The cellphone began ringing at 9:44 AM. It was an assistant for Sister Norma, reminding us gently that she had a very brief window to meet – and she didn’t want to be late for her next appointment. So we quickly parked our car and ran to the door, where the Sister was waiting to greet us.
Such is the life of Sister Norma Pimentel, one of the leading faces of the humanitarian effort to help displaced peoples near the U.S.-Mexico border – and consequently, one of the busiest people on the planet. She’s the Executive Director for the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and on this day, was meeting us at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.
For many migrants, the respite center signals the last stop of the Rio Grande Valley portion of their journeys. They arrive on buses coming straight from the detention facilities that have housed them for or months. Their stay in the Respite Center will be briefer – less than a day – but Sister Norma and her colleagues do what they can to restore the human dignity that many feel they have lost along their harrowing journeys.
Arranging flights and bus tickets is a major priority at the center, but so is meeting basic needs. They provide its clients with food, personal care products, a change of clothes, showers, a place to rest, and mentoring services to prepare them for their new destinations. And their destinations are everywhere – in the brief time that I was there, I met families bound for Florida, Washington, Maryland, Arizona, New York, and Virginia. As we stood next to the map that hung near the telephone, I was amazed at how many migrants had no idea where on that map their destination was, or even where on the map they were in that moment.
The center is well-supplied, thanks to government grants and charitable contributions. But there are certain items that are still at a premium. One of those items is shoelaces.
When migrants are processed at detentions centers, their shoelaces are confiscated for safety precautions, and are never returned. This means that when groups of migrants arrive to places like the respite center, many do so in shoes that barely cling to their feet, flopping awkwardly beneath their strides as they file into the facility.
We saw an opportunity to provide a resource that is not at the forefront of many people’s minds. Making sure folks have shoelaces helps to ensure that when they arrive in their new destinations, they will do so in shoes securely fastened to their feet.
It’s at Sister Norma’s Humanitarian Respite Center where the “transformation” back into human beings, shown care and dignity, can finally begin. Each person at there has experienced struggle, and has had their dignity and humanity trampled upon in some way. Sister Norma says that in their care, migrants begin to realize that “they are somebody,” that “they are a person.”
A big job indeed. Which is why, if you are ever lucky enough to have a sitdown with Sister Norma Pimentel, you should be on time for your appointment.
Bill is a social studies teacher at Forest Lake Area High School, living in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. A native Minnesotan, Bill spent a year in Mexico, teaching English and becoming fluent in Spanish. The opportunity to make an impact on the issues happening on the southern border has been a time he’ll always cherish. When not in the classroom, petting his cats, or writing for his blog, you can find him in the wrestling ring as the Revolutionary Bill Williams.