Accompanying Refugees

by | Jun 30, 2022 | Formation

During the recent Famvin International Conference on refugees, displace persons, victims of trafficking, a conference organize by the Famvin Homeless Alliance (Seville, Spain, June 7-9), Sister Magdalena Herrera, DC offered her shocking testimony on the work of the Daughters of Charity of the Province of Spain-South, accompanying vulnerable women who come to the “Alma Vincentiana” Project” [the “Vincentian Soul” Project]. It was one of the most intense and moving moments of the meeting. Her testimony is an example of what the Vincentian charism is urging us to do for our neediest brothers and sisters.   

We invite you to read this with a prayerful heart.

Good afternoon everyone:

In the first place I would like to thank those who contacted me to share my experience in ministry at the VINCENTIAN SOUL PROJECT … a project in which we accompany women who find themselves in highly vulnerable situations: immigrant women, possible victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual and/or work exploitation, abused women, women forced into marriage and other serious crimes against human rights.

One day Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian. He led the flock into the wilderness and cam to Sinai, the mountain of God. There, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the middle of a bush. Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it did not burn up. “This is amazing,” Moses said to himself. “Why isn’t that bush burning up? I must go see it”. When the Lord saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” “Here I am!” Moses replied. “Do not come any closer,” the Lord warned. “Take of your sandals for you are standing on holy ground

The Lord told Moses: “I have heard the cries of my people and I am aware of their suffering. So I have come to rescue them from the owers of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:1-7).

I want to begin with this biblical passage because it outlines in detail the various emotions that I have lived and continue to experience in my person encounter with these women.


i am going to share some of the experiences that have touched me, but I am not going to do this in some chronological order but rather in a sequential manner that is in accord with the migration process of these women.

I am going to speak in the first person, but everything that I am saying has been and continues to be shared experiences of other individuals with whom I have prayed and reflected upon the movement of God in each one of these various moments.

As we all know, the journey of migrants is hard and dangerous for all sub-Saharan migrants, but it becomes hell for women, simply because they are women.

Each moment of the journey is painful in itself and supposes that at times the body will be scarred, BUT THE SOUL WILL ALWAYS BE SCARRED.

Doubts, the inner struggle, the decision, the farewell, the suffering along the road, the rape and harassment, the desert/loneliness fear/helplessness, the love/heartbreak/ false protection/deception/betrayal…. these women experience all of these realities during their infinite migration journey.

The Forests of Nador

For some time I went to Nador, in northern Morocco, to accompany the community of Daughters of Charity that ministers there. Together with the Migration Delegation of the Diocese of Tangier I served the migrant settlements, for several summers.

During that time I had the opportunity to visit the forests where thousands of subsarahan immigrants live in deplorable situations … in “ghettos” organized according to language groups.

I was touched by the great number of women and children who lived far removed from the Moroccan population …  people filled with fear, dirty, living outdoors, without any protection … many with infectious diseases (tuberculosis, AIDS, scabies) and infected wounds, women about to give birth or in quarantine, with newborn babies, without proper hygiene, without water, with excrement at every turn that created an unbearable stench.

There I discovered my burning bush, a place where God was inflamed without being consumed, where God’s presence never comes to an end … even though the “unbearable fire might seem envelop them … God was present and they were not consumed … I decided to go closer … and like Moses, I said, “I must look at this remarkable sight and see why the bush is not burned”/

There, like Moses, the Lord called me and I said: “Here I am”!

The Lord told me: “remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground”…. and I believed the Lord.

The Lord told me: “I have listened to your cry… Go, I send you forth…”

The fence of Melilla: Mirelle

On one occasion, traveling with the Sisters of Nador, I came to know Mirelle.

Mirelle is a 15 year old young girl who lived on Mount Gurugú and was determined to jump the fence, a triple fence which at that time was six meters high and topped off with barbed-wire

She had attempted, unsuccessfully, to jump the fence, and I met here in the emergency room of the Nador Hospital.

The Sisters moved quickly to comfort those wounded by the barbed-wire fence … and I accompanied them.

There were many wounded individuals, lying on the ground, bloodied from the barbed-wire fence … all screaming desperately in the midst of pain, frustration and helplessness. My attention was drawn to an image in the back of the room … my burning bush reappeared.

It was God in Mirelle, burning without consuming her. I had never seen such large, heartbroken eyes … expressionless, there was no hopelessness, anxiety, fear or hatred … no feeling whatsoever … nothing, empty.

Again, I asked myself: how does this fire rage and yet consume nothing? What mystery is this?

Like Moses, the Lord called me and I said: “here I am”!

The Lord told me: “remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground”…. and I believed the Lord.

The Lord told me: “I have listened to your cry… Go, I send you forth…” and I set out!

CIE de Algeciras: Loveth

In 2009 I began to visit the Internment Center for foreigners in Algeciras.

All these Centers are inhospitable, cold and unjust. They are a living hell that rob people of that which is elemental: their dignity.

And much more when we speak about women.

These individuals are detained and they do not why they are in this situation. Their only “crime” is being an immigrant and therefore, in an irregular situation. Most of the time they are discovered through raids on brothels or because they are roaming the streets with no documentation.

There I came to know Loveth, a young, four month pregnant woman … pregnant as the result of being raped in the forests of Nador. Loveth stated that she was eighteen years old but did not appear to be sixteen elusive, restless, abandoned, naïve, small … with a mixture in her eyes of hope and fear, difficult to describe … I did not know why I was there since I did not know Spanish … we communicated only with our eyes and gestures, sharing helpless despair and many tears.

We convinced the authorities to allow us to take her into the house we had prepared to attend to the most vulnerable girls in these centers.

There, with much patience, listening, respect, care and above all, much love, we saw Loveth laugh again, play like a girl, learn to cook, read, speak Spanish and communicate feelings.

With the birth of her girl, Mery, there was joy in her eyes as she looked upon baby. There in the joy of the life of a newborn, I once again saw the burning bush ablaze without being consumed and I asked myself again

¿How does it burn without being consumed…? ¿What mystery is this?

Like Moses, the Lord called me and I said: “here I am”!

The Lord told me: “remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground”…. and I believed the Lord.

The Lord told me: “I have listened to your cry… Go, I send you forth…” and I set out!

Vincentian Soul

Since 2017, the project Vincentian Soul has cared for 1,782 women … and there I discovered my burning bush where each day God continues to burn, but does not consume.

I am especially challenged by the newcomers, those who have just arrived, those who still smell of the salt water; those who are filled with fear and disappointment, those who dare not look up for fear of what they will find … those who would like to forget where they came from and where they are going.

Sometimes you have to literally bend down to the ground in order to be able to look them in the eye, to look at them from their height, because they come and remain hunched, staring at the earth, ashamed of being alive, of having hope, reliving the horror of the murderous waters of the Mediterranean, still preserving in their eyes the reflection from other skies… remembering someone who stayed on the road and couldn’t get there…

We will never know…

Every time a woman arrives, our service is to welcome her, take care of her, respect her, accompany her, sustain her, strengthen her, promote her, in short, love her so that she feels safe, confident, calm… may she rest from all that oppresses, martyrs and stuns her.

Our Constitutions state: though faith the Sisters see Christ in the poor and the poor in Christ … … This becomes quite real in every woman we welcome with the unconditional love that binds us together as sisters and friends.

It is an incomparable experience, to witness the passage of God through each one of these women, regardless of the religion they profess: Muslim, evangelical, Catholic…  their experience of abandonment to the transcendent is so great that it becomes contagious, challenges and overwhelms us.

These women will freely express their most painful experiences and they all have a story to tell: the desert, the forest, the sea, the raft, loneliness, loss, betrayal, and that long etcetera that carry along with them. Yes, they have a story, A MOMENT OF THE GOD who has been made present to them, who loves them, and who has saved them and will continue to save them from the deep abyss.

It is surprising the trust that these women place in God, who is their companion and the source of hope that they all imbibe during the trip.

Wealth, poverty, hunger, courage, fear, travel, struggle, exhaustion, faith, injustice, mafia, rape, motherhood, hope … in some cases, contradictory words that also arouse sadness and rage at the injustice and cruelty of the human being.

The courage and strength of these women teaches us a powerful lesson. I am surprised that among so many shadows, so many fears and so much pain, these women keep alive the flame of LOVE towards God, towards their relatives, towards their companions, even towards us, people who are a great unknown and yet they place in our hands their entire lives and their hope for the future.

From the perspective of respect for that SACRED EARTH, I preserve in my heart some very bloody experiences, experiences death, for example, when individuals fail to detach themselves from the yoke of the mafia that persecutes them, pressures them, destabilizes them …experiences of the times when our EMBRACE fails to separate them from that horror.

In this way, every farewell is a death that affects us and hurts us and sometimes martyrs us with the thought and doubt of whether we could have done something else, if something has escaped us … and we wonder what else could we have done?

Other experiences are life-giving: We meet an individual who trusts, accepts help and not without effort begins to free herself and then we know that she has set out on a path of healing … we jump for joy like the woman who finds the lost coin.

We have a wonderful team of educators, social workers, lawyers, psychologists … great professionals who places before these women all their good work and above all, their love.

We cry with them when they tell us their stories …, when they don’t want to leave, but they leave, because fear pushes them, or they experience threats or pressure as a result of the debts they have to pay…

We have had women who have passed the test, who have managed to escape the bonds of slavery … who have held hands and stood up, women who are now working and creating a culture for themselves.

Together and very united: Sisters, workers, welcomed women, volunteers … every day we are surprised by the mysterious action of God, before the bush that burns without being consumed and we ask ourselves, how is that? What mystery is that?

And seeing our surprise, our constant search to find him, He continues to call us like Moses:

“Moses, Moses…and we continue to say: “here I am”!

Each day God says: “remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground”…. and we believe the Lord.

The Lord continues to say: “I have heard your cry… Go, I send your forth…”

… and despite the difficulties, the sufferings, the despair, the fears, the mistakes, and also the successes and the DAILY HOPES that the women begin to experience, we continue to know that we are sent forth because “I AM” has heard their cry and sends us to help them journey from slavery to a land flowing with milk and honey.

This is my faith and that is my experience.

Sister Magdalena Herrera, DC