EAST NEW YORK — On a recent day before the start of the school year, Father Ed Mason walked into Salve Regina Catholic Academy, a trip he’s made many times in his role as pastor of nearby Mary Mother of the Church-St. Gabriel-St. John Cantius parish.
But on this particular day, he wasn’t alone; he was there with Iraima Ramirez and her 11-year-old son, Marcell Contreras, to help Marcell enroll at Salve Regina Academy.
This time, the seemingly routine activity — enrolling a child in school — was anything but routine. Ramirez and Marcell had traveled for months — and thousands of miles — to get to this moment.
Ramirez, her husband Ivan Roa, Marcell, and his brother Franco, 17, are migrants who fled their native Venezuela in December, speaking no English and with just the clothes on their backs. They embarked on an arduous 2,400-mile trek to Mexico and across the Rio Grande to get to Texas. From there, they were able to fly to Florida with tickets provided by a sympathetic Texas family. Once in Florida, they were able to fly to New York with tickets given to them by a local Catholic priest.
When they landed in New York two months ago, they were directed to an immigrant assistance center in the Bronx, where they awaited word as to whether there was room for them in a city shelter. Space was eventually found for them in a shelter in East New York, where they started attending Mass at St. Gabriel and met Father Mason.
Father Mason immediately set out to help the family, just as he has been assisting the other approximately 25 migrant families who have made their way to his churches. His parishioners have donated food, clothing, baby strollers, diapers, and other necessities to the newcomers. He estimated that he has raised more than $25,000 for the families.
“Working with them this last month is just an amazing experience for myself and the people of our parishes. It’s really been life-giving,’ Father Mason said, adding that their deep faith and devotion to the church are inspiring.
The Salve Regina Academy community welcomed Iraima and Marcell with open arms. Marcell, who started the school year on the first day of school, Sept. 7, along with the rest of his seventh-grade classmates, will be attending the school tuition-free if a plan can be worked out.
Marcell’s school uniform was donated, along with school supplies, and he settled in.
“He came in like any other new student. We didn’t tell anyone his history,” Principal Michelle Donato said. “We don’t want kids to feel that they’re separate or different from someone else.”
“Thank you to Salve Regina for helping us start a new life,” Marcell said, as he walked down a school hallway on Sept. 14. He is not comfortable speaking English just yet — he’ll be enrolled in ESL classes — but he is learning. His brother, Franco, is attending Pan American International High School in Corona.
The family’s journey took place at a time when the U.S. is seeing large numbers of undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to escape the violence and poverty in their home countries in Central and South America.
“The instability in my country has made it impossible for a professional like myself to be able to offer basic living conditions for my family,” said Ramirez, who was an elementary school teacher in Venezuela.
“The dictatorship in Venezuela has gotten to a point of lawlessness, and that state is making it so that many individuals have to make the decision to abandon everything they have and everything they know and risk their lives to try and find something better in the United States,” she said, speaking through an interpreter.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agents stopped migrants 199,976 times in July — a 4% decrease from June when agents encountered migrants along the southern border 207,416 times.
Ramirez recalled her family’s ordeal, which began when they left Venezuela on Dec. 12.
“After we crossed the [U.S.] border, we were met by border agents who took out names but then let us go,” she said. “We were not given a destination. We walked through the desert for three hours.”
Someone called 911, and a helicopter came to meet them. Once again, they were turned over to border agents. But a family in Texas was willing to host them. That family bought them plane tickets to enable them to travel from Texas to Florida. From there, they made it to New York, thanks to the kindness of the priest.
Ramirez said she is deeply grateful. “It has been a tremendous blessing,” she added.
Iris Bodre, recruitment and mission development director for Salve Regina, said she worries that people look at migrants strictly as invaders looking to take their jobs.
“Everyone is reacting as if they’re villains coming to encroach upon our spaces, our resources, and that’s not the case. They are just fleeing a crisis situation, looking for a place that’s better,” she said, adding that officials at her school are grateful they can help.
Deacon Kevin McCormack, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn, said it’s only natural that the Catholic Church would open its arms to migrants.
“The Scriptures tell us very clearly that if someone is going to be a follower of Jesus, follower of the Lord, they have to protect the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner,” he said. “That’s what we do. That’s the essence of our faith.”