Strength for the Journey
Rebecca Ergas is a psychotherapist in Philadelphia and a supporter of Project HOME. She participates in a program called IFA (Insight For All), through which trained psychotherapist tailor therapy to the needs of formerly homeless persons.
When Rebecca Ergas was hearing the news accounts early last summer about immigrant families being separated at the Texas-Mexico border, she felt a deep stirring within her. Her family had immigrated (to Canada) from Chile – though, she acknowledges with gratitude, their experience was generally positive. But she also had done extensive therapeutic work with immigrants and other persons on the social margins, many of whom had experienced trauma. It was clear to her that the children and parents who were being separated were vulnerable to trauma – compounding the painful circumstances that had already compelled them to flee their homeland.
Rebecca, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia, felt a need to act. The opportunity to act came when she learned about the Dilley Pro Bono project. This organization was working directly with refugee families at a family detention center in Texas. There was an urgent need for professionals – primarily legal – to assist these families as they were applying for asylum status that would allow them to be in the United States.
Rebecca headed for Texas where for a week she used her skills, with appropriate training and orientation, to play a critical role for these families. She and other volunteers spent 12-13 hours each day working with women helping to prepare them for the “credible fear interview.” This interview was a pivotal part of the application for asylums: This interview determines whether the women will be allowed to enter the US and apply for asylum or be deported at the border. The women – who had come from many countries, including Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, and Brazil – would have to articulate their fear of return to an asylum officer, explaining the situation that forced them to flee their country and why they are afraid to go back. Rebecca and other volunteers met with the women, in groups and individually, to hear their stories and work with them to fully prepare them for the interview. Since then-Attorney General Sessions was restricting criteria for asylum (including limiting gang warfare and domestic violence as claims), the women’s chances were uncertain, so preparing them had to be as thorough and effective as possible.
“The journey to the border is extremely dangerous and grueling,” Rebecca wrote to friends while she was still at the detention center, “and can take as long as a month. Once they are apprehended at the border, they are put in hieleras, small rooms with freezing temperatures with only aluminum ‘solar’ blankets and perreras where they pack 20-25 people into a small room with a concrete floor and hold them there sometimes as long as a week . Often children as young as 4 are temporarily separated from their mothers and they may agonize for days not knowing when they will see them again. Most of the women are young, between nineteen and thirty. We are not allowed to touch or hug the women and children. Many of the children are sick with bad colds or stomach viruses and do not want to be apart from their mothers. Sometimes we have to interview women with a weeping child sitting on their laps.”
“My struggle was to stay present in the face of the pain,” Rebecca says. Story after story she listened to were rife with fear and trauma. Many women recounted being caught in gang warfare, facing extortion and threats to their families, and episodes of rape and violence. For other women, their crisis were rooted in domestic violence – including partners who threatened their lives or the lives of their children. Throughout all the stories, women talked of being terrified, feeling that they had no choice but to leave their country or face further violence, death, and/or harm to their children. These were not immigrants coming for greater economic opportunity. Most of them didn’t want to leave their country and make the long, dangerous trek to the United States. Rebecca paraphrased one woman’s words: “I didn’t come here to make a living, I came here to save my life.”
“I was not unfamiliar with these kinds of stories,” Rebecca says, “but I had never heard them so close to the source.” She was also struck by the women’s strength. “It’s hard to imagine what it took to leave everything in their life behind – but the love for their children was clearly the driving force. You saw the way they held their children. You heard their words of how they would do anything to save them.”
“That was my biggest struggle – to create enough space in myself for all this pain.” These are especially extraordinary words, given that Rebecca had worked with torture victims. Putting her professional skills and human empathy to work in situations of deep pain has long been part of her sense of vocation. “The work was task-oriented, but I tried at the same to offer a human ear and a human heart.”
Rebecca describes her experience as “exhausting, heartbreaking, and at times incredibly rewarding.” She shares one “high moment:” A young Honduran woman she worked with had left her country along with her husband, and her toddler daughter and infant son. At some point in the journey, she was separated from her husband and son. “When I spoke to her it had been a month, and she had no idea where they were. She cried every night for her little boy and feared for their lives. I asked her if she had called her parents in the last month and she said she did not have money to make the call.” Rebecca assisted her in making a phone call, and she finally contacted her husband, who along with their son had made it to Maryland where they were safe, staying with cousins. “The look of relief in this woman’s face filled me with joy.”
As she reflected on her experience at the detention center, Rebecca talked about how her notion of “home” has changed. As an immigrant, she spent her younger years struggling with assimilation and not feeling at home anywhere. After years of working with immigrants, she says, “My notion of home has changed. I’ve reached a point where I am at home everywhere. I have a sense of home inside myself.”
For those two weeks in Texas, and throughout much of her life, she has accompanied others on the journey to home.