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Traumatized Migrants Find Healing at Casa Juan Diego


by L. V. Dia

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” the opening words of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities,describes nicely our recent experiences at Casa Juan Diego. Hurricane Harvey, with the heaviest rainfall in the recorded history of this country, would seem to qualify as the worst of times, except for the fact that the response to Harvey was so heartening. Houstonians in general, and Casa Juan Diego’s supporters in particular, stepped up to meet the challenge, increasing their already generous contributions of time, effort and money to meet the increased need. “Every cloud has a silver lining” is something we experienced every day in Harvey’s wake.

It is harder to see the silver lining, though if you are working with migrants and looking at the changes in immigration regulations and enforcement. The Administration’s decision to end the DACA program, which had given hope to over 800,000 “Dreamers” brought to this country as children, was a devastating blow to the Dreamers we know and to their loved ones, to the whole community, really. The continuing failure of Congress to address this vital issue is, if anything, worse. Then came the termination of the Temporary Protected Status that had been granted to 300,000 immigrants from countries that were devastated by disasters. Most recently was the Supreme Court decision in Jennings v. Rodriguez that stated it was OK to deny bail hearings for immigrants in detention. The injustices of immigration detention affect more and more of our incoming guests at Casa Juan Diego, mothers and children, mostly, released from detention but with the husband and father locked up for an indefinite period, always with the threat of deportation looming.

This sounds depressing, I know, but the trick is to trust in God and do the next right thing by helping the person in front of you. Our job is to provide a place of refuge while our guests are healing, so we carry on with the day-to-day work of the houses of hospitality in these difficult times, and it is beautiful and meaningful work.

Sometimes, not always, we are privileged to see a tangible improvement in the lives of our guests. Many of them come to us stunned, hardly able to function, struggling to care for their equally traumatized children. Much of the actual work at Casa Juan Diego is focused on providing an atmosphere that allows them to heal from the multiple layers of trauma they have experienced.

Before they even left their homes, the great majority of our guests were traumatized, devastated by war, by crime, by hunger, by the inability to protect their children. Forced from their homes, undertaking an incredibly dangerous journey to get to this country, to be taken into custody when they finally arrived, put into detention, separated from their spouses. And now, more and more, the new height of cruelty, separated even from their children. The fear of deportation back to the conditions that caused them to flee in the first place always present. To have made it to Casa Juan Diego for many of our guests seems a miracle in itself. So, when we receive a new guest, we are prepared for them to be ill, or depressed, or injured in some seemingly unreachable way.

We know from a number of studies that certain conditions reduce the impact of trauma, conditions that are the opposite of the experiences that led them to our door. These conditions happen naturally at our houses of hospitality: providing a safe, secure and trustworthy environment, equal and supportive relationships, all within an environment that recognizes and values the dignity and worth of each person, this is what allows healing to take place (SAMHSA, 2014).

Together with these therapeutic conditions, the key to trauma recovery lies in the healing nature of human relationships. This is what we try our best to cultivate from the very beginning. The relationship is formed and strengthened through what is probably the most important single thing we do: we listen to their stories. We bear witness to their tragedies and their triumphs.

Most of the time we just listen. Telling your story, having someone really listen to what happened to you, is healing in itself.  Other times we help put the stories of our guests into writing, for asylum applications or for reporting the crime they have survived to the authorities. Either way, sharing their story seems to allow part of the burden to be given away, like a bird set free.

Sometimes we encourage a guest that we feel is healed enough to write their own story for this paper, hopeful that this tiny bit of empowerment will spur them forward.  This “bearing witness” also happens in little doses at the door as we interact with members of the surrounding neighborhoods, many that we know, but many we do not. Just today I heard from a young man about how his partially amputated foot makes it hard to get around on the bus, from a daughter that cannot afford to buy adult diapers for her disabled mother that she cares for at home, and from a homeless woman about how cold it is on the streets at night without blankets, just to name a few. We did what we could in each instance, yet there is also the bond that is created in the sharing and receiving.

More formally, we have a long-standing practice of having a newly-arrived guest tell the story of their journey before the Mass held every Wednesday night. The whole community, guests, staff and visitors alike, reverently bear witness. These stories are often painful to tell and painful to hear, but in the context of a Mass of celebration, they are a sign of hope. Terrible things have happened, true, but the guest is here now – God is good.

There are other fine organizations in Houston that also bear witness to the stories of immigrants, that also form personal relationships with those in distress. Casa Juan Diego’s adherence to the Catholic Worker model of voluntary poverty provides something distinctive to that relationship. The newly arrived guest soon learns that the staff person that welcomed them when they arrived and got them settled, is actually living in the room next door to them, eating the same food, and taking no salary – poor, like them. That same staff person and others will be there to witness the birth of their baby, will be standing beside them to hear the ruling of the immigration judge, will be with them when their child is in crisis. We are here to help them in any way we can, regardless of the political and social consequences. This level of solidarity creates a powerful force, a bond of love that can only be described as holy. A glimpse of heaven on earth, here in our unremarkable and aging buildings.

We receive a lot of mail at Casa Juan Diego, electronic and paper. One letter that came in recently from a homeless man caught my attention. Although homeless, this letter was not an expression of thanks for services we provided or for the help he received. Rather, he wanted to give us support and gratitude for our intention as Catholic Workers to live voluntarily among the poor and marginalized; to put ourselves low, referencing Dorothy Day’s “downward path to salvation” from a recent article in our newspaper. To be lowlywas something that he and his fellow homeless knew all too well.

I found this letter not sad at all, but rather written gracefully and poetically, as if from a secret sense of salvation. The poor, his community of the homeless and all the other poor surrounding us, certainly need the help that we provide, no question about that. But the greater truth is that we need them, in many ways, more than they need us.

This is the attraction of Casa Juan Diego, not only to me, but also to many volunteers and supporters, that our own salvation is possible in this place where so many who are in need and who fear persecution are gathered. Here your heart is broken into a million little pieces and then put back together again in an instant, stronger, with greater purpose and capacity to do the Works of Mercy, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Reference: SAMHSA (2014). Guiding principles of trauma-informed care, 22(2).


Houston Catholic Worker, April-June 2018