When Sister Norma Pimentel asked the pregnant mother fleeing Honduras with her 3-year-old daughter when she was due, the response was immediate: “Now,” the woman told her.
“What’s so remarkable about this great migration is the children,” said Pimentel. “Maybe a mom or a dad comes with them and sometimes without them because they are afraid for their lives.”
Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, was awarded the Loaves & Fishes Award for Faith in Action on April 16 in San Francisco, for her work in aiding refugees and immigrants along the Texas-Mexico border.
Catholic Charities is an organization within the diocese of the Catholic Church, and can be considered the social service arm of the church.
Pimentel works at the Crisis Relief Center where she aids refugees and immigrants with basic needs like food, showers, guidance and often times medical help.
“It’s humbling for me to be recognized. I’m happy that people are recognizing that this is something important, that we need to welcome the immigrants,” Pimentel said. “They are human beings and they need the care and attention that any human needs. Any recognition that I get is recognizing that.”
Born in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, the 62-year-old Pimentel’s family is from the sister city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. She joined Catholic Charities after joining the covenant at age 24, and has since earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and two master degrees in theology and counseling from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and Loyola University in Chicago, respectively.
“When the people arrive to our center, they are very grateful because for the very first time after being in custody with immigration or border patrol, they have been allowed to travel beyond that point, so we help them see that they matter,” said Pimentel.
Anywhere from 400,000 to one million people are estimated to cross the U.S.-Mexico border each year, with one in four being caught by border patrol, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
Most of the people crossing the border are unaccompanied children. About 14,000 children under the age of 18 were apprehended in the Rio Grande sector between October 2015 and February 2016, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“These are kids,” said Jeff Bialik, the executive director of Catholic Charities San Francisco. “The fact that they have been born in a different country is really irrelevant to the fact that they are kids fleeing violence and oppression and they need to know that the U.S., and especially Catholic Charities, is still a beacon of hope and a sanctuary for them.”
One of those kids was Rafael Lopez, who fled from the gang violence of his hometown of Libertad, El Salvador.
“I suffered a lot of threats from the gangs in El Salvador,” said the 19-year-old Lopez.
Lopez left his mother in El Salvador when he was 17, arriving in San Mateo where his father lives. He is hoping to receive political asylum now that Catholic Charities has aided him with the process, free of charge.
“The hope that I will be documented has been a weight lifted off my shoulders,” Lopez said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Catholic Charities mainly focuses on five areas of social work: housing, youth, seniors, refugees and immigrants and behavioral health services.
There are about 160 Catholic Charities and similar organizations in Catholic dioceses across the United States, according to Bialik.
In border towns, like the ones in the Rio Grande Valley, Crisis Relief Centers exist to aid incoming refugees and immigrants as part of Catholic Charities. In 2015, Pimentel was recognized by Pope Francis for her work with the center.
“To know that he [Pope Francis] knew what we were doing was so remarkable,” Pimentel said. “I was lifted off of my feet, like God himself came and embraced me in that moment.”
Many of the people that cross the border are usually parents who are not only scared for their lives, but the lives of their children, Pimentel said.
“I hope that we can show others that it is important that we care for one another, that it’s our responsibility as Christians and people of good will, that we responded to the needs of others,” Pimentel said.