El Paso, Texas is a place and community that will forever have my heart, and an experience that I will always carry with me. Who knew that a week on an SJU Winter Immersion Program could leave such a lasting impact on me?
Preparation for the January trip started the last week of September. I filled out my application, went for an interview, and found out that I would be spending a week of my winter break in El Paso, Texas at Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey. The main topic we would be immersing ourselves into was the pressing issue of immigration. Going into the trip, I knew one person, and barely knew anything about immigration. Since my hometown went through immigration issues in the past, I was intrigued by the opportunity to learn about immigration firsthand on the border. Every Monday from October to December, my group met and discussed what an immersion trip was all about and became more familiar with immigration.
On January 5, my group, along with another group headed to Guatemala, stayed over in Wolfington Hall to wake up at 2:15 AM and head to the Philadelphia airport. Members of the congregation and Pastora greeted us in El Paso that afternoon. They welcomed us with open, loving arms.
Throughout the week, my feelings ranged from anger to hope. I was filled with hope and love by so many stories, but outraged at the injustices that immigrants face on a daily basis. On our first night, we made gorditas with Carmen, a very special woman whose story of love, courage, and determination touched the hearts of everyone in my group. For two days we worked with a rambunctious group of hardworking children who were participating in the after school program at Cristo Rey. The main goal of the program was to get the children to graduate high school and head to college. I absolutely loved seeing them so determined to get their homework done and to push themselves to do that extra math problem or read the more difficult English book.
However, a moment that will stick with me forever was when we toured the detention center. It truly was an experience that set me far out of my comfort zone, yet I am so grateful for it. The one thing I took out of this tour that was that no matter who you are, every single human being deserves human dignity, compassion, and love. Even though the detainees had the basic necessities, such as food, water, shelter, and clothing, they were denied compassion, human dignity, and love. I was greatly disturbed, along with the rest of my group, at how the men and women were treated by the employees in the detention center and regarded as lesser humans.
During the rest of the week, my group and I met with different members of the community and heard their stories. In El Paso, I met loving, incredible people who talked about the raw hardships they experience and through their stories, I got a sense of their emotions and feelings about immigration. The only way to change the injustices these people face on a daily basis is through direct advocacy and service. By the end of the week, I was in awe at the hope and love this community had. Even in their hardest moments, they saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and kept looking for the positive side. I have learned that immigration can destroy and separate families, but the one thing it cannot do is destroy love and hope. I have witnessed the strength of these people firsthand, and my heart has been touched by their stories. Even though immigration issues are so prominent and controversial in our country, these people have so much hope. I have seen it in the eyes of children wanting to get an education, the hearts of those who shared their stories with us, and in the words of the volunteers and community members down in El Paso. When I went to El Paso, I never imagined I would return to Saint Joseph’s with a group of twelve best friends, a mind full of knowledge, a hunger for justice, and a hopeful heart full of love. I have been touched in ways unimaginable, and I owe all of this to the community of El Paso and Cristo Rey for being so welcoming, loving, and optimistic in even the most difficult situations.
Alex Ator is a sophomore Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing major with a minor in Political Science from Sugarloaf, PA. Along with WIP, Alex is also heading to Deerlodge, Tennessee on APEX over spring break this year. On campus, she is a sister of Alpha Phi, a Hawk Host for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, serves as the Public Relations Chair for Panhellenic Council, and writes and holds the position of secretary for HerCampus.