EL PASO – Left alone to deal with the household responsibilities, forced to steal to eat, humiliated and treated as if they were worthless, the women escaped to safety to a haven they call the “dump” in Ciudad Juárez.
These abused women made the move to seek a better life in a community of friendship and hope, anchored by the Centro Santa Catalina run by Dominican nuns from El Paso. Although located in a city now filled with violence and homicides, the “dump” is the only neighborhood in Juárez where these women can find the strength to move beyond their misery.
Many El Pasoans consider crossing the border to Ciudad Juárez dangerous and life threatening, but that is exactly what Sister Rene and Sister Maureen do every day to help these struggling women and children in Juárez.
Sister Rene Weeks and Sister Maureen Gallagher of the Dominican Sisters say they cross the border to bring some light to women and children who have only seen poverty and a struggle to survive.
Sister Rene is the director at Centro Santa Catalina, which offers education for the children and employment for the women. Sister Rene describes the center as a peaceful community. “It’s a very happy environment, a safe environment. When the children are there you hear laughter, singing. They are outside playing and learning. They are happy. We also try to teach them very positive values,” she said.
The center provides the children with harmony and unity, but the violence outside their sanctuary continues to increase. Sister Rene says that the support of their community helps them avoid the debilitating cycle of fear and isolation.
“When the violence first started they were terrified all the time. They knew that the next day one of them was probably going to be gone. And as it has gone on they can’t live on that degree of terror all the time. They put that level of fear on a more reasonable level. It’s not that they’re afraid – it’s just that they can’t go around living in terror,” said Sister Rene.
The center gives the women a chance to escape the violence that goes on in the deadly city, learn employment skills and create friendships with the other women who have similar backgrounds. “The women are glad to be there. For many of the women they will say this is where they found a community that supports them,” said Sister Rene.
She said the women describe themselves as trapped birds that slowly find their way out of a cage. “We have women who would say they had never left their house, or didn’t even know who their neighbors were, so they come to this program and the first year they learn how to build their self-esteem and learn how to trust other people,” said Sister Rene.
She said the center is the place where the women feel safe and supported. It’s not a perfect environment but it offers a lot of guidance, Sister Rene said.
Centro Santa Catalina gives them the opportunity to work in the sewing and gardening cooperative. Most of the women in the center only have a primary education and have no other way of finding employment.
They sew typical Mexican products and grow food so they can provide for their families. “The women are in charge of the program. I just sell their product. Some of them do not read or write, but they are extremely gifted.” Said Sister Maureen who is the Marketing Director for the sewing cooperative. “Working in the center it gives them a sense of ownership and also a sense of pride,” she said.
Sister Maureen said they are all raising children, going to church and working to try and survive.
Although Sister Rene crosses the border into a dangerous city to help those in need, she considers what she does as part of a routine. “I always think of heroism when people respond to that moment of great crisis with an act of heroism. I just do it day by day and it feels to me like its what I have to offer.”
She says the people who come to the center are the real role models, “If you want to see courage I think you learn it from them. These women take very little and have very little. They take marvelous care of their families and are determined to succeed. I think Juárez is full of heroes, and I think that is the untold story.”
Centro Santa Catalina is a non profit organization if you wish to donate, volunteer, or buy their product you may visit their website http://www.centrosantacatalina.org/