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My View: Lessons in compassion on a trip to El Salvador

By John J. Hurley

Man’s inhumanity to man is a recurrent theme in literature and sadly, in real life. From the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible to the present day atrocities in Syria, humans continue to exhibit an astonishing depravity when it comes to their fellow man.

I recalled this unfortunate theme recently as my wife and I accompanied Canisius College students to El Salvador and the Kino Border Initiative on the Arizona-Mexico border. The purpose of the trip was to give our students deeper insights into the immigration debate raging in the United States. We wanted them to learn about the Central American migrants’ experience upon arriving at the U.S. border, but also about the conditions in their home countries that cause so many to pull up stakes, leave families behind and embark on a treacherous journey northward.

Man’s inhumanity to man is on full display in this sad tale. In El Salvador, nearly 30 years after the end of that country’s 12-year civil war (financed in large part by the United States) that saw 75,000 Salvadorans killed, the country still struggles with grief and pain. Women in the tiny village of Arcatao near the Honduran border told us harrowing tales of massacres, indiscriminate bombings and constant displacement during the war.

We hiked more than two miles up a mountain one morning to get a taste of what innocent civilians experienced as they fled the terror.

Today, it’s not bombs and bayonets, but instead rampant gang violence and a wrecked economy that cause Salvadorans to flee. We heard heart-wrenching stories of two mothers whose sons died on the journey north and the lengths they went just to bring their remains back for burial at home.

We met with a Salvadoran government agency responsible for resettling their citizens upon their deportment from the United States. It’s not enough that we deport them; our government sends them back shackled at the hands, feet and waists as an extra measure of inhumanity.

John J. Hurley.

At Nogales Sonora, Mexico, we served meals at Kino’s Comedor, which feeds 400 migrants a day. We marveled at two feisty but welcoming nuns running the show that day. Everything they do is aimed at humanizing the experience for the men, women and children who have been dehumanized at every turn and find themselves caught in this no man’s land at the border’s edge.

At this crossing point alone, more than 3,000 migrants wait for months in Mexico just for the opportunity to present their claim for asylum in the United States. Only three in 100 will be successful.

They told us stories of a desire to escape violence, protect their families and make a better life for themselves. This setting seems a universe away from the welcoming words of the sonnet on the plaque at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Our Canisius trip was not about service. It was about building bridges of solidarity with our Central American brothers and sisters. It was about putting a human face on the polarizing immigration discussion in the media and in the halls of government.

It was about encouraging our students to accompany and advocate for the stranger in our midst.

As a Jesuit university, we are committed to the search for truth and the promotion of justice in the world. We pray that our students will be part of a just and humane solution.

John J. Hurley is the president of Canisius College.

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