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Creighton student hears migrant stories of heartbreak, hope during summer internship

She heard their stories, one after another. Sometimes, she offered words of comfort, other times she sat in sympathetic silence.

Stories like that of a man, his wife and two young daughters forced to flee from Guatemala after being robbed and shot at by a violent cartel.

Like the man who spent six days walking in the desert, trying to make it back to his wife and sons after being deported by U.S. authorities.

Ellie Dunn at BorderThey are stories of uncertainty, desperation, fear and hope. And they all intersect in the same place: the city of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, just across the southern U.S. border.

There, Ellie Dunn, a senior at Creighton majoring in psychology with a Spanish minor, listened to the trials of migrants working to immigrate into the United States. Dunn spent the summer interning with the Kino Border Initiative, a Catholic organization that attends to the migrants’ needs and advocates for humane immigration policy.  

“I am grateful for the opportunity I had to accompany migrant families and individuals and to hear the realities they are experiencing because too often they are misconstrued in the media,” Dunn says. “I’ve been looking for ways to really be able to articulate what I’ve seen.”

Dunn secured an internship through Creighton’s Schlegel Center for Service and Justice (SCSJ). The SCSJ works to help secure financial support for students involved in these immersive summer internships, pursuing funding from various sources. Dunn’s internship, which spanned mid-May to late July, was supported by the Creighton Global Initiative, a presidential grant program aimed at bolstering the University’s international outreach efforts.

Internships in particular provide invaluable experiences to students looking to pursue careers in social justice work, says Kelly Tadeo Orbik, MS’08, associate director at the SCSJ.

“It gives students who have these kind of aspirations a chance to try this on. From the outside, students may experience a call or an interest in this, but they don’t always know what the day-to-day looks like. Being physically present, being mentored by experts is really irreplaceable as far as a tool to see if this really works,” Tadeo Orbik says.

But perhaps more importantly, she says, the work the interns are doing cuts to the heart of Creighton’s mission: “They’re able to put their talents as highly educated, often privileged students at the disposal of the nonprofits that really need them. That’s at the root of our Jesuit identity. For what do we exist? We exist to offer skills and resources and time to others. It gives students a reason to study more once they see the demands that our nonprofits, our communities, our churches have, so they can respond to that in a really competent way.”

Dunn’s internship marks the first time the SCSJ has partnered with the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), which was founded in 2008. The organization is a binational ministry, created through a collaboration of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, the California Province of the Society of Jesus, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hermosillo, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson and the Mexican Province of the Society of Jesus.

Ellie workingAs part of its mission, the KBI “strives to put faith into action” by working with migrant people, many of whom are fleeing gang violence in Central America and arrive in Nogales, Sonora, seeking legal asylum in the U.S. Because of the Trump administration’s efforts to limit access to asylum through “turnbacks” at ports of entry and other policies, many of these asylum-seekers must wait months in an unfamiliar country before even starting the legal process in the U.S.

Recently, the KBI has seen a surge in Central American families with children seeking refuge from organized crime, economic stagnation and political oppression in their home countries.

Dunn, who lived on the U.S. side in Nogales, Arizona, often worked across the border in the KBI’s comedor, or “dining hall,” where people leaving detention at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facility can receive warm food, first aid, clothing and toiletries. KBI staff at the comedor also work to educate migrants on their legal rights, performing mock judicial proceedings so asylum-seekers will know what to expect in the courtroom.

Dunn met with people passing through the comedor, taking down testimonies that have been used in briefings to members of Congress. Some she published herself on her blog, Building a Longer Table. She intends to add more as she processes the experience.

Here, using pseudonyms, she has penned the migrants’ harrowing stories, many of which are all-too common, sharing threads of threats and violence.

One begins: Martín is a husband and father to two young girls, 8 and 2 years old. His family fled Guatemala two years after they were attacked by a criminal organization in his hometown. Fearing for their lives, they escaped to Chiapas, Mexico, where he and his family remained until members of the same group found him and his family. They robbed his family of everything they had, including 4,000 pesos and the necklace his 8-year-old daughter was wearing. Despite being shot at, he and his family were able to escape to Nogales, Mexico, where they now are waiting to request asylum in the United States. While he and his family wait … Martín lives with the constant fear that individuals from the same group will find him and his family.

Stories such as this have been passed along to politicians and immigration advocates in Washington, D.C., where they are used to push for policy changes that affirm the rights of the migrants, says Joanna Williams, director of education and advocacy at the KBI and Dunn’s internship supervisor.

“Ellie has played a crucial role this summer in helping congressional offices in Washington, D.C., and partner groups working on immigration advocacy understand the harm that (bad) policy can cause,” Williams says. “Because she listens carefully to the migrants we serve, keeps track of testimonies and analyzes data from our intake surveys, she has offered a unique perspective that motivates policymakers into action.”

Dunn also had the opportunity over the summer to meet with more than a dozen migrants being held at the Eloy Detention Center near Tucson, Arizona. Conditions at the facility were dire, she says. The center was overcrowded and kept at such a cold temperature, she could barely concentrate as she spoke with the people living there.

“In general, I do not think most of the American public realizes that most of the individuals in these detention centers presented at legal ports of entry and have done nothing illegal in their past, yet they are held in jail-like conditions and treated as criminals,” she says.

The whole experience, Dunn says, has opened her eyes to the reality of life at the border, a reality many back home in Nebraska only encounter through politically-tinted tweets or news broadcasts. She now hopes to continue the work she started this summer and spread awareness of the migrant situation locally.

“The biggest message I would like to share with others is that there are families and individuals suffering from the United States’ immigration policies, and we must not lose sight of their humanity. The rhetoric we hear in the news, such as ‘illegal aliens’ and ‘units,’ dehumanizes those families and individuals who are sacrificing everything they have to provide an opportunity for their families to live,” Dunn says. “Above all, I hope that people recognize that this is a matter of human dignity and the right to a life free from fear, rather than a partisan issue.”


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