Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

At Tucson’s old Benedictine monastery, Jewish health practitioners aid migrants

(L-R): Medical volunteers Audrey Russell-Kibble, D.N.P., F.N.P.C., F.A.A.N.P.; Richard Wahl, M.D.; and Kenneth Iserson, M.D., on Feb. 24, in the Benedictine monastery chapel in Tucson that serves as a dormitory for asylum-seekers. (Debe Campbell/AJP)

Disembarking without fanfare and frequently no forewarning, asylum-seekers file, dozens at a time, into the old Benedictine monastery in midtown Tucson.  Since Jan. 26, the monastery has been a makeshift “hospitality center” providing a safe place for families released from custody after applying for asylum at the Mexican border. About 200 volunteers are trained to staff the shelter with donated provisions, coordinated by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona’s Casa Alitas program for migrants.

Identification badges for some of the 200 community volunteers assisting asylum-seekers in Tucson. Yellow indicates Spanish-speakers.
(Debe Campbell/AJP)

On arrival, the guests each meet with volunteer medical professionals for a check-up. There are many doctors, nurse practitioners, nursing and medical students, and visiting registered nurses. Among them are three University of Arizona College of Medicine clinical and medical faculty members who also are members of Congregation Or Chadash, nurse practitioner Audrey Russell-Kibble and doctors Richard Wahl and Kenneth Iserson, who work at the shelter along with Eve Shapiro, M.D.

Different paths led each of them to this emergency community response. Wahl heard about the efforts in October when Teresa Cavendish, Casa Alitas’ operation manager, spoke at Or Chadash.  Wahl offered to help and was called in four days later when 1,100 asylum-seekers from the Tucson and Yuma border sectors were released, unannounced, in Tucson. “We were grossly unprepared,” says Cavendish, who adds that she believes the “large numbers were released to test the strength of our NGOs and community.” The two Casa Alitas shelters with a total capacity of 30 were insufficient. Interim temporary shelters quickly were set up in motels and houses of worship.

“Everything we’ve gotten is donated,” says Cavendish. “You put it all out there, and it comes. It’s beyond a miracle.” That’s how the monastery became the new hub for assistance. Tucson developer Ross Rulney last year purchased the 6-acre monastery site from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who relocated to Missouri. While awaiting permits to begin constructing an apartment complex around it, the monastery sat empty. He honored a request for its use as a temporary shelter.

The arrivals are mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, some from Mexico, Brazil, and a few from Ukraine. They all journeyed for days or weeks to reach the southern border. Highway robbers accost many travelers en route. Most arrive with the clothes on their backs and little else.

Migrants passing through the Old Pueblo is nothing new. What has changed is the volume crossing the border legally and requesting asylum. In previous years, mostly single men from Mexico, seeking work, were apprehended crossing the border illegally. More than 76,000 migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in February, double the number from the same period last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. When single men crossed, they tried to evade capture. The families surrender at legal border crossings. They are fleeing poverty, hunger, pervasive violence, drug cartels, and gangs. Detained for several days and processed near the border by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the asylum-seekers are released in family groups in Tucson, with electronic monitoring ankle bracelets, into the custody of local non-governmental and faith-based agencies, such as CCS.

Cavendish notes that many of the asylum-seekers left their countries due to crop failures from environmental impact. “They are malnourished before they leave. In detention, they occasionally give them frozen burritos and crackers. When they arrive, they are starving.” She described a child who got off the bus and stood under a tree in the monastery’s orchard, crying for an orange she saw hanging from the tree.

Russell-Kibbel, a UA College of Medicine clinical assistant professor and family nurse practitioner at St. Elizabeth’s Health Center, was a volunteer with Casa Alitas before its expansion to the monastery. She brought along volunteer nursing students. Juggling clinic, teaching, and life schedules, the medical volunteers are on site as often as possible. “When I have free time I’m here,” says Wahl. A full-time faculty member at Banner University Medical Center and a professor in the UA College of Medicine pediatrics department, he started bringing medical residents to the shelter as part of the teaching experience.

Iserson, a UA professor emeritus, volunteers at Tucson’s free Clinica Amistad and in emergency relief care overseas. He heard the call from Wahl and got aboard. This work is no different from any other emergency relief effort he has experienced, he says, gesturing around at the neat rows of green Red Cross cots lining three floors of the monastery.

Shapiro, also a UA pediatrics professor emeritus, coordinated with the Pima County Health Department to donate 500 doses of flu vaccine from the federally-funded Vaccine for Children’s & Adults programs. “The refugee families are accepting of vaccines like nothing I’ve ever seen in this country,” says Shapiro.  “No one said no. They said, ‘We trust you.’” The 500 doses were exhausted in three weeks, but another donation is forthcoming.

From among more than 1,000 arrivals screened from late January to late February, there were instances of pregnancy, rape, acute intestinal disorders, and various routine, non-infectious issues with only one case of tuberculosis, Iserson says. Starvation and dehydration are the most critical issues. “Everyone has kids,” says Iserson of the arrivals. “These are people that, if you passed on the street, look like Americans or people you’d like to have living next door to you.”

The medical care is one small piece of the community response to the arrivals. “There’s food, transportation, cleaning, laundry, clothing . . . there are a dozen teams,” Iserson says, adding that he volunteers because “I still believe in American values. We don’t talk politics here because everyone is on the same page.” 

Numerous volunteer translators are on hand to assist with Spanish and Portuguese languages, but there are up to two dozen indigenous languages in Guatemala and five in Honduras that are infrequently spoken outside of those countries. Carlos Enrique de León López, the Guatemalan Consul in Tucson, is a fixture at the site to assist with languages and representation. National Nurses United Registered Nurses Response Network members fly in from around the country to provide overnight staffing and medical assistance each weekend for an average of 120 guests housed each night.

Volunteers assist arrivals in contacting their sponsoring family members across the country, and in arranging and paying for bus transportation. It can take 24 hours to four days for the bus travel to be ticketed and ready for departure. The international Miles4Migrants program offers donated frequent flier miles for air travel options. Travelers receive bags filled with essential items before they leave. Donors provide clean, often new clothing, shoes and warm jackets for those traveling onward to cold climates. Towels and toiletries are donated for hot showers. While mounds of blankets are washed on site daily, volunteers take home many others to clean and return for the next influx of visitors.

Volunteers serve up hot soup on arrival, three meals a day, and sack lunches for bus journeys of up to three days. Much of the food is cooked offsite by congregations and individuals. High school students make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and restaurants, such as Zemam’s, send beans, rice, and cookies, says Iserson. Other volunteers cook in the commercial kitchen on site from food donations.

“We’ve helped more folks in this setting than ever before, close to 2,000,” Cavendish said in mid-March. The system has become so effective that ICE recently bused asylum-seekers from the El Paso sector into Tucson. “We can never move as quickly as they come in, but we are proud to share what we’ve been gifted.”