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Grey Nuns welcome the stranger at the border


They are quiet. They are caring. They are brave, helpful and grateful for even the smallest kindness.

“They” are the refugees encountered by Sister Diane Bardol and Sister Eileen White, two Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart who recently completed a volunteer mission at the southern border of the United States.

The sisters, whose community sponsors Grey Nun Academy in Yardley, traveled to the border to respond to the critical human need unfolding there daily.

“I have good health and the time to serve that need,” Bardol said. White, who once served in ministry in Peru, agreed: “I had some Spanish language background, so I felt I could be useful there.”

The sisters volunteered at Nazareth House, one of the 13 shelters under the umbrella of Annunciation House, an organization in El Paso, Texas, that has been assisting refugees for 40 years.

The asylum-seeking refugees with whom the sisters worked at Nazareth House had been legally admitted and processed at the border. They were then required to report to immigration/asylum court near their final destination, usually with sponsoring relatives already residing in the U.S. or a sponsoring church or religious organization.

The sisters’ experience in El Paso was in sharp contrast to the grim, chaotic picture often painted. “El Paso is a huge city,” White observed. “I was impressed by the mountains that wrap around the city and by the desert brown that imposed itself everywhere. The people of El Paso were friendly and willing to help us find our way around.”

Bardol and White were warmly welcomed and housed by the Sisters of Loretto, another community of Catholic sisters located in El Paso. The Loretto sisters provide hospitality to religious and lay volunteers.

Another warm welcome came from the many El Paso residents who volunteer at the shelters. The city’s residents are grateful for the work of Annunciation House because it helps to facilitate the influx of people arriving daily.

“There are local people from churches, there are couples, teenagers, people who come to do laundry, cook meals, drive residents to buses and the airport, help with phone calls in the office and do many, many other needed things,” White said.

The sisters’ duties during their service were “whatever needed doing.” They processed refugee intake forms, contacted the refugees’ U.S. sponsors and helped make transportation arrangements, distributed medications, made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, laundered sheets and towels, assisted with international calls and packed “to go” bags with sandwiches, juice, soap and age-appropriate toys for the refugees’ journey to their final destination.

“When I did intake with the refugees, I could see they were exhausted, their lips chapped terribly from the dryness and the cold,” White recalled. “But after a meal, a shower, sometimes a change of clothes and being assigned a cot, they were transformed. They are resilient people. I was so inspired by them.”

Bardol was struck by how quiet and orderly the refugees were. “They were quiet and orderly when they sat down for the intake and when they stood in line for meals, showers, sheets and blankets or a change of clothes.

“There were no loafers among these people,” White added emphatically. “Without being asked, they jumped at the chance to pitch in and help. They emptied trash, cleaned tables and washed floors. Anything at all that they could do, they were eager and willing to do.”

The biggest obstacle the sisters encountered as volunteers was the language barrier, but “nonverbal language can express care, concern and respect,” Bardol said. Eventually, White’s rusty Spanish became better with use.

Fortunately, the officers of the Border Patrol are bilingual. The sisters talked with them when they brought refugees to the shelter. “They were always pleasant and respectful. The relationship between the Border Patrol and the Annunciation House shelters was cordial. These are men and women just doing a job, many of whom are Latinos themselves. They expressed concern for disabled refugees and made certain that we could care for them.”

Both sisters said their experience working with refugees at the border defies the image that many people have of the situation. “Don’t believe everything you read,” Bardol said.

“I had absolutely no fear of any person I met,” White said.

“No doubt there are some smugglers and criminals crossing the border. But these people who have come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are families fleeing violence and poverty.

“I wish every American could have the opportunity to meet the people we met and see who they really are: people seeking a better life for themselves and their families.”