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Migrants share meals, smiles at Kino Border Initiative

Martha Schmitt, a parishioner from St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, N.C., shares a hug during a recent visit to the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Mexico.
Sunday, June 05, 2016
(Nogales, Sonora, Mexico) June 5, 2016 — Parochial Vicar Fr. John Michalowsky of St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, N.C. and parishioners Bob Macpherson, Dave Zablotny and Martha Schmitt traveled to the Kino Border Initiative at the Arizona-Mexico border May 2-5, 2016, to see first-hand what it means to accompany the most vulnerable.

St. Peter’s is a Jesuit parish led by Pastor Jim Shea, a member of the Jesuit Refugee Service Global Education Initiative Steering Committee. Through joint appeals, awareness-raising events and collaborative advocacy, St. Peter’s is an important JRS partner in advancing our mission to educate and advocate the forcibly displaced.

KBI is a binational ministry founded in 2009 by six Catholic organizations — including Jesuit Refugee Service/USA — is located in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The following is the final installment of a three-part reflection of the trip written by Macpherson.


As you stand in the Kino Border Initiative comedor(dining room), the first thing that strikes you is size. When you review the organization’s website, you see many pictures of different activities. In fact, there is so much going on you have a subconscious process which makes you feel that many of the pictures are taken in different rooms. Not so, as the kitchen and feeding area is only a 30-foot by 30-foot space, or 900 square feet.

In this area a group of nuns with a dedicated lay staff and a number of volunteers feed about 100 men, women and children, twice a day, every day. The food is prepared from scratch. The entire kitchen area is five feet wide and eight feet long — using the term cramped is a vast exaggeration. There is no potable water. There is no hot water. The fresh water tank is filled twice a week and all the hot water required for cooking, cleaning and dishes is boiled on the stove. 

The first thought you have as you join the daily preparation of food is that the nuns and their staff are scrupulous about cleanliness. They have developed systems and processes — checks and balances to ensure that every facet of the food preparation is clean and sanitary. On two occasions, after I had completed my assignments and attempted to stretch in the corner of the room, Sister Alicia breezed by, lit up with a brilliant smile, handed me a mop and nodded to the floor. I spoke no Spanish, but there was no way to misinterpret her intent. We were here to join the work, not observe it, so ... “start moping, fellow.”

It’s amazing what a nun can accomplish with a resolute and determined smile on her face. After 30 years in the U.S. Marines, her approach brought a new dimension to the meaning of “persuasive leadership.”

Before the meal, Sister Alicia spoke to the migrants. Her comments are brief but powerful. Again, my lack of Spanish does not matter. The looks on the faces of the men and women require no verbiage. Their eyes follow her with grateful appreciation. This is not a religious encounter; it’s a deep human engagement.

The Kino Border Initiative has become a “quasi” government organization because it solves problems. Many of these people have been driven to the Mexican border from detention centers from all over the United States. They may have been traveling for days. In the morning, their buses arrive at the Nogales border crossing. They are handed small bags with their personal belongings. As they shuffle from the buses, they are herded into a corridor that is not unlike a cattle chute. It is completely encased in steel bars. Everyone — men, women, children and toddlers — walks through the chute to Mexico. When they reach the other side, the Mexican immigration services receive them.

At the border, they are interviewed, photographed and a number of decisions are made to determine different levels of immigration status. Much of this is completed very quickly. The Mexican government has some facilities to assist children and some women in distress, but these are limited. When the processing is completed most of the people are placed on a bus or van and driven to the Kino Border Initiative facility in Nogales.  The staff there may be the first people who they have encountered in days, weeks or months, who are not involved in a bureaucratic shuffle to simply “move them on...”

On arrival, Sister Alicia leads in several simple encounters to bring a smile to their faces.  She actually accomplishes this. There is a sense of relaxation that begins to flow around the 30-foot by 30-foot space. After the meal, the main group breaks down into several smaller groups.

There are people who need medical assistance, others who want to change from clothing that identify them as recent detainees, which make them more vulnerable to the cartel members. Others line up to use several available cell phones to notify family members where they are. In some cases, these family members may reside in the United States. However, the flow of migrants does not always come from North to South. There are also people who have crossed into Mexico illegally from Central America. These people may have traveled thousands of miles and spent more than a year getting this close to the United States.                 

To read parts one and two of this series, click here.

Click here for more information about the Kino Border Initiative.

From left to right: Bob Macpherson, parishioner, St. Peters Catholic Church, Charlotte, N.C.; Sister Alicia Guevara Perez, M.E., Migrant Aid Coordinator, Kino Border Initiative; Dave Zablotny, St. Peters parishioner; Rev. Peter Neeley, S.J., Assitant Director of Education, Kino Border Initiative