the call anyway.

She and the other four began the long process of cleaning the building, while continuing to discuss what they were really being called to do and how they were being called to do it.

For instance, they started receiving donations from people in the community (lots of green beans!), but also things like cots and beds. Should they accept them? They knew they wanted to live simply and they didn’t know if things like beds would take away from that. BEDS! They were serious about their commitment to simple living in solidarity with the poor. But they did decide to keep and use them and pretty soon had 5, one of each of them.

And then a sixth arrived. Well, surely keeping it would mean they would be living in excess? What did they need with more beds than people? But they decided to keep it, just in case. They felt called to keep it.

And guess what happened the very next day? Someone knocked on the door. A teenager who had been living on the streets asked if he could stay there. And he was the first guest to ever be welcomed into what became Annunciation House.

Then another bed arrived. They decided to keep it as well. And I’m sure you can guess what happened next… there was another knock on the door and another guest was welcomed into their new home.

As the woman said, “Every time we received another bed, we knew that God was about to send us another guest.”

In these first days they accepted anyone who came knocking. She distinctly remembers spending much time with a woman who was very suicidal, many times talking to her when she was thinking about jumping off the roof.

From there Annunciation House, as we know it now, began to evolve.

They eventually realized it was the undocumented, particularly those people fleeing violence (physical, political, and economic) in Latin America who needed them at that time. And so they welcomed those fleeing the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. Those fleeing oppression in Honduras. And so many others who had no where else to stay, as they lacked Social Security numbers to be allowed refuge in other shelters. And we continue to welcome them today, those fleeing the violence in Mexico, the violence of economic poverty, or a family separated by international boundaries drawn in the sand. Those not welcome anywhere else.

I had heard a version of this story before, as it was part of my orientation last summer when I began as a summer intern. And you can find the organization’s version of it on the website. But there was something immensely powerful to hear it from an ordinary woman sitting across the table from me on a breezy early fall night at a backyard cookout. That she, just an ordinary student and young woman, could feel a call to give up almost everything she had ever known because she felt called to help the poor in a way that she did not yet know what it was. And that she followed that call.

I have to say I felt something similar before I began here last summer. I was searching for something to be my Poverty Studies internship for the summer and just instantly had this feeling about Annunciation House, a place that actually welcomed the undocumented. And had a similar feeling that I should return to volunteer for a year. I had never experienced such a strong calling for anything before and who knows if I’ll ever feel anything like it again.

But despite many people in my family thinking my decision was a bit crazy (to decide to live and work in a homeless shelter for undocumented immigrants in a city that I had never been to, to work for an organization I knew almost nothing about, while receiving no pay to do so), I have to say that I didn’t think it was that crazy. And neither did this woman think her call was crazy, even if the world did.

As I said in my previous post, I’m not totally sure what I think about religion right now. But this is something that I do know: when Christians feel a calling to understand the Gospel, it should be centered around an understanding of working to help the poor. And when they receive their calling to help the poor in some way, even if it seems crazy, even if it means not really knowing the big picture or the tiny details, they should take up those callings. Even if it means living in a homeless shelter. Or living in a building with an unknown purpose without any beds. It may seem too hard, but how will the world change into a just, heaven-on-earth without people willing to accept the crazy calls to revolutionize the way we currently live?

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Annunciation House Rosary: Politics and Religion

Last night Annunciation House hosted a rosary. Specifically we took part in the “Strangers No Longer: Together in the Journey of Hope for comprehensive immigration reform” series of “migrant” rosaries that have taken place these past two weeks, culminating on Saturday with a border mass which I am really excited to attend. The slogan, so to say, of these two weeks is “We need to PRAY and We need to ACT!”

To say I was a bit uneasy about all of this would be an understatement. First of all, I had no idea what a rosary was, as I’m not Catholic. Secondly, I feel uncomfortable being part of any religious event, but especially one in which I am asked to take any sort of role, as I’m still very much in the intellectual and spiritual exploration stage. And finally, I am really weary of explicitly mixing politics and religion in such a direct way.

As the volunteer community has been preparing for this event over the past weeks I was very hesitant to want to help with anything at all for these reasons, (though was thrilled when asked if I would be willing to make cookies for the event!). I just kept thinking about people who use religion to promote really conservative political beliefs because they are supposedly rooted in the Bible, such as putting women in a lower position, not supporting gay rights, or condemning a person for taking a drink of alcohol or having sex before marriage. What makes it any different just because I happen to agree with the political beliefs being put forward?

However, there was no way I was not going to attend an event that we put on, and I was curious to see how I would feel about this mixture of politics and religion when I saw it in action, so along with almost every single guest in our houses, I attended the rosary last night. I purposely sat in the back of the parking lot instead of in the chairs next to the guests so that they would not notice that I was not saying the Catholic prayers along with them. I was ready of observe and think,

The first 30 minutes or so were about what I expecting to feel: discomfort when statements such as the following were made:

“Aunque mucha gente ha luchado por una reforma migratoria justa, y ha defendido la causa del migrante, otros estan gritando, ‘Crucifiquelos!'” after the first mystery when Jesus is condemned to death [translation: “While many have advocated for just immigration legislation and have defended the migrant’s cause, others are shouting “Crucify them!'”

“Veras que soy un hombre, no puedo ser extranjero” in a song sung entitled “No Me Llames Extranjero” [translation: “You will see that because I am human I cannot be a foreigner” from the song “Don’t Call Me a Foreigner”

“Maria madre de los migrantes intercede ante tu hijo para que derribemos los muros de egoismo, haznos capaces de construir puentes de fraternidad, que todos nos descubramos hermanos, hijos tuyos y dicipulos de Jesus” from the Ofrecimiento General del Rosario [translation:  Mary mother of the migrants intercede before your son so that we can break down the walls of selfishness, make us capable of building bridges based on fraternity, that everyone should discover that we are brothers and sisters, children of yours and disciples of Jesus” from The General Rosary Offering]

When I first heard some of these quotes I was uncomfortable: religion is often used as a justification for the leaders to convince their followers that they are right. Therefore, by saying the first mystery about Jesus being condemned to death and then saying that some people in the US are calling to “crucify” the immigrants, they are indirectly referring to the immigrant as a representation of Jesus, who like Jesus, are being unjustly persecuted. While I politically agreed, I wasn’t sure why this was any better than the conservative churches. My cynical self turned to ideas like that of Karl Marx’s classification of religion as “the opiate of the masses” whereby leaders can manipulate people into acting in a way that they so desire.

But then I thought about another famous philosophical quote: All human actions are political actions (this quote is approximate, as I was pretty sure it was Aristotle, but doing a quick google search I can’t find it, so let me know if you do know!). In other words, all actions, speeches, religious events, etc. are by their nature political because we are political beings.  Furthermore, choosing to discuss one topic rather than another is a political decision.

The religious leader has the obligation to decide what topic to discuss out of all possible topics. For instance, when a pastor focuses on individual suffering or individual happiness in his sermons, he has chosen not to discuss the needs of the community and of others like the immigrant. Any time that a Bible verse or story is interpreted in present day decisions are made about what it means to us now.

And I guess this is the essence of religion… interpreting for yourself. Religious leaders have decided to try to lead people in their interpretations, and then it is up to the people to decide what to do with that interpretation. Religion and politics are always mixed, even if it’s not as obvious as it was last night.

For what it’s worth, I very much agree with the interpretation put forth by Annunciation House last night. If Christians accept that they are all brothers and sisters of God, then national borders should not matter when thinking about human rights and human dignity. Families are being separated, workers are being exploited, asylum seekers are being detained and lied to, and we are refusing to see how US policies are at work in any of this, ranging from NAFTA to our support for the “war on drugs” in Mexico.

I do believe that immigrants from our neighboring countries are being vastly mistreated. I decided that from an intellectual/human rights perspective. Others may decide that from a religious perspective. But what’s important to me is that I am part of a community that is actively and publicly working towards trying to establish a better system for our neighbors…

After all this deep thinking I took the last few minutes to enjoy the precious and beautiful moments I was witnessing:

from the dancers in beautiful costumes

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to the little boy whose family was nice enough to give him a drum,

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to the news camera that was there to capture the event

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and then of course the cookies and snacks to be enjoyed by all afterwards!

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Happy, Funny, and Life-Filled Moments from My New Home

I know that I have a tendency to love to criticize things that I believe need to be changed, while downplaying the importance of those happy little moments in life that make me feel at home at Casa Vides. Therefore, I am going to try to make a concerted effort to at least once a month (hopefully more often) just share those little things that make me laugh like crazy, smile with energy, or just shake my head in amusement. In no particular order, here are some things that I experienced this past week:

  • Ya se puede casar“- The senoras in the house absolutely love talking about marriage. Many of them got married between the ages of 14 and 16 and their marriages dominated their lives until their husbands passed away (here I am mostly talking about Social Security guests, women whose husbands worked legally in the US and filed SS and whose wives can now access that when they hit the right age, but who must physically come to the US for one month every 6 months to receive the benefits). This quote came after one of the new SS guests arrived and tried my banana bread for the first time (disclaimer: the guests literally fight over my banana bread they love it so much! I’m so glad I have an excuse to make it so often!). She took one bite of the muffin and turned to me and said “Ya se puede casar” meaning, “now you can get married.” After laughing really hard I finally asked her to explain exactly what she meant, and she told me, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, that I have great talent with cooking and that’s enough to win over any man. While I may not want a marriage that based in traditional gender roles (at all!), I loved this opportunity to really talk about cultural differences with the guests. I ended up debating with the woman about marriage, why I was not already married or even dating anyone, and it felt just like talking to my own grandparents in many ways. It felt just like a family when the older generations pass on their ideals to the younger generations. And I feel very fortunate to be invited into this family!
  • “I used to exercise a lot too, until I got married!” This conversation happened with another senora. I have done a good job of trying to run 3 or 4 times a week for the past 2 weeks. One day after I got back, feeling really good about myself for having run that night, this guest asked me if I did any other exercise once I went upstairs to my room. I looked at her like how-dare-you-say-I’m-not-doing-enough-when-I’m-finally-getting-the-spirit-to-run-some-days, but she just smiled and said she used to exercise a lot too when she was younger. But then she got married so she didn’t need to anymore. I think I can reasonably draw some conclusions that we exercise for different reasons, my primary one being to stay at a healthy weight and body condition, whereas hers was to attract a husband, but it was really fun to draw that connection from her youth to mine. She may be a poor elderly woman from Mexico while I am a middle class young woman from the US, but we’ve all shared similar experiences, and can laugh and bond over them.
  • Alanna, it’s raining! And your clothes are outside!!!” I had been trying to wash my clothes since Sunday morning, but every time that I went to try to use the washing machine a guest was always using it. I checked back multiple times on Sunday, and Monday morning, and early Monday afternoon. Finally, right before my shift started at 2 yesterday the washing machine had finally opened up. I joyfully put my clothes in, hoping that some space on the clotheslines outside would open up in the meantime. No such luck. The load finished and literally every single clothespin was being used and the every bit of the 6 lines was taken! I waited around for 45 minutes, just having my clothes sit outside in the vain attempt that someone would notice and take their dry clothes down, while I did my other duties of being on shift like cutting the moldly parts off the squash and peppers in the fridge. I finally realized I just need to get over my dislike of confrontation and just ask someone to take their clothes down. Luckily that went fine, and the woman instantly stopped everything she was doing to move her clothes (unnecessary, but I think she felt bad because she kept beating me to the washing machine and joking about winning, so she knew I had been waiting 2 days to wash my clothes). Finally, I felt that the battle to have clean clothes was won. And then the rain clouds came… I knew they were coming, but it’s not like I could have moved my clothes. While I could have hung  a few things around my room, I had way too many clean clothes to put them all inside so I just decided to wait it out. So they would get wet again. Well then they could dry again. At least they would be well positioned to dry as soon as the rain stopped. However, I think the guests weren’t able to approach the same problem with my level of calmness. I had no less than 6 different guests run up to me throughout the time it was raining (about 30 minutes) to tell me that it was raining and my clothes were going to get wet. Their urgency to help me, and inability to comprehend my position on the whole thing, was both flattering and hilarious (though it did make me self-conscious that I was missing something in why it would be a bad idea). I think the part that I found the funniest was that a teenage boy in the house informed me 3 different times about it, never ceasing in his urgency to tell me. While he does like to joke (he told me I am his true love last night in an attempt for me to not make him go upstairs at 9:30 like the new rule said he had to), he was dead serious every time. I really wonder what I get overly serious about that the guests laugh at me more. I know it happens a lot, I just can’t always understand the reason why.
  • “If you don’t make it as a university professor, you should open up a bakery!” Another guy involved around Annunciation House likes my banana bread as much as the guests do. I always text him when I’m making some and so far he has always stopped by for at least one muffin. Last week I cooked them on my day off so that I (and he) could eat as many as we wanted to without feeling guilty about not sharing more with the guests (as I usually don’t let myself eat very many when I cook them for the house). While we were happily filling ourselves with way too many muffins (especially me) he informed me that I’m really good at baking (as I’ve also made many different homemade cookies, pancakes, etc. while I’ve been here), and that I should really consider running a bakery, you know, if the becoming a university professor thing doesn’t work out. My immediate response: No, I would get way too fat! Though I think I could be quite happy.
  • Finding a microwavable lasagna in the bodega. And loving it. So maybe you think this doesn’t belong on this list, but believe me, it totally does! I am currently on my 2 day (once a week volunteers get one day off and once a month we get two days off, hence my being on my 2 day) so I was trying to figure out what food to pack to bring over to Casa T, the place volunteers can stay on their days off to have a chance to remove yourself from the house and the work to truly get a break. I came across a microwavable lasagna that was supposed to be healthy and yummy (um, not so sure about how both of those can be true of a microwaveable meal), and decided to try it because I was already hungry and still had to walk 20 minutes to get to Casa T. And it was delicious.

Sometimes it’s those small moments in life that can just really warm your heart and make you feel like you are in the right place and part of a true loving family.

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Detention Center Visit: Practicing Being a Sociologist

Earlier this week I went to visit the detention center*, called the corralon by the guests (many of whom have a male family member detained while the women and children were released), or called the El Paso Processing Center by the official messages we receive. The following post was what I literally wrote in my notebook while sitting in the detention center waiting room while another volunteer, Ali, met with a male detainee whose family used to be in the house. I tried to practice describing what I saw through an objective, though human-filled and personal, lens, like I hope to do as a professional sociologist in a few years. Here’s what I saw and thought:

“Room has mostly emptied out for the night, but still has a few families (two with young children) and single women waiting to visit their loved ones on the one time a week they have randomly been assigned to be allowed to actually see them- otherwise they can wait for the phone call each night that must cost a fortune- these phone calls and visitations causing those outside to be trapped as well by the schedule the impersonal institution sets, as they cannot make any plans or wander too far from the phone- never knowing when it will ring.

The building has the feel of a neglected school with dirty tile floors, generic white cement walls, and signs put up hastily with the tape still showing. This is the life of a person who doesn’t belong- they don’t leave unless they are freed or deported. They sleep, eat, work, meet loved ones and lawyers, and attend court all in the same complex. As Ali joked- “one-stop shopping.” But these people, the ones who had the audacity to try to enter “our” country at a time when we’ve decided we don’t want them, apparently deserve nothing different. President Obama is apparently proud, as his smiling photo (and that of the head of the Department of Homeland Security) is looking over us, backed of course by the American flag. This is the American reality. He can say all he wants about trying to help immigration reform, but the cold hard fact is that like this building these people are still neglected. Deportations have increased and kids are seeing their dads presented as criminals, wives separated through cement and wire from their husbands’ comforting presence. And some immigrants remain isolated and alone, as there is no one nearby to visit them.

But there is still a human presence shining through. The little girl who said she has “nueve” years old, though in reality is only three, giggles while she waits. The guards joke with Ali about the lines and the waiting. A woman who has retired from teaching sometimes finds out about people who have no one to visit them and comes just so they have someone to talk to. And really, this is what matters. You don’t beat impersonal systems like these with anything but raw human emotions. Real people must say enough, and say it strongly enough that those who are part of the system can’t help but listen.”

*For those of you who don’t know, the detention center is designed to literally be a processing center as the official name implies. It is where people who are detained at ports of entry (like the airport or the international bridges) or by Border Patrol after entering the US in a way other than through the ports of entry, are taken while immigration officials decide what to do with them. Some will be charged with the offense of entering the US without inspection (what is commonly referred to as entering illegally) and then deported. Others, such as those presenting for asylum, ideally are released either before their credible fear interview or after they have passed the credible fear interview while the await the actual long legal process of applying for asylum (though as our press conference this week showed, many of those who present for asylum are denied this right and are deported back to the very country they are trying to flee).

Because it is designed to be a short term facility they are not offered the services available at typical jails, such as GED classes. However, there are some people who end up spending more than a year at these facilities, thereby showing that they are not exclusively used as short term places. A common complaint among advocacy groups is that it seems like they try to make their existence as miserable as possible so that people will just decide to self-deport instead of trying to stick it out. In fact, the man Ali went to visit has said he would rather return to Mexico, the country he is literally fleeing for his life, then have to continue to live an indefinite amount of time in detention waiting for his asylum case.

Immigration politics sure are complicated…

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Being Homeless Doesn’t Make You Less of a Person

Let me first start by saying how glad I am that free health clinics like this exist for people who literally have no resources or way to pay for health care. But merely existing is not enough…

Today I accompanied one of out guests to the only free health clinic available to the homeless of El Paso (I’ll refrain from using the name, but as it’s the only one, I’m sure you can find it if you would like to). I was annoyed I had to get up so early (needing to leave the house at 7), but I was more than happy to volunteer to go with the elderly woman who has troubles walking any distance and is not the type to stand up for herself. I left the clinic spewing with anger.

The frustration started the minute we walked in the door and the first secretary we came to literally spoke no Spanish. None. This is El Paso. There is absolutely no reason a social service provider such as this clinic should employ someone who is not bilingual to sit at the desk and direct people where to go. She tells the guest (who speaks basically no English) that the clinic doesn’t open until 8 so we couldn’t go in yet (I translated for her). She failed, though, to tell us that we couldn’t even check in yet.

So, when 8 AM comes around suddenly there is a crowd of people going through the clinic door. Because the woman I was accompanying couldn’t walk fast we suddenly moved from second to arrive to last in line. But okay, poor organization can be forgiven. Maybe I should have somehow known that that was how the process worked (sometimes I use sarcasm to express my frustration).

We then stand in line to check in. The receptionist to check us in was so aggressive and demanding that the woman I was with backed away from the window and asked me to finish checking her in. She didn’t feel comfortable doing it anymore. However, because she hadn’t been there for a while, she was given a lot of paperwork to fill out (would have been nice to do that when we got there early, huh?). And of course no offers are made to help her fill out the paperwork, which at least did have the good sense to be bilingual. You know, for those people who are homeless who are literate enough to understand complicated medical paperwork. I don’t know if my guest is literate or not. All I know is that she asked me to fill it out for her and so I happily did, being very glad I had decided to come with her.

By the time I finally finished all the paperwork, it was almost 8:30, 30 minutes past her “appointment” time. The clinic continued filling up with lots and lots of people during this paperwork time. We sit and relax a bit as we wait for her to get called back. And then keep waiting. And then keep waiting. And then keep waiting. Finally, at 9:45, 1 hour and 45 minutes after her “appointment” time I decide that I’ve had enough of this waiting (especially considering people who I know came in after us have already been seen and left) I walk up to the receptionist and ask how much longer it will be. Without bothering to consult anything or show any sort of sympathy at all, she proceeds to inform me that she will be seen at some point. Furthermore, she continued in a snarky voice, everyone receives the same 8 AM appointment time, so it’s not really an appointment. It’s just a guarantee she will be seen today. I returned to my seat feeling angry and defeated. My guest, however, just sighed and went back to closing her eyes and waiting.

Finally, at 10:30 (almost 3 hours after we got there) she was called back. The nurse asked if I was her granddaughter, something that would make sense based off our ages. When we said no, but didn’t clarify, she didn’t even bother to ask who I was in relation to her (something I feel definitely should have been asked for my guest’s privacy and safety) and just took her blood pressure and oxygen level and then asked why she was there. My guest said she didn’t really know. When the nurse started to look angry, my guest said it was probably just to follow up about her health after an incident from quite a few months ago. The nurse was impatient, never made eye contact, and didn’t even usually look at my guest while she asked questions to type into her computer. I tried to explain another concern we had (which I obviously can’t give the specifics of here for privacy reasons) and she gave me a very dirty look, snatched the medical report I had brought with us from my hands, glanced at it, asked one more question to my guest, and then snapped back that it was fine. And then left.

After a little more waiting the doctor finally arrived. He demanded to know who I was and only once I said I worked at the homeless shelter she was staying at and my guest gave a look that clearly indicated she was fine with my being there (and on the forms I filled it out, with her permission, we indicated that all medical information about her could be released to me). He then asked her why she was there, and when she again said she wasn’t sure he made a joke with her. Finally, for the first time all day, she was treated like a person. It was still not with the warmth that a doctor would normally treat me, but I can understand that he had already had a very long morning, and honestly I’m not always great at being friendly with our guests when I’m tired either. He did a short exam on the places she said hurt her. He then prescribed a pain medicine and was ready to leave, but he could see on my face that I was not done yet. I asked him about the same thing I asked the nurse about from the medical record and he looked slightly annoyed but covered it quickly and asked what I was specifically talking about. I said that we were confused and needed to understand clearly. After demanding that he fully consider what he was reading (as he seemed ready to wave away the concern as well) he said he would do a test so that we could understand, because the previous notes weren’t conclusive about it.  We left having no idea when that will take place. We thanked the doctor for his help and returned to the waiting room to wait for the medicines she would be receiving. Finally, at 12 they were brought out and we were the last patients to leave.

She left quite happy that she got some medicine and very happy about how friendly the doctor was. She recalled her experience at the hospital when the medical confusion first started and that doctor had told her that her health urgently depended on an operation or else she would die. Her response was that she couldn’t afford something like that, specifically saying, “No tengo dinero. Voy a morir.” Or “I don’t have any money, so I will die.” The doctor just left it at that and discharged her from the hospital. He didn’t explain to her that health is a fundamental right and that money didn’t matter, as the public hospital would be obligated to do the life-saving surgery no matter her ability to pay. Instead he let her leave, sincerely believing she was about to die. Thankfully he was wrong, as at least so far she is still very much alive and active considering her age.

But I was angry about both experiences. Angry at the hospital doctor for apparently not valuing the life of a homeless woman enough to explain to her that they would do the operation even if she couldn’t afford it. Angry that just because the clinic exclusively serves homeless people that they can’t treat each and every patient with dignity. Angry at policies that no middle class person would ever be okay with (forcing everyone to show up at the same time and then forcing them to wait for hours), but because it’s just for the homeless it’s suddenly somehow okay.

Let me just say, it’s not okay! Being homeless doesn’t make you less of a person. At all. I take pride in the fact that my organization does strive to treat all guests with the dignity and respect they deserve, simply because they are fellow human beings. They are guests in the house that we run to help them, and we use that language each and every day. I’m very glad and appreciative that this clinic exists, but I’m not okay with the approach to human life that I saw many of their employees and policies use. Just think, this is an organization that sets out to specifically help the homeless. I can’t bear to think how awful the health care and other providers like the hospital must be for the woman who has learned to sigh, close her eyes, and simply wait for others to make the decisions that affect her life.

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The Neutral Observer Becomes an Actor

I remember my freshman year of college when I did not know that there had been military dictatorships in Latin America. And was still too innocent to comprehend the idea of what desaparecidos were (for those who don’t know, this means the disappeared, something that has happened to hundreds of thousands of Latin American people who have resisted rightist leaders and structures, but is hard to prove because the person literally disappears forever; also, I suggest reading up on Latin American history). But then my sister Alyssa told me about the dirty war in Argentina (and I later read myself about the dirty wars in many other countries) and how they estimate that 15,000 to 30.000 people were disappeared, though again, they can never know for sure.

It is simply horrifying the idea that someone from the military or someone working for the military, could enter a person’s home at night, take the man or woman he sought, and then leave without a trace. The family must struggle with the loss of that loved one (as they had to assume they would never see them again) but also with the reality that they did not know who did it or helped with it. Was it the police chief? Their boss? Their next door neighbor? They couldn’t openly investigate anything in the fear that they too would become desaparecidos.

In order to impress this reality into me more, when I took Dr. Bost’s Spanish class (the one that Alyssa first learned about it in) we watched the movie La Historia Oficial. I still remember a scene in which two teenagers are talking in the high school bathroom and one girl who has never heard about all this violence says she can’t believe it happened in her country and she never knew, as obviously the press was not covering the military’s actions. The other girl explains that it happened to her family and was in fact very real.

At the time of watching this movie, I was simply a neutral observer. I had obviously not taken a side if I didn’t know anything about it. While I was clearly upset that this was a sad history of Argentina (and Latin America as a whole) I was very glad that the military dictatorships had fallen and people didn’t have to worry about it any more (although people are still searching for their loved ones in Argentina). I didn’t know how wrong I was.

As history has a tendency of doing, it is currently repeating itself. Many Latin American countries are currently (right now!) disappearing many people with the aid of the local, state, and federal government, while the government claims it is simply using the military to fight the war on the drug cartels. I was struck by this reality particularly this week, when I witnessed a talk much like the fictitious one I had seen 3 1/2 years ago in the movie. A woman in the house described to another woman, in response to the TV news saying that the deaths in Mexico have been greatly reducing the past few years, that this was untrue. The killings and disappearances are continuing, as she personally had multiple family members killed and is now here trying to fight for asylum. The other woman who was from a safe part of Mexico sat there stunned to hear about this reality from a real person sitting in her sala, talking about things she had only known to be rumors or far away stories. I again just watched and listened to this interaction, feeling a wide range of emotions wipe over me. I was upset, frustrated, sympathetic, outraged, and proud that the woman was brave enough to speak about the truth in Mexico. But again, I was just watching.

It was only later that night, as I was locking all of the doors to secure the house for the night as a I finished up my shift, that I realized something about my position: 4 years ago I was the neutral observer, naive and blind to the suffering in Latin America. However, knowledge changes that. You can no longer be neutral when you know the truth. By avoiding doing anything about the oppression you learn about, you are taking the side of the aggressor. Yet I realized that in the face of knowledge I had a different reaction. I became an actor, someone to try to help stand up to the system of injustice in the only way I knew how to do: help provide hospitality to those escaping and fleeing from oppression in the hopes that I can be a small part of what helps them build a new life and brings attention to their suffering so that one day things might be different. Because I refuse to sit back while people are disappeared by a government supposedly fighting to help its people.

What will you do?