by Tiffany Nelms
Severely disabled, 9-year-old Sara had been denied medical care and was alienated by her community in Latin America. Her mother, hoping to find a cure for her daughter, crossed the desert between the United States and Mexico with Sara on her back.
They were initially detained and jailed by U.S. Border Patrol agents. Had they made the journey just a few weeks ago, they may have been separated from one another. But it was a little more than a year ago, and so they had been kept together and eventually released as U.S. law permitted.
But Sara fell through many cracks. Unable still to access the care she so desperately needed, she and her mother found their way to us at Asylee Women Enterprises (AWE) in Baltimore.
AWE started six years ago in a room in the basement of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, with a desire to serve refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution, violence and trauma. Limited by budget constraints and a small staff, we served only a handful of women at the start.
But over the last three years, the Ignatian Volunteer Corps has allowed us to grow and stabilize our programs. We now serve more than 200 women and children each year. We accompany the women as they seek a new life, helping them navigate a complex immigration system, secure safe and stable housing, and connect to medical and mental health services.
Thanks to IVC volunteers, we now have a formal program to teach English — a critical skill for newcomers looking for steady employment and successful integration into society.
They’ve brought new order and new donors to our food panty, which now provides an average of 400 pounds of food to 20 individuals per week. Volunteers have secured critical funding to expand our work with single mothers and to increase our capacity to serve the most vulnerable, forced migrants.
The professional and life experience, commitment to social justice and service to the poor that our IVC members bring have allowed us to serve our community in a way that is so desperately needed right now.
Sara and her mother came to the United States as so many refugees and asylum seekers do — separated from loved ones and at the mercy of strangers to meet their most basic needs. They remind us that we must not forget the importance of action over indifference.
Unsure of how we would do it, but knowing that we had to say “yes” to Sara and her mother, we began looking for others who would say “yes” to them as well. After being denied specialty care by several medical institutions in Baltimore, Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia said “yes” to treating Sara.
I asked an IVC member, Chris, whether she could accompany them to an appointment in Philadelphia. Putting aside her own hesitation at driving long distances, Chris said “yes.”
For a year, Chris traveled with Sara and her mother to Shriner’s Hospital for testing and treatment. Chris was with them when, for the first time, Sara walked upright with only the assistance of a walker-wheelchair. The physical therapist taught Sara’s mother how to do exercises with her at home to increase her strength and flexibility — always working towards the goal of being able to walk independently for the first time at 9 years old.
Despite being thousands of miles from her home, in unfamiliar surroundings, and dealing with a complete language barrier — Sara and her mother were not alone.
We often have visitors, funders and others who visit AWE. In the course of our tours, we introduce our volunteers, who sometimes say things like, “Oh, I’m just a volunteer.”
It makes me cringe to hear that.
Our organization and the work we do would not be possible without our volunteers. For Sara and her mother, Chris is much more than just a volunteer. She said “yes” to them when everyone else said “no.”
Tiffany Nelms is the executive director of Asylee Women Enterprises. She first shared her thoughts on the work of IVC during the Advent Evening of Joyful Anticipation held by IVC Baltimore in December.