Salesian Fr. Michael Pace works with young volunteers to serve about 600 Haitian migrants in two Tijuana shelters. Photo courtesy of Fr. Michael Pace

Youth volunteers energize Tijuana migrant shelters

By  Alessia Loduca, Youth Speak News
  • February 10, 2017

When Fr. Michael Pace first arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, he couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed.

“My first impression of the city was that I had walked onto an old movie set,” he said. “Bars and sex workers, men with scruffy beards, guitars flung over shoulders, sun-baked urine wafting through the air. It was sensory overload. But the people were not actors. They were real.”

After serving as pastor at St. Benedict’s Parish in Etobicoke, Ont., Pace arrived in Tijuana last October. His fear of the unknown quickly dissipated as he answered God’s call to mission in Tijuana.

He serves at two shelters, Desayunador Salesiano and Refugio Don Bosco. Together, they shelter approximately 600 Haitian migrants stopping in Tijuana in the hopes of eventually beginning new lives in the United States.

After leaving a grim situation in Haiti and embarking on a gruelling trek to Tijuana, these migrants arrive cold, hungry and tired, but at the shelters, they are greeted with warm clothes and a cooked meal.

Pace works alongside fellow Salesian missionaries and young volunteers. He said working with so many young people has inspired his own work because they remind him of the Salesian order’s founder, St. John Bosco.

“Don Bosco’s heart was especially sensitive to the young on the margins of society,” said Pace. “It was to them that he would dedicate his life and his mission.”

The shelters operate because of the dedication of the young people, Pace said. Many of these youth are international missionaries who travel to Tijuana for a few weeks or up to a year through a Salesian volunteer program (www.salesianostijuana.org).

Several high school students in Tijuana also volunteer at the shelters as a way to give back to those in need within their own community.

“Without the energy and zeal of the young volunteers, the Salesian mission in Tijuana would be much diminished,” said Pace.

Pace said the young people he works with bring him a lot of hope, but there is still anxiety about the future.

“Accustomed to surviving disaster after disaster, many Haitians found the courage to trust President Obama’s 2010 promise not to forsake them,” he said. “Whether or not he kept his promise is debatable.”

With President Donald Trump in charge of U.S. immigration policy, the migrants’ attempts of entering into the U.S. are threatened with proposals of a wall along the Mexican border and a temporary immigration ban for refugees.

For now, Pace said the Haitian migrants can find solace at the Salesian shelters in Tijuana.

“Our two shelters offer migrants a safe, Christ-centred home where they rediscover their human dignity as children of our merciful God,” Pace said. “Our guests find the courage to press the reset button on their lives.”

The largest group of Haitian migrants are men and women in their 20s and 30s. Many of them arrive in Tijuana accompanied by children and/or are pregnant.

At the shelters, young parents have the opportunity to learn parenting skills and volunteers also offer babysitting services. For the children, the shelter relies on donations of everything from diapers and formula for the babies, to games and hygienic products for teens.

The demand for shelter has meant Desayunador Salesiano and Refugio Don Bosco has had to turn many migrants away after exceeding capacity. Paces stresses there is a great need for donations of time and money.

“This mission is a work of mercy. Prayer is essential to keep our human hearts in sync with God’s, which is the source of mercy,” said Pace.

For more information, visit donboscocanada.org/don-bosco/missions.

(Loduca, 20, is a third-year education student with a major/minor in English and French at York University in Toronto.)

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