Sustainable, effective change is rooted in understanding. It is crucial that we truly understand the experiences of those we work with and serve, especially in policymaking and advocacy work. The communities, dynamics, and challenges at the United States-Mexico border are difficult to grasp without firsthand experience.

Last week, fifteen faculty members from ten Jesuit universities gathered at the Encuentro Project in El Paso, TX, to gain this essential perspective. The group was convened by the Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network (JUHAN), which was launched in 2006 by Fairfield University, Fordham University, and Georgetown University to increase Jesuit institutions’ ability to respond to humanitarian crises.

The Encuentro Project is a faith-based, multi-faceted immersion program in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border region that aims to provide a deeper understanding of the complex migration reality and of this community. The immersion experience included education, service activities, reflections, prayer, and community engagement to motivate participants to engage in peaceful, effective action for greater justice and compassion for migrants and refugees.

Clara Sayans, Outreach Officer for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA (JRS/USA), gathered with the JUHAN group for the Encuentro experience. She said, “For those who already had a deep knowledge of migration and issues at the border, but also for those who were encountering this reality for the first time, the trip was a perfect way to bring everyone together, to share, and to learn from each other.”

The group met with an array of organizations and individuals, from Border Patrol officers to the Sacred Heart migrant shelter community. They spoke with a former gang member now helping individuals trying to flee gangs, and with a muralist raising awareness about asylum seekers’ experiences. “We learned what it means for El Paso to be a bi-national, border community, that confronts the challenges of migration daily,” Clara shared. “And that’s critical if we want to better accompany our siblings on the move and address some of the challenges they face as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border.”

“My perspective on the experience of migrants at the border has completely expanded,” said Suzanne Marmo, Professor of Social Work at Fairfield University, after attending the immersion trip. “I didn’t even know the difference between the categories of asylum seeker, refugee, immigrant, and migrant,” she admitted.

She continued, “But I do know, and so do the thirteen students in my Masters of Social Work program, that it is a human right that all people have to claim asylum, along with the unjust barriers that the U.S. puts in their way, based on structural racism and bias against Latin immigrants.”

On Jesuit campuses, the JUHAN project fosters student leaders who raise awareness and respond to humanitarian crises. Affiliated academic courses also focus on humanitarian issues from various disciplines.

One moment stood out during their visit to the Sacred Heart migrant shelter. A family of five was forced to flee Venezuela. They lived in Colombia for five years until that situation became untenable, leading them to seek safety in the U.S.

Sayans asked if the family had connected with any of the support services offered by the JRS El Paso office. Their faces lit up as they mentioned working with Adalberto Sanchez, the Domestic Programs Mental Health Clinician, who connected them with mental health support tools to cope with the troubling experiences they endured.

Later this year, Sayans, Sanchez, and Katie Mullins, JRS/USA Senior Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Specialist, will travel to several Jesuit universities to discuss migrants’ experiences at the border and the critical need for MHPSS in programs responding to forcibly displaced people.

Donna Pitts, an Associate Professor in the Speech Pathology & Audiology Program at Loyola University Maryland, wrote a poem after her experience on the immersion trip. We share it with you below:

On the border  
An ugly fence, locked  
Hot sun, burning my face  
No shade even though I am on the “right” side of the fence  
What of those on the other?  
Along the fence 
Desolate, hot, isolated, locked!  
Then I see… A beautiful flower  
Growing on an ugly weed  
Hope for many to enjoy  
On both sides of an unlocked fence  
No fence, hope? 

By Chloe Gunther for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA (All photos courtesy of Clara Sayans)

This article was originally published on jrsusa.org and is shared in Connections with permission from Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.