Sister Jacinta Powers left the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph last month for Brownsville, Texas, to spend six months serving refugees at the Mexican border.
Sister Jacinta has been serving as a nurse with Ursuline sisters and during December, she joined a Sister from Ohio who was taking a group to the border for several days. The group crossed the border to work with families in a medical clinic who are awaiting asylum hearings.
While there, she said she knew she wanted to return for a longer time, so she began the process of getting it cleared for her to leave Mount Saint Joseph.
She is living in an apartment that is being loaned to her in Brownsville and she makes the daily walk across the border to Matamoros, Mexico, where around 3,000 people are living in tents as they go through the asylum process.
Sister Jacinta is working with Global Response Management, a NGO or Non-Government organization that brings medical care to those living in or displaced from conflict zones. Their medical clinic is a trailer that is less than 500 feet from the border. The organization started its response to the border crisis in September 2019. Medical volunteers work in the camp seven days a week to help families receive non-emergency medical care.
“If these people weren’t there, what would happen?” Sister Jacinta asked.
She said they most often treat colds, rashes, upset stomachs and headaches, but they also have created areas of safe play with climbing structures for the children living in the refugee camps and often interact with the children. She said the smiles on the faces of those waiting for their court date is something that continues to amaze her.
“I think it’s their faith — their sense of hope and faith,” she said of those in the camp.
Stripped of their rosaries, shoelaces, belts and hair ties because they could be used for violence, those requesting asylum cross the border, are processed by the United States Border Patrol, and then given a piece of paper with a date on it. They return to Mexico to wait for their trial date.
“None receive asylum on their first try,” she said. “Sometimes the judge or lawyer doesn’t show, sometimes there is something missing from their papers and they are given another court date in two-to-three months. It is disappointing, but they have a sense of hope. The number of people who receive asylum is very small.”
Of those living in the camp, she said 50 percent of them are children ages 10 and under, and of the adults, roughly 35 percent are women. There are few older adults and she explained that is because they either couldn’t start the journey or died along the way.
For a 65-year-old originally from Curdsville, Ky., Sister Jacinta said she is lucky that her Irish ancestors didn’t get sent back when coming to America.
As a teenager, she attended high school at the Mount and then attended the University of Kentucky for a semester when she “heard a nudge about God.” She entered the convent, receiving her nursing degree from the University of Louisville after teaching high school for several years. She has worked in Memphis, Tenn. and several clinics around the state, including the Green River District Health Department most recently.
She has served in Jamaica, Haiti and the Marshall Islands when natural disasters have hit and medical emergencies.
Doctors and nurses come to these clinics usually a week at a time to volunteer their service, so when GRM learned she wanted to volunteer for six months, they were relieved.
She is not afraid of the environment and said that when walking through the camp, everyone smiles back at her.
“It speaks of their deep faith and constant hope for them and their children,” she said. “Some are there for menacing – that’s the way of the world. They have had a hard life, but from my perspective, most are hard-working and seeking better for their family.”
She recounts a recent event when two girls — no older than 10 — living in the camp came by to tell the lady in charge of the play area thank you and goodbye. When the girls were asked where they were going, the girls said they were leaving their parents in the camp and were going to cross the border illegally, because they had other family in the United States.
“Those kids are probably in a detention center and have no way to reach their parents,” she said.
Sister Jacinta believes the camp is filled with good people trying to have a better life, but said she could not do her job without the Ursuline community.
To hear more stories from Powers’ work at the border, visit The Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph website.