Deborah, Helping in Sanctuary

 Deborah, a Guatemalan immigrant facing deportation, was interviewed at St. Paul and St Andrew Church in New York where she has been has been living in sanctuary at the church since June.

Interviewed by Jillian Ridler and Valentina Gonzalez

My name is Deborah and I am 32 years old. I came to America in 2005. I had to leave Guatemala because it was not safe for me there. I had no choice, I had to leave. I was young and I left my entire family behind. It was a long and hard journey to get to the United States. I did not know anyone in America but I was so happy once I got here because I was safe. Westchester for has been my home for 13 years. Ever since I came to this country I lived there. It is the place where I feel secure, where I feel safe.

When got to America I was scared I was going to only be able to work cleaning houses all the time. But I was able to do so much more than that. I was with Early Childhood Education. I was just promoted, and I was studying to get my GED so I could go to college and get a degree. I want to finish my schooling, but now I am stuck. I can’t even work anymore and can’t finish my studies. I have to put this dream on hold.

I have been living in sanctuary at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew since June. I had to leave my home to protect my family. ICE told me I can’t be here anymore and I’ve got to leave. Then that was that. I got placed in this church through a program called Sanctuary. They pair people facing deportation with churches to keep them safe. They put me here because it was the first space that opened up. Once I got here, I had to notify ICE that I am not hiding, and that I am here in sanctuary until I am able to see a judge.

I had to get sanctuary because it was not making sense for me to hide. I would not be allowed to drive a car anymore, to work as I used to, not even to go to school. Hiding would change everything. So, I left everything. I left my house, my family, my friends, my community, my job. Everything. I miss them, but I can’t go back yet. I don’t know if I will ever be able to go back.

It’s hard right now because it’s not only me living in sanctuary at this church. I am here with two children. When we got here, my son was 10 and my daughter was two. Now he is eleven and she is three. I feel sad living in the church because the children are suffering. They are traumatized. How’re you going to explain to them, your child, that you can’t leave the church. They don’t comprehend.

My son goes to school here now – but I cannot take him to school any more. I can’t check up that everything is okay with him at school. That is very hard for me. I’m the type of Mom that will show up to school without no appointment and say, “I want to know how my son is doing.” But I can’t do that anymore.

My son, he has been a very good boy. He keeps fighting too because even if Mommy can’t do the usual things with him, he still focuses and stuff. Like he is really is a very busy boy. They have to learn. I can’t have him watching TV all the time. He is fighting because he needs to study, he needs to be focused. I always been telling him that whatever is going on in your life, you have to fight for the things you want. Everybody has their goals and things they want to reach. Our situation isn’t going to stop him. He isn’t going to give up. It may feel like we are stuck a little bit but we are going to get out of this place.

When I came here, I worried I would have nothing to do and be bored all the time. I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. This church is so good for me. But, I have never been in a church like this before. They have so many things going on in the church that I am able to keep busy. It is like a little city in the Church. They have legal aid here, social services, the food pantry is downstairs,

I am very lucky. I think God was saving this space just for me. It is a church full of compassion and humanity. Everyone here is also fighting with me because they believe in justice, they believe that things can happen in a positive way. The Methodist pastor in charge of the church, the people at the pantry, the people signing the petition online: they are all fighting for me. There are so many people, so many volunteers that are willing to help. This church is my family now.

I do different things everyday: I knit, I make jewelry with beads, I read, I study, I listen to music, I volunteer and everything. I volunteer downstairs at the food pantry usually every day. At first, I wasn’t sure if they were going to let me volunteer because of my situation. I thought they were going to say, “no, we cannot allow you to volunteer here.” But, they gave an opportunity to me and I am learning. I believe that you can never stop learning. There is always something new to learn. I am able to help out and do things even though I am stuck in an inside place.

Of course, it’s not the same for me as home. I don’t have freedom.  I can’t go shopping like I used to or go running outside. The worst part is, we do not know how long we will be living in the church for. We could be here for a couple months or a year. We don’t know. I have a hope that ICE will let me stay and I can go outside again.

I want to go back and work and finish school. I like computer technologies and want to study that. I think it’s very interesting because right now everything is focused on technology. And you have to manage with all the new technologies. Everyday there is a new app and social media. I have to take a test first and get my GED. When I show them the certificate from my country saying I went to school, they say it will be harder because I have to pay like three times the amount of money since it is not from here. So first, I have to take the GED so I can afford school.

I study for the GED while I am here. I have a book, well, I have a few books actually. I’ve been practicing, I’ve been studying and I enjoy it. Even helping my son with his homework is a good challenge. I like helping him with his math homework because I like numbers. I learn from what I can see. I learned how to do math in a different way that he is learning here, but at the end it is the same. We will get the same answer, just do it different ways.

It is just like America: We are all here trying to get a better life, we just get here in different ways. This nation was made by immigrants. Somebody has to do the hard work here and usually it is us immigrants. We have to work twice as hard to earn the same amount as citizens. We are here doing the right thing, getting an education, working hard. We are not criminals. We follow the laws. We should have the opportunity to stay. Nobody is going to come here because they just want to leave their family or their children at the border. It gets harder for us as immigrants, but we all came for a reason. They are like me, I was forced to leave and cannot go back. The countries we left are not safe, they do not have good medical care. I feel happy for those who come here because they are saving their own lives.

Some Americans are worried about people coming into the country, They are not worried about deporting people and leaving children here to fend for themselves. There are a lot of people who have been here for many years, had children here and made their lives here. Now they have to leave. So, they leave their children here and are forced to go back to another country. They leave their children to keep them safe and to give them a better life.

I recently met a girl 17 years old girl. Her mom got deported when she was nine years old. Since then she has gotten pregnant, and she doesn’t have anyone. She doesn’t have her mom to ask if she feels something weird in belly, if that is normal or not. She doesn’t have that support with her. She says that it’s not the same without her mommy. And for me, I worry that my children will suffer in the same way since I found out about my deportation. Since I got to the church I worry that someone will show up and take me, their Mommy, away. I am scared I will be forced to leave them by themselves or take them back to Guatemala, a country that they do not know and would be put in danger.

Giving up is not an option for me. If I been crying in the corner or a depressed, I am not going to fix my situation that way. So, I have to do whatever I can, even if I cannot be outside. I have to be strong so I can help myself and my children. I have to make a stand and fight. I am good person. I been working hard. I take care of my children. I just want them to be able to complete their dreams here.

I don’t miss Guatemala. It is not my country. I miss Guatemalan food sometimes, but that’s it. America is my home and my country and I am very lucky. I have a life. I have my children are safe, they are healthy. Everybody has different issues and situations and everyone has worries and sufferings. And right now, being forced to leave my home and live in sanctuary is just my situation.

This interview was part of a series on unheard voices by Fordham students in Prof. Chris Rhomberg 2018 Urban Poverty class on behalf of Labor Arts and the National Writers United Service Organization. More at

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