Editor’s Note: DCSC volunteer Fede Wettstein candidly shares some common experiences of his ministry site with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He openly correlates his weekly task of answering the refugee hotline to that of an accompanying Simon of Cyrene, all with a perspective of hope.
Every Wednesday from 2-3:30 pm I am on duty to cover the UNHCR hotline. Our hotline is available to most of the 16,000 asylum seekers currently in detention centers across the United States. Due to the nature of the remote service that we provide, this is the most direct contact we have with the people we serve. As such, five months ago when I began my position with UNHCR, I looked forward to these shifts. As time passed by, however, this excitement was matched by what my colleagues and I call “hotline dread”.
Hotline dread is the product of not being able to meet the expectations of the people we serve and, conversely, not being able to assist them as much as we would like to. The fact that we are not licensed immigration attorneys, the bureaucratic nature of UNHCR, and the defective US asylum system are some of the many reasons that create a gap between how we would like to serve asylum seekers and what we can actually do for them. Time and time again I have to tell people on the line our mandate and what falls within the purview of what we can do for them. Sometimes, the responses I get range from frustration and anger to hopelessness. Nevertheless, it does not get any easier.
Do not get me wrong, I strongly believe in UNHCR’s mission. Often, we can empower asylum seekers by connecting them with NGOs that provide pro bono legal assistance or by sending them materials to better understand and navigate the US asylum system. However, it is never enough.
Some weeks ago, during one of our Tuesday formation sessions, I had the opportunity to share these thoughts and feelings with my fellow FMS volunteers. My dear friend Bekah, a master in the art of speaking in metaphors, shared a thought that has helped me understand better the nature of our work.
She said that my story reminded her of Simon of Cyrene, the man that helped Jesus carry his cross on his way to Golgotha. Like Simon of Cyrene, we can relieve and share the pain of the people we serve even for just a moment. Although insufficient, that is all we can do.
Fortunately, the parallel between the two stories is imperfect. The suffering of asylum seekers in the United States does not serve a divine purpose like Jesus’ suffering did. The suffering of asylum seekers is the product of a man-made imperfect asylum system that has been under siege during the past couple of years. However, with the dawn of a new year and a renewed political will, there is hope that the US asylum system will be rebuilt, and this prosperous country will once again open its doors to those most in need.
Hopefully, one day that phone will stop ringing, for asylum seekers will no longer be kept in detention centers separated from their families. Hopefully, one day they won’t need a Simon of Cyrene, for they will have no cross to carry anymore.
A Prayer for Refugees (resource from Catholic Relief Services)
God of our Wandering Ancestors,
Long have we known
That your heart is with the refugee:
That you were born into time
In a family of refugees
Fleeing violence in their homeland,
Who then gathered up their hungry child
And fled into alien country.
Their cry, your cry, resounds through the ages:
“Will you let me in?”
Give us hearts that break open
When our brothers and sisters turn to us with that same cry.
Then surely all these things will follow:
Ears will no longer turn deaf to their voices.
Eyes will see a moment for grace instead of a threat.
Tongues will not be silenced but will instead advocate.
And hands will reach out—
working for peace in their homeland, working for justice in the lands where they seek safe haven.
Lord, protect all refugees in their travels.
May they find a friend in me
And so make me worthy
Of the refuge I have found in you.