The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops designates January 6 through 14 as National Migration Week. The week is meant to reflect on the circumstances and challenges faced by migrants, refugees, and survivors of human trafficking of all ages. The week begins with the Feast of Epiphany, in which we see reflected the modern challenges faced by migrants in the story of Jesus and the Holy Family’s journey. For the first time, Belen joined in observing the week with visits from speakers who shared unique stories with the students about migrant life in the United States.
On Wednesday morning, middle school and high school Theology and Social Studies students listened to guest speaker Monica Farias, Program Director of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, Inc. Farias spoke about the organization’s assistance program for unaccompanied minors. Though migrants face many obstacles, unaccompanied minors have the unique challenge of navigating life in a new country without the guidance and protection of a parent or other family member. The Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program aims to ease the burden faced by these young migrants by providing resources like yearly clothing allowances, monthly stipends, education, mental health assistance and foster care.
Though minors assisted by the Catholic Charities Miami program come from many countries, once in the U.S. they must learn to deal with a world that often speaks a different language or eats different foods. Many are barely in their early teens, Farias said. One of her clients is only nine years old. While some of the stories she tells are heartwarming - like a group of children who were mystified by ice cream and devoured nothing but rice at Pollo Tropical - others can be a stark reminder of the harsh reality faced by teenagers attempting to begin a new life after being forced to flee from their old one.
Another speaker on Wednesday was St. Thomas Law student and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient Diego Sánchez, who spoke about his experience growing up and pursuing higher education in the U.S. as an undocumented person. “The main thing when I share my story is to just put a face to a number, to really show [people] what it’s like to go through the system,” Sánchez said, speaking about the importance of telling his story to others. Sánchez said his experience growing up lead him to pursue a law degree with the goal of eventually working in advocacy.
Thursday morning, Civics and Theology students attended sessions by Executive Director of Catholic Legal Services, Archdiocese of Miami, Inc. Randy McGrorty, who detailed the legal challenges faced by unaccompanied minors upon reaching the southern U.S. border. McGrorty explained that legal representation is often financially impossible for migrants, and their undocumented status means they are not entitled to a public defender. This sometimes leads to a situation where a toddler might be expected to defend himself or herself in front of an immigration judge.
“It’s really important that we respond to the needs of the people who are in our schools, in our church pews, our neighbors,” McGrorty said, speaking about the importance of providing legal assistance to immigrants. “Immigration is really complicated and complex. People really benefit from representation.”
The importance of taking a week to reflect on the challenges faced by migrants is of particular significance to Belen, considering the school’s history. Belen Jesuit began in the United States after the 1961 expulsion of the Society of Jesus from Cuba during the Revolution. When the Jesuits first arrived in Miami and reestablished the school, it was located on the fourth floor of the Gesu Elementary School, in the now parking lot of Gesu Church in downtown Miami.
Much has changed since then. Upon walking through the school’s modern campus - all 33 acres of it - it seems like ancient history that this vibrant community was once only a small group of displaced Jesuit brothers, refugees from those turbulent days. However, the beauty of this school’s history is that, much like the migrants who come to this country every day, it is a story of strangers in a new land who, instead of folding under pressure, endured. The beauty of this country is that it welcomes its strangers’ perseverance with open hands; a bounty full of opportunity and life.