“You have been the most humanizing people.” These simple but profound words rang loudly in my head after Victor Omar, 37, said them to me while working at the Casa Alitas Welcome Center in Tucson, Arizona, earlier this year.
Omar said that the center’s volunteers had been the most welcoming people he had met throughout his journey migrating from Cuba to the United States. Casa Alitas is a shelter where migrants can stay temporarily after being released into the country by U.S. immigration officials.
I am one of many volunteers at Casa Alitas who greet people who have fled their home countries and seek protection through asylum. Through my role at West Coast Mennonite Central Committee, as a Border and Migration Outreach Coordinator, I hear many stories.
Omar recounted his journey north, from the stifling Panamanian jungle to the oppressive Sonoran Desert. “It was a trip with laughter, tears, joy, and fear.”
He described being treated like an animal throughout Central America and while detained for three days upon arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. I hear this sentiment much too often but never grow used to hearing it.
As he shared his story with me, I could not help but think of the Scriptures, saturated with language of displacement and migration. The Hebrew Scriptures are marked by a wandering people searching for home and God's solidarity with humanity, so complete that God not only reaches out to the stranger but becomes the stranger.
I am glad I and others at Casa Alitas can fulfill this mission. MCC, too, is part of this work, and we have the privilege to be stewards to carry out God's purpose and accompany the stranger on this challenging journey.
“The attention at Casa Alitas was phenomenal. The volunteers were charismatic and attentive, providing us with information and helping with everything we asked for,” Omar said. He told me this is where he received a proper meal and clothing for the first time since leaving Cuba and where he was finally able to call his family, who had been desperate to hear from him.
Omar describes his paisanos (countrymen) as humble, hardworking people, who are “good-natured, very hospitable, and treat each other and visitors throughout the island like family.” At the same time, though, he believes there is no freedom of expression in Cuba.
“If you do not agree with what the regime says, they prosecute you and persecute you,” said Omar. I wondered when he would find welcome again in the U.S. and if there would be others who would welcome him as he navigates an unforgiving and lengthy immigration system.
Whether someone is forced, coerced, or chooses to leave their home country, displacement journeys put people at risk, and God calls MCC to support them. All people are sacred, and the story of creation calls us to view and treat one another as people created in the image of the Holy One, bearing undeniable dignity.
To find ways to support asylum seekers, refugees and other immigrants in the U.S., you may contact Charity Stowell, Newcomer Connections coordinator for MCC’s National Peace & Justice Ministries, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (717) 863-9425. She can guide you or your church into specific ways to respond in your community.
You also can learn more at mcc.org/safe-refuge, contribute to MCC efforts, and join us in prayer. We invite you to encourage Congress to allow people waiting at the Mexico border with the U.S. to apply for asylum by sending this action alert: “Restore asylum: End Title 42” at mcc.org/get-involved/advocacy/washington
As Omar finds his way in a new country, I pray for a continued sense of welcome and urgently call on my brothers and sisters to commit to actions that welcome the stranger, offer peace, and humanize all.