Welcoming the Stranger: A Story of Humanity


Editor’s Note:

As the emerging influx of refugees, sent by officials in New York City, takes root in the coming weeks, RMM is highlighting the stories of the men, women and children who arrive across New York State. Our hope here at RMM is to remind us all of their humanity, and to remind us of the importance of standing with our new neighbors and accompanying them on their journey. We have much to offer these immigrants — and they have much to offer us, if we keep our minds and our hearts open.

Fleeing Danger, Seeking a Future

By Gittel Evangelist

He speaks quietly about the last time he held his wife and daughter. He put some money in his wife’s hands, and kissed her goodbye. It was half his final paycheck for his service in the Army — barely enough to tide her over until he could send more. His little girl is 7 years old, and he promised he’d see her again very soon.

On March 8, J. (his full name is being withheld for his protection) left his home in Jucuta, Colombia, where he’d spent nearly all of his 27 years. As a serviceman, he fought against the gangs and the drug cartels; but even once he’d left the Army, J.’s life would always be in danger if he stayed in Colombia, because the war lords never forget a face. The lives of his wife and daughter remain in danger still.

From Jucuta, J. made his way into Mexico, then to Texas as an asylum-seeker, before being sent to a refugee center in Louisiana. After two months, J. boarded a humanitarian flight and touched down in Boston, where he was robbed of his remaining savings before he ever left the airport. He spent five days sleeping in the terminal, barely eating, until a Salvadoran immigrant took him home. Fed and showered, J. returned to the airport and boarded a bus to Queens, where a church offered cots for hundreds of asylum-seekers.

Less than a week later, he climbed onto another bus, whose sign read, “Newburgh.” But two hours later, J. and 43 other men were dropped off at a motel in Sullivan County. Three days later, they were, inexplicably, bused to a different hotel, in Dutchess County. Many of the men were growing anxious; but, J. said through a translator, “I trust in God. I never got desperate.”

New York City will foot the bill for the men’s room and board for up to four months in Dutchess County as well as in Newburgh, where another two busloads of asylum-seekers were brought earlier in the week. The city also is contracting with a for-profit social services company to coordinate the men’s stays.

Meanwhile, a corps of volunteers has stepped up to offer clothing, hygiene products and many other items in the short-term. A Sullivan County barber gave the men there free haircuts, to help give them back a bit of their dignity.

Almost to a person, the men said their only wish was to find work here, so they could support themselves and send money back home to their families. Some, like D., arrived in America with nothing but hope in their pockets. “I’ll do anything,” D. said in Spanish: “Construction, walk dogs, wash dishes.”

When a small group of men left the Sullivan motel briefly to seek work at a nearby restaurant, they were met warmly but were told they needed work permits before they could be hired. They soon returned with meals donated by the restaurant owner.

W., 48, was a welder and fabricator in his hometown of Maracaibo, Venezuela, but had been living in Peru for the last several years to earn a better wage. As he proudly showed pictures of his work, he spoke of his father, who taught him the trade. His father died of a heart attack two years ago in Venezuela. Because of the Pandemic, W. was restricted from returning home, and never got to say goodbye.

He still grieves, and finds solace in spiritual teachings. Although W. is Muslim, he said, he hoped to find a synagogue, so he could resume his study of the Torah. He chanted a bit of the ancient blessing for Shabbat, the day of rest. But W. does not want to rest. He wants to work.

Gittel Evangelist is the Communications Coordinator for Rural & Migrant Ministry, Inc. Reach her at gittel@rmmny.org.