Helping destitute migrants on the Bolivia-Chile border
During his recent visit to Chile, Pope Francis visited Iquique, a coastal city in the north of the country which hosts a large number of economic migrants. They represent a major challenge for the Chilean people.
In Pisiga, a frontier post on the border between Bolivia and Chile, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has helped for the construction of a reception centre for these migrants, together with a convent for the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent De Paul, who run the centre.
The time is 3 a.m. and the temperature is hovering at around 10°C below zero. A young man from Colombia gets down from the bus, after an eight-day journey from home, having travelled via Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. These were just stopped on the way on a journey that always had Chile as its destination. He feels fortunate to be here; the city he comes from is one of the major port cities in Colombia, yet at the same time it is plagued by criminal gangs linked to drug trafficking and the guerrilla bands. Poverty and violence reign there, so he has put his hopes in Chile. Not that there is much hope left by now, for during the last few days he has been robbed and maltreated, especially on the border checkpoints in Peru and Bolivia. The little savings he did have with him were prematurely stripped from him at one of the border posts. They allowed him through but refused to give him the Tarjeta Andina – a form of migrant passport for the countries of the region. So now he is an illegal immigrant on the frontier with Chile.
It is just one of the many such stories that Sister Fanny Lupa, of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent De Paul, hears every day at the reception centre the sisters opened here in 2011 entitled Misión: Estar en Frontera, (“Mission on the Frontier”). “It was these people, the poor, who led to the creation of this welcome centre because God hears their pleas and cries for help”, Sister Fanny explains. So that is the reason why these three Daughters of Charity now find themselves here, in accordance with their missionary charism, listening to “the cries of pain of our migrant brothers and sisters who use this frontier post on the Pisiga-Colchane Pass, and most of whom find themselves alone, abandoned and socially excluded and without the bare minimum for survival.” That is why they built the home on this 3,800 metre-high mountain pass in the Andes on the Inter-Oceanic Highway linking Brazil, Bolivia and Chile.
It is a sense of abandonment felt also by Esther, aged 44 and travelling with her four children. “They depend on me. I am mother and father to them, and I am willing to fight for them. Everything I do is for my children.” As she speaks, she cannot hold back the tears. Like 95% of the immigrants knocking on the door of the sisters’ mission, she is Colombian and of Afro-American descent.
Sister Fanny suffers with them. “They have been travelling for a full week without a bed to sleep in and without eating… They arrive at our centre almost dead with cold, and the altitude generally wreaks havoc with them. Sometimes they think they’re dying because the altitude has a really disconcerting effect on them. So the first thing we do is to give them a hot maté tea, and then, once they have gained a little bit more colour, we offer them food, show them a place to sleep, and have a little talk with them to learn about the reality of their situation.” This is by no means easy work for the sisters themselves, In fact, given the extremely cold climate, the strong winds and the altitude, they themselves have sometimes become ill and had to be replaced from time to time.
After all that the migrants have had to endure and undergo during their arduous journey, the sisters’ frontier mission is like a little piece of heaven for them. Esther puts it well: “They don’t know who they’re opening the door to… And then suddenly, they open it, they ask a couple of questions and then ‘Come in!’ And then immediately, they’re giving you a room, offering you food, shelter, it’s truly a blessing. They really are a blessing, these women!”
Sister Fanny confirms this “They tell us, it’s like a luxury hotel for them. They can have a bath, wash their clothes, things they couldn’t do before. And here again, we have to give them a lot of encouragement.” Certainly, it is true that, in addition to giving them warmth and a roof over their heads, the sisters provide the migrants with important information and guidance. They do so above all in order to prevent the single women with few economic resources from falling into the hands of people smugglers or into prostitution. At the same time, they give them guidance as to the various legal channels for entering Chile and warn them of the risks of illegal entry, taking care to inform the immigrants about their rights and duties.
Nor do the sisters concern themselves solely with the material needs of these people. They also pray with and for the people who pass through their reception centre. They identify with their sufferings and pray that somehow someone may be able to change the situation of harassment and ill-treatment, the denial of respect and basic rights to these people. “We ourselves feel helpless in this situation. It hurts us that the Colombians, and especially the coloured ones, feel rejected because of their race. They are treated like second-class citizens. I can only hope that one day this attitude will disappear”, Sister Fanny tells us.
But then she brushes aside the sadness. “We know we’re not alone. It was you who with your support for our community has made it possible for us to establish this mission among our migrant brothers and sisters. May God bless you all abundantly for all the hard work you have done, our brothers and sisters in this great Association ACN.”
The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul began their work in Pisiga in a rented house. For the first three years, they suffered from a lack of basic structures – bathrooms, kitchen and dormitories were all inadequate. They often had to sleep on the floor. In 2014 ACN helped them to build the present welcome centre for migrants, together with accommodation for the sisters. In 2017, with support from ACN, they also installed a solar energy system with tanks and water pumping equipment.
Maria Lozano – ACN International