Opinion: How my view of migrants has changed

13 Sep 2019

The Struggle to Survive

How my view of migrants has changed.


Story and photos by Fr. Shijumon Thottupurathu, SDB


Fr. Shijumon (Shiju) is a Salesian originally from the Calcutta Province. As a missionary to a foreign land, he now serves in the Central America Province. He was recently appointed vice director of CRESCO in Guatemala City. For three years, with Fr. Ernesto Hernandez of the Guadalajara Province, he studied the phenomenon of migration, especially at the border between Mexico and the USA.


(Guatemala City – September 5) – If I had been asked a few years ago to write something about migrants, I would have had something different to say than what I am going to share with you now. I was of the opinion that the migrants move from place to place because they want something different and better. They are not satisfied with what they have, and their need and greed make them move from one place to another, especially to places where they can gain more money and material goods. Of course I was compassionate toward them because they were humans but not because they were migrants. That was me a few years ago.


My perspective has changed dramatically since that time. My journey from Monterrey (Mexico) Airport to Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas, Mexico, was a process of learning and conversion. The three-hour ride on the highway along with Fr. Ernesto Hernandez from the community of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, left me dumbfounded. He helped me to view the migrants and refugees with a different perspective. The journey was too short to know more of the personal experiences of his work with migrants and refugees.

The three years of my mission in Mexico, however, particularly in the communities of Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, made me aware of the real situation of migrants and refugees. The time proved that my theory was partially or practically wrong, and I had to change the way I thought and felt. I am happy for these new opportunities and the possibilities to learn new things in life, being in solidarity with migrants and asylum seekers, gaining a greater understanding of their reality.

Life is always a learning process, and we should never stop learning. We have to let our minds be active and not rusty. The world has so much to teach us, and we have too much to learn each day. But we have to be careful to learn the truth. If we are not attentive, we might learn falsehood, and we could be misled. It would be easy to be like me, living with misunderstanding, false theories, and prejudices, until you meet the Truth which sets you free. We have to let ourselves be changed to understand the truth in its fullness. I thank God for my missionary vocation and the opportunities He showers upon me to learn new things and to share them with others.

During the years I spent in Mexico, the project for migrant youths and children gave me new opportunities to dialog with many people. A lot contributed to my learning: the point of view from the government authorities, the religious leaders who take special care for the migrants and refugees, the lay people who are dedicated to giving a new meaning to the lives of these migrants and refugees, the generous hearts and hands which help the continuity of such centers, etc. There are many simple, humble people who extend their hands to share the little they have with others in greater need. Their compassionate hearts make them move their feet and hands, in a spontaneous response to alleviate another person’s suffering. Many generous people from all walks of life support the charitable work with migrants and refugees. This is very inspiring and should be encouraged. But more than these, what made me to move my heart, hands, and feet toward them was the personal witness of the migrants and refugees.

Personal conversations with these brothers and sisters in Christ helped me to understand that many of them are not looking for money and material goods, but a simply a safe place to live. They are looking for peace, serenity, and security. Dire hunger, poverty, and violence force them to search for a safe place to raise their families. Moving place to place, they find no safety in their neighborhoods, and their fear increases each day. While on the move, they become prey to the man-made dangers such as prostitution, child labor, child soldiers, organized crime, illegal drug dealings, kidnapping, trafficking of organs and persons, etc. Some of them lose the dignity of life and find themselves feeling useless and worthless, rejected and discarded by society.

“Welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating migrants and refugees” was the exhortation by Pope Francis in his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2018. Many of them do not find peace or humane living conditions in their own countries. Some young people are forced to shoot their parents or some relatives to prove their strength so the gangs could trust them. They are forced to go to such extremes to be find protection and have a sense of belonging. Some try to escape the gangs to live elsewhere, but, away from family and friends, they find life meaningless. They lose their contact with all that was valuable to them. They sacrifice everything, struggling simply to survive. Fear haunts them everywhere they go, and their efforts to meet basic human needs may drive them to become thieves and criminals.

We who are safe and have a place to recline our head, do not feel the fear and pain of searching for a place to live in safety and peace. The situation of so many migrants challenges us in our comfort to show compassion, like the Good Samaritan. The beauty of God can be found in the faces of our brothers and sisters on the move. By the grace of the Almighty, let us reflect the mercy of God to those in need. Let us do what we can so they can preserve the dignity of human life.