A few years ago, while Sister Sally Harper, CSJ was working with a Peruvian inter-congregational committee on human trafficking, a Good Shepherd sister on the committee asked if she could help one of their guests. Hanna, an Ethiopian mother living in one of their residences, spoke some English but no Spanish, and the sister wondered if Sister Sally might find someone the woman could talk with in English. That led to a relationship between Sister Anne Davis, CSJ, Hanna, and Hanna’s daughter, Betty.
Little by little, Sister Anne learned that Hanna had been a refugee most of her life, fleeing Ethiopia for Kenya and eventually South Africa. Hanna married, and in 2015 was forced to flee xenophobic violence in South Africa, traveling with then 3-year-old Betty. Although she was promised passage to the U.S., the trafficker moved them by air to Brazil, by bus to Peru, and again by air to Guatemala. The trafficker abandoned mother and child at the Guatemalan airport, taking their documents with him. After some days in limbo, Hanna and Betty were remanded to Peru, their last place of embarkation. From there, they got help from the Good Shepherd Sisters.
Eventually, Hanna’s husband was reunited with them in Lima, and Hanna found work in a hotel and rented a one-room apartment. They were surviving—until COVID. Hanna’s husband left the country in search of work. When she couldn’t pay the rent, the hotel allowed her and Betty to take up residence in a storage space. Unbeknownst to Hanna, the hotel was keeping afloat by housing people with COVID. Hanna became infected and could no longer work. By now her daughter was 8, her husband was out of touch with them, and she had nowhere to go.
At first, Sister Anne was simply a companion, someone to talk to, someone Hanna could call “friend.” Knowing Hanna’s plight, Anne wondered if she could do more. She took the situation to her local community in Canto Chico (a neighborhood of Lima), which consists of Sisters Maria Elena, Mary Luz, and Yolanda. They decided they could do no less than take the family in.
Now Hanna and Betty are part of the sisters’ local community. Although they do not share the sisters’ morning prayer and conversation time, the whole group eats together and shares all that is entailed in community living. Betty helps set the table, takes responsibility for leading grace before meals, and is doing a good job of teaching her mother Spanish. The two of them are waiting for COVID restrictions to be lifted so that they can take the next step in their journey: traveling to Canada where Sisters of St. Joseph and the Diocese of Peterborough are ready to sponsor them as refugees.
As the sisters reflected on their experience, Sister Yolanda noted how God had been working for years to gather this special community (in fact, Yoli met Hanna even before Anne did while doing an internship in psychology!) Sister Mary Luz commented that all of this could come about because they had the graces of apertura y flexibilidad—openness and flexibility. She said that Hanna’s experience touched her deeply because she herself was a migrant who left rural, mountain life to live in the city. “I know what it’s like,” she said. Sister María Elena Cáceres then added, “We need the dear neighbor in order to grow. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. I thank God for having put people in our path who have done so much to help us grow as women religious.”
Refugees and trafficked people are forced to be open and flexible. That is but one of the gifts Hanna and Betty have brought the sisters. Sister Anne may have summed it all up when she said, “This is an experience of living the Gospel—in union with Jesus who said, ‘I call you friends.’”