Where Do Immigrants Come From? And Why Do They Come? Understanding the Context for Immigration

Marcos* was a Salvadoran immigrant in his late 20s whose story caused me to dig deeper in order to understand his home country.  Since then, I’ve studied the history of El Salvador and last year, I visited there.  I’ve made Salvadoran friends both in the US and in El Salvador.  It’s fairly easy for non-immigrant Americans to look at immigrants who struggle in our country and wonder — often aloud — why they are here.  But perhaps if more people had the opportunity to visit their countries of origin, they would understand a little better.

I met Marcos in the homeless shelter following his 2-week stay in the local hospital.  He was traveling from Texas to New York and became seriously ill.  His “friends” called 911 and dropped him at a rest stop along I-95.  He was totally alone, with nowhere to go, and he didn’t know anyone in Virginia.

Marcos was 14 when he came to the US, fleeing increasing threats to his family if he didn’t join a local gang.  “They threw rocks on our tin roof every night, and no one could sleep.  And they threatened my family.  The gang leader said they would rape and kill my mother, and kidnap my sister if I didn’t join. So I left to keep them safe.”

He was alone in a large city, surviving on the streets, and was soon involved in drugs.  And now, 15 years later, Marcos has AIDs. I asked him if he would have emigrated had known how life in the US would turn out.  “Yeah, I would have still come.  I’d rather live with AIDs than face what I was facing in El Salvador.”

masacre-listApproximately 1 of every 5 Salvadorans lives in the United States, making Salvadorans the 6th largest immigrant group in the US.  A large number came as a result of the civil war, which ended in 1992; others came as a result of natural disasters that affected the country; and relatives have joined immigrants through family reunification.  Today, much of the influx is due to violence and the growing control of Salvadoran communities by gangs, like Marcos experienced.

In my last visit to El Salvador, I couldn’t help but think of Marcos.  I experienced first-hand the reality of life in impoverished neighborhoods where gangs rule.  I saw the fear of engaging in simple routines like travel to a neighboring community, where one can inadvertently cross from one gang’s territory into another’s.  I was surprised when friends chose to meet me for dinner at a restaurant rather than in their home, because “my neighborhood wouldn’t be safe for you.”  I secretly wondered if my presence would have put them more at risk for extortion if gang members knew they had an “American” friend.

a-momOne of the things that Marcos most wanted to do was to contact his mom in El Salvador.  He hadn’t spoken to her in years because he was ashamed of his life.  We called “to let her know I’m OK,” — even though Marcos knew he wasn’t OK.  “I know she loves me and prays for me.”  And Marcos wanted me to go with him to church.  As we worshipped, prayed, and talked about God’s grace and unconditional love, Marcos made peace with his life.  Soon, he was well enough to move on to his waiting job in New York.

Most immigrants I know have sacrificed much to come to the US: language, culture, family, social status, dignity.  When they talk with their families back home, few ever reveal the truth about how lonely or hard their lives are in the US.  And yet they still choose to be here, because for many, the worst life imaginable in the US is still better than what they faced in their home countries.

Nourishment for the Fredericksburg Community LUCHA's Hunger Relief Ministry

By Caitlyn Furr

I have the privilege of interning with LUCHA ministries this summer through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s (CBF) Student.Go program. After completing CBF’s orientation, I began interning with LUCHA at the beginning of June. I am a graduate student at Emory, seeking a Master’s of Divinity and a Master’s of Public Health. This internship at LUCHA provides me the opportunity to learn about ministry, community development and holistic health all at once. I can’t believe how much I have learned and experienced already!

On Mondays, I participate in LUCHA’s food ministry, which is operated by dedicated volunteers in the community. They arrive at the food bank in Fredericksburg on Monday mornings and spend at least an hour carefully selecting food items to purchase. Once they have selected and paid for the food by pound, they load about 5 shopping carts full of food into their own cars. They drive to Sylvania Heights Baptist Church, which has graciously allowed LUCHA to use its facilities, to sort the food. The volunteers create boxes of food, which include fresh produce, meat, packaged foods, hygiene products, and much more, for families in the community. The volunteers are well-acquainted with the families who will receive the food, so they personalize the boxes to ensure needs are met. For example, if a family has an infant, the volunteers will ensure that family’s box contains diapers. Finally, the volunteers hand deliver boxes to the families in the community. The entire process takes about 4 hours, but many of the same volunteers help every week. I am incredibly impressed with the compassion displayed by LUCHA’s volunteers, and the thoughtfulness they put in to each box they deliver. The program is effective in providing for needs in the community while also encouraging relationship building.

I’ve had the opportunity over the past few weeks to meet various members of the Fredericksburg community who are served by LUCHA. It is clear that they trust and respect LUCHA and its programming. The needs within the community are many, but the community members feel connected to LUCHA and it gives them hope. LUCHA is a place where Latinos in Fredericksburg can turn when they need help, and it works to provide for their needs without judgment. LUCHA is a wonderful example of the love of Christ within the Fredericksburg community. I am grateful to be a part of it this summer, and continue to learn from this ministry.

Each year, the Cinco Panes (Five Loaves) food pantry serves approximately 1,200 persons in need.  Through the years, the ministry has evolved from a more traditional style pantry that provides boxes of groceries  to needy families to a more participatory model where the clients themselves have become the volunteers.  This new model has created a sense of community among many Latino immigrants who otherwise wouldn’t know each other.  The volunteers are Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and Baptist; Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan; young and not-so-young.  The ministry helps non/limited-English-speaking immigrants gain a greater sense of self worth as they work together for the greater good of the Latino community.  And it gives parents and youth the opportunity to work together.  During the past year, over 70 persons have served as volunteer.

Beyond the Band-Aid Legal Aid Ministry that Makes a Difference

Band-Aid:

ˈbandād/ noun  NORTH AMERICAN trademark

  1. an adhesive bandage with a gauze pad in the center, used to cover minor wounds.
  2. a makeshift or temporary solution: “A band-aid solution to a much deeper problem”

 

We all know what a Band-Aid is, and we all know what a Band-Aid does.  A Band-Aid covers a wound…and really not much else.  It may make the scratch feel better, but the soft, thin gauze won’t protect it from a bump, bruise, or bully; nor would it protect the wound from a bacterial infection from within.  Without the help of Neosporin, a Band-Aid would only absorb the bleeding; it would not treat, cure, or prevent the wound from bleeding—nor was it meant to.

This very same principle applies to Band-Aid solutions.  Aptly-named, these solutions are just that:  insufficient covers to the real wounds that lie beneath.  Problems covered up by Band-Aid solutions aren’t protected from bruises (obstacles) or bullies (opposition) or even “bacterial infections from within” (inefficiencies).  Without using other resources to help treat or cure the problem, temporary solutions remain just that.  Band-Aid solutions only cover up the real issue; although they may make the problem appear fixed by absorbing its initial symptoms, they do not protect or prevent the wound in the first place—nor were they meant to.

Immigration Clinic

So where does that leave us when the wounds we deal with impact people’s daily lives?  What do we do when Band-Aid solutions just aren’t working anymore?

We go beyond the Band-Aid.

LUCHA wants to offer more than Band-Aid solutions to the variety of issues surrounding immigration, not least legal affairs.  That’s why LUCHA is in the process of becoming recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).  [For more information on that, read our previous blog post.]  At a recent weekend conference hosted by the Baptist General Association of Virginia, LUCHA founders Greg and Sue Smith explained why providing legal aid is more than a Band-Aid approach to ministry.  “We were really moved by this [concept]” stated Sue Smith, “Legal aid is a practical, tangible, immediate way to show the love of Jesus Christ to our immigrant neighbors.”

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Greg Smith representing LUCHA Ministries at the BGAV Mission Matters Conference on April 30, 2016

To the 12 attendees at LUCHA’s breakout session at the BGAV’s Mission Matters Conference, it was evident that the Smiths are really passionate about getting this information out to as many people as possible.  If you are interested in legal aid ministry, or just basic immigration law and practice, LUCHA will be hosting a 40-hour Basic Immigration Law and Procedure Training seminar in partnership with World Relief Immigration Legal Services on October 10-14th this year at Manassas Baptist Church in Manassas, VA.  For more information, feel free to contact us or follow this link to register.

Immigration Legal Services Taking "Welcoming the Stranger" a Step Farther

On April 15th, LUCHA submitted the paperwork to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals requesting recognition that will allow us to open an Immigration Legal Services office.  As a BIA-recognized agency, LUCHA Ministries will have the capacity to offer low-cost immigration legal services by assisting qualifying immigrants applying for an immigration legal benefit, by providing counsel on
immigration legal matters, and by representing immigrants before the Department of Homeland Security.

LUCHA Ministries Immigration Legal Services will serve immigrants applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); Temporary Protective Status (TPS); Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS); and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA)[1].  Additional services may include assistance with family-based petitions and other means for seeking legal status in the U.S.

The services LUCHA Ministries has provided to immigrants through the years are based on Matthew 25:35-36. We’ve welcomed immigrants in our community by providing food and clothing, facilitating opportunities for fellowship and personal growth, helping people obtain medical and dental care, and visiting them in ICE detention and jail.  And now, we’re taking our commitment to serve the immigrant community one step farther by beginning an Immigration Legal Services Program. “I assure you that when you have welcomed the stranger, one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me,” says Jesus in this passage.  And when Jesus talks about welcoming the stranger, it’s based on personal experience. Jesus was once a refugee, taken as a child to another country to escape persecution and certain death. His family was seeking asylum..

Immigration Clinic

The lack of legal status keeps people living in fear.  Maria* frantically called an American friend on her cell phone on the way to church one evening.  “There’s a police car that’s been following me, and it into the church parking lot when I did!”, she said.  Maria’s friend went outside to meet her at the car and walk inside the church with Maria and her two sons.  Maria, who is undocumented and does not have a drivers’ license, was trembling with fear and began sobbing by the time she entered the church.  While she has lived in the U.S. for over 14 years and never committed any crimes or had traffic violations, she lives in fear of being stopped and deported.

The lack of legal status prevents people from obtaining better, more stable jobs to provide for their families.   Ana,* a single mom with three children, had worked at the same fast-food restaurant for 5 years and made $9.50 per hour.  When she became pregnant, she worked as long as possible, but had to quit her job right before the baby was born.  When she returned to work two months later, she was re-hired at minimum wage, $7.25.  She was told that there was “significant turn-over” of the staff and that all personnel were new — and employed at the $7.25 “entry level” rate.  Ana didn’t have a valid work permit, and she felt lucky to have a job.

The lack of legal status promotes distrust of authority and discourages integration into community life.  Jose’s* neighbor was pounding on his door late one night.  “There’s an intruder in my apartment with a knife, threatening to kill us all!” the neighbor said.  “Please call 911!”  But when the police arrived, they went to Jose’s apartment and asked to see his ID.  They began questioning Jose about his legal status rather than searching for the intruder, who had fled the area and was loose in the neighborhood.

With over 11 million undocumented persons living in the U.S., not all qualify for an immigration benefit, or in other words, have the ability to “become legal.”  But many are like Maria, Ana, and Jose, trying to carve out a better life in the United States for themselves and for their families.  They want to participate in community activities, to earn a living and provide for their children, and to help their neighbors.  And with sound, affordable legal assistance, many can obtain legal status. While many immigrants would agree that they’re living a “better life” simply by being in the United States, legal status is the missing piece that will help them regain a sense of dignity and self-respect, and to fully engage in the life of our communities.

[1] Only if the US Supreme Court issues a favorable ruling for DAPA in June 2016.

“Compared to the situation at hand…there is a big need.” Reflections on Immigration Law: Quotes from BGAV's Basic Immigration Law and Procedure Training

*All quotes are direct from anonymous participants at the BGAV Law Training

Representative from Poarch Law Firm led the training seminars
Representative from Poarch Law Firm led the training seminars

In the middle of last month, LUCHA’s administrator and co-founder Greg Smith facilitated a Basic Immigration Law and Procedure Training event at the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV). Co-sponsored by the BGAV and Poarch Law Firm, this 40-hour training seminar was designed for staff and volunteers serving through non-profit religious, social service, and charitable organizations who wish to provide legal services to qualified immigrants.  This training fulfilled one of many requirements to receive Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) recognition and accreditation—without which a person, representative, or organization cannot officially provide legal services or counsel to immigrants.  Considering that Virginia “has the ninth-largest immigrant population in the U.S., with 11 percent of the state’s population being foreign-born[1],” and only 16 BIA-recognized organizations[2], there is indeed a big need.

“These people [immigrants] have been stigmatized by the media and politicians…”

The participants of this training spanned numerous states and careers, some motivated to learn more about immigration law by their church’s Latino immigrant ministries, others by the dismaying stories of undocumented children, and others still by the work of LUCHA and their hope of becoming BIA accredited.  Regardless of the various reasons why they were there, the participants were collectively motivated by the human faces behind the media coverage of immigration stories.  Undocumented immigrants in particular have receiving the brunt of adverse and untrue media, and the extremely polarizing election season this year has only exacerbated antagonistic media coverage of immigration issues.  Consequently, the rhetoric of this hot-button issue has overshadowed its humanity and our responsibility, as Christ-followers, to love and serve our neighbors.  As one seminar participant noted, irrespective of political affiliation, that: “There are a lot of good people—a lot of good Christians—who have been spun into the narrative of the media.”  This training brought back into focus the rights of immigrants and the opportunities we all have to protect and uphold those rights.

“I don’t want to know this stuff and not be able to use it.”

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Nearly 20 people from various career backgrounds attended the Basic Immigration Law Training in Richmond, VA

Participants left the Immigration Law Training at the end of the week with heads and hands full of information on how to (and how not to) help immigrants regarding legal issues.  If you are interested in immigration law or issues, here are some great resources to check out suggested by this training’s participants:

Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario found here

The Stranger, a short film by the Evangelical Immigration Table

Immigrant Legal Resource Center website

Recognized Organizations and Accredited Representative Roster by State and City

 

[1] http://www.thecommonwealthinstitute.org/2013/04/25/the-facts-on-virginias-immigrant-communities/

[2] https://www.justice.gov/file/439431/download

Is my Daddy a bad person? LUCHA Ministers to Families in Times of Crisis

 

“Is My Daddy A Bad Person?”

By Sue Smith, Executive Director

It was a beautiful fall day, and Eduardo*, his sister Yessenia*, and I were sharing Happy Meals and Chicken McNuggets. We were on our way home from an all-day trip to Farmville, Virginia, where I had taken the kids to visit their dad at the ICE detention center. Somehow McDonald’s didn’t seem like the ideal place for such a serious discussion.

“Ms. Sue, is my daddy a bad person?” asked “Little” Eduardo. Looking into the 6-year-old’s small face was like looking at his dad at that age. Same slight features, same big brown eyes, same black hair. “No,” I responded, “your dad isn’t a bad person. He’s a really good person, and he loves you.” “Then why can’t he come home with us? I miss him so much!” Little Eduardo said as the tears started to flow.

For nearly 20 months, Eduardo’s dad (also named Eduardo) was incarcerated, much of that time in a detention facility for immigrants while the courts decided whether he would be deported or not. The final court date was looming, and with an uncertain outcome. I couldn’t promise that Eduardo’s dad would come home soon, or come home ever. And how do you explain the difference in “jail,” where “bad people go” and immigration detention? That’s a lot for a 1st-grader to comprehend.

From the beginning, LUCHA Ministries has offered a variety of programming to help improve the lives of immigrants in our community: ESOL, tutoring, computer literacy and skills training, counseling, help in obtaining affordable healthcare, food assistance, and more. But it’s on days like this one, talking with Little Eduardo, when I am most aware of the impact of our ministry. What we do is important — vitally important — but how we do it, our holistic approach that extends to the entire family ,is what distinguishes us from other agencies in our community. The folks among whom we work aren’t simply participants in our programs, or clients, or immigrants. They are our friends, our neighbors, and fellow children of God.

Over the years, LUCHA Ministries helped “Big” Eduardo obtain emergency dental care, provided food assistance, and encouraged him to obtain his GED. When he was away, the care extended to his family, making sure they had their basic needs met and providing emotional support. And for those 20 months, I visited Eduardo regularly in detention, praying with him and reminding him of God’s continuous love and care in spite of difficult circumstances.

As Executive Director, I am thankful for LUCHA’s many board members, program directors, volunteers, and donors who share our passion to love and care for the immigrant community. They go above and beyond what is expected, and when they take responsibility for much of the daily administration of our programs and activities, they allow me to spend extra time with families or individuals who are going through a crisis.

I am also thankful for God’s amazing love and care for families like Eduardo’s. “Big” Eduardo is now back with his family and will soon receive his Green Card as a Legal Permanent Resident He’s attending church, working, and enjoying his children. He’s even considering college in the future. Like he recently told me, “I am so blessed, God is good. Thank you for not giving up on us.”

Many Ways to Welcome Immigrants Campers at Passport support ministry efforts among immigrants

The camp offering from Passport Camps this summer will go to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship work in the Rio Grande Valley, to Touching Miami with Love in Miami, Florida and to Virginia-based LUCHA Ministries.  “We’re honored to be featured by Passport,” says Sue Smith, Executive Director of LUCHA. “We’re glad to have had a part in shaping this summer’s focus and helping campers learn how to reach out to new immigrants in their schools, churches, and communities.”

What we do at LUCHA is Connected to a Larger Network

After learning about thousands of unaccompanied children traveling north from Central America last June, Passport called on Rick McClatchy, Coordinator of CBF TX to learn more. He introduced Passport to Diann Whisnand, CBF field personnel working in the border town of McAllen, Texas. Whisnand, who works involves literacy training and English as a Second Language, became involved in joint efforts of local ministries responding to the influx of people overwhelming the city. “Cooperative Baptists provided pallets of water,” says Whisnand, “Catholic Charities provided a welcoming space, and the Salvation Army made soup. We all worked together.”

Many of those who came from Central America last year have now made their way to families in New York, Virginia, Florida and California.

Sue and Greg Smith, co-founders of LUCHA, work among the Latino community in Fredericksburg, VA. “Many of the people from Central America are fleeing gang violence and crime.” said Sue Smith. “Unlike others who have immigrated to the United States, many now arrive traumatized by violence and are in need of a different kind of support.” One report estimates that there are ten murders in the city of San Salvador every day. It is not uncommon for children to have witnessed a murder.

In Homestead, Florida Wanda Ashworth Valencia works at Touching Miami with Love, under the direction of Jason and Angel Pittman. “Sometimes Miami is called a first-third world city,” says Jason Pittman, “because of the large discrepancy between the extremely rich and the extremely poor.” The Pittmans work in Overtown, an historic African American neighborhood, while Wanda offers similar community development work in Homestead, which serves a largely Hispanic population.

“What’s with the Dolls?”

Passport 2015 Emphasis 2These handmade dolls are a symbol of welcome for the many immigrant children who come to the United States.  The Welcome Dolls were created by a Women in Ministry group from College Park Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina and sent to Diann Wisnand in Texas, where they were distributed to newly-arrived immigrant children.   Each child also received a note of encouragement, reminding them to think of God’s love and care as they hug their dolls.

Many Latino children who arrive in the US are reunited with their parents after many years of being apart.  They’ve been living with grandparents or other relatives while their parents came to the United States to work and establish a home before sending for them.  They don’t speak English, they don’t know their parents personally, and they’re grieving over the people and things they’ve left behind.

“The adjustment is hard on everybody,” says Sue Smith of LUCHA.  “Ministries such as ours focus on helping the whole family understand that it’s not an easy process. It takes time.”  Programs focus on practical aspects of adjustment, such as homework assistance to help children in school, ESL to encourage language proficiency, and adult language and literacy programs to help parents become more engaged in their children’s education.

And then there’s the emotional adjustment.  Parents have dreamed of having their children with them, and children have dreamed of coming to the states to live with Mom and Dad.  But there are challenges.  The kids are essentially entering a “new” family, learning the rules and getting to know each other.  It’s frustrating for parents, and it can be lonely for the new children.

Maria*, who arrived from Guatemala at age 12, says that it was really hard to adjust.  “I didn’t know my parents or my little brothers.  I felt stupid in school because I couldn’t speak English.  People laughed at me.”  But she says it was her church friends and youth leaders who made a difference.  Some helped with homework, others practiced English with her.  “They didn’t laugh at me, and they made me feel welcome.”

Today, Maria is 16 and is one of the young people who attends Passport with her church.  Not only has Passport taught campers about welcoming immigrants, but they’ve modeled it by welcoming many of these children and youth in camp.

*name changed to protect identity

 

 

7 Pasos para Seguir Adelante Community Give #give15

En LUCHA, creemos que cada persona tiene valor. Proyecto Adelante empodera a las familias para mejorar sus vidas.

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7 pasos que avancen a las familias:

1. Aprender una habilidad

Nuestras familias han aprendido primeros auxilios, computación, crochet, pintura, química y la fabricación de jabón.

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2. Aprender una idioma

Nuestros familias asisten las clases de ingés,  pronunciación y se alfabetizan a las personas que no saben leer o escribir en español.Spanish1

3. Crear Comunidad

Proyecto Adelante incluye a las familias de muchos países, como El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México, India y los Estados Unidos. Somos una familia global.

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4. Compartir un plato

Después de cada clase las familias comen y beben juntos. Es un momento de solidaridad y amor.

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5. Enseñar una clase

Nuestras familias son muy talentosas. Después de aprender una  habilidad, enseñan nuevas habilidades a los demás.
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6. Alcanzar sus sueños

Nuestras familias tienen sueños grandes. Algunos quieren tener su propio negocio. Otros quieren que sus hijos vayan a estudiar a la universidad. Trabajemos juntos para alcanzar nuestras metas.

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7. Incluir toda la familia

Desde bebés a ancianos, Proyecto Adelante tiene espacio para toda la familia.

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1Cgive (2)LUCHA está en un concurso en Facebook y Twitter. Ayúdenos a ganar compartiendo nuestro video y fotos.

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Volunteers brave winter storms Despite freezing temperatures, food bank serves families

Icicles hang from car bumpers and forgotten snowmen line the streets of Fredericksburg, Virginia. It’s 20 degrees with a wind chill, and schools have closed for the week.  Most people are huddled in their homes and offices, sipping hot cocoa and snuggling under electric blankets.

But not the volunteers from LUCHA Ministries. These women and men led by LUCHA’s only paid employee, Aida Kent are bundled up in scarves and gloves, sorting through boxes of donated produce at the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank.

“Dress warmly, today girls,” Aida tells us before we leave. “We’re going into the freezer!”

One of LUCHA’s key ministries is working with the Food Bank to provide provisions for Latino families who have fallen on hard times.

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Take Cenon, for example.

Cenon worked the night shift at Wendy’s, walking or riding his bike home around two or three in the morning. One day, as he was crossing the bridge some miles from his house, he was hit by a car and left bleeding in the street. He yelled for help, but no one came near him. . “I screamed and screamed, “ he said. “Finally I heard the ambulance.”

At last an unknown bystander called 911, and Cenon was taken to the hospital.

His leg had to be amputated at the knee, leaving him unable to work. The hit-and-run driver was caught by security cameras but didn’t have insurance to cover Cenon’s medical expenses.  Despite the hardship, Cenon still has a bright smile as he learns how to live with one leg. Families like Cenon’s require supplementary assistance during their recovery process.

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Every Monday, LUCHA’s volunteers give their time at the Food Bank; often working through lunch to make sure the six to seven families LUCHA serves have enough to eat. Every volunteer is from the Latino community and what is leftover is divided among them to take to their families.

Supervisor Aida Kent knows what she’s doing. A native of Puerto Rico, she’s fluent in English and Spanish and also works as a translator at the hospital. She makes sure each volunteer and family is cared for and often makes personal visits to check on her clients. Kent has around 60 rotating volunteers from the surrounding Hispanic community who are willing to lend a helping hand to families in crisis.

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Despite the freezing temperatures and icy roads, the volunteers of LUCHA are adding a little warmth to the week.

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Irene’s Story LUCHA reunites Peruvian woman with family

“I can’t imagine being in another country without any family, with no one caring where I am. I can’t imagine being that alone in the world.”

-Sue Smith, Director of LUCHA Ministries, Inc.

Irene Calderón is 78-years-old with a face full of sun-warmed wrinkles and a voice that lilts like music.

“Ma-mitaa, cómo esta niñaa,” the words moved up and down when she laughs.

The small Peruvian grandmother is wearing frayed camo pants that don’t reach all the way to her ankles and has dark hair covered by a bright blue cap. Upon meeting her, the community falls in love with her open smile and dark eyes tinged with indigo, lines crinkling the corners.

Many community members have never met anyone more animated—or more lost.

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Irene, an immigrant from Peru, was living with her son when he was deported several years ago. Her job was to care for children as a nanny, but from there, her story trails off in diverging, jumbled directions.

Her employers discarded her after their children grew up, forcing her to live on the streets. Although multiple Latino families took her in, Irene had the beginnings of dementia and became confused. She’d wake up, not remember where she was, think she wasn’t being paid and run away to find a better job.

“And she can really run. Have you seen her run? Like a child,” says Sergio, a member of the community who cared for her while she was homeless.

The police picked Irene up on one of Fredericksburg’s coldest nights and took her to Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a nonprofit partnership of over 10 churches helping the chronically homeless.

“She showed up to our shelter on a snow day. She spoke no English and was clearly confused, which put our staff in a panic about how to help her,” says Meghann Cotter, executive servant-leader at Micah Ministries.

This is where LUCHA came in. The homeless shelter called Sue and Greg Smith, directors of LUCHA Ministries, an organization providing holistic care for Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“While Sue was reaching out to the Hispanic community to figure out where she belonged, a number of our clients took her under their wing to make sure she was ok,” Cotter says.

Despite only speaking a few phrases of Spanish, members of the homeless community cared for Irene in the cold weather shelter. Substance abuse counselor, Darrell Chavez, who had just finished an overnight shift, volunteered to drive Irene to back to the Latino grocery store where the owner and waitresses had been caring for her during the day.

LUCHA and the owners of the Panaderia-Aury bakery discovered Irene had family members in Virginia who were unable to care for her. With the help of the Latino immigrant network and Facebook, they were able to track down her family in Peru. Some of Irene’s documents had been stole n and her passport had expired. LUCHA suspects it was a labor trafficking situation: a family had hired Irene to be a nanny then took away her documents forcing her to work for them. After a visit to D.C. and several phone calls, LUCHA worked with the consulate of Peru to secure the necessary materials to reunite Irene with her family.

An entire community comes together

Members of the community loved Irene, from the homeless volunteers who rallied around her when she was lost to the various Latino families who housed her at no cost to themselves. This is where cultural norms became apparent. In immigrant culture, it’s uncommon to see people who are homeless.

“We don’t have anyone on staff that speaks Spanish because we typically don’t see clients from the Hispanic community,” Cotter says. “Generally, they are a culture that takes care of one another and will have someone sleeping on the couch [or] the extra bedroom …before letting someone sleep on the street.”

That’s why Irene’s case is so unusual. Family is paramount and to see someone, especially an older woman, living alone was an anomaly for the Smiths.

“I can’t imagine being in another country without any family, with no one caring where I am, “ says Sue Smith. “I can’t imagine being that alone in the world.”

The situation caused LUCHA to question their preconceived notions about mental illness, immigrants and homelessness and to remember to never assume when it comes to their diverse and varied clients.

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On March 4, Greg, Sue and  Rodrigo Boluarte, Peruvian Consul, accompanied Irene to the airport and saw her off as she flew for Lima and ultimately Arequipa, Peru. Micah Ecumencial Ministries organized their Fredericksburg partner churches to raise funds to buy her ticket. It was hard for many to see Irene leave, especially since she was still confused about where she was and what she was doing.

“It’s a hard situation, but I believe being with her family is what’s best for her,” says Smith.

As she was wheeled down the runway, Irene turned and waved to the Smiths and the Peruvian ambassador with both hands, smiling the entire way to the plane.

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