From its beginning more than 20 years ago, Casa Ursulina has always been a ministry on the move, reflecting the needs of its community of women, always reaching out to develop new projects to meet new needs of the women and their surrounding community.
This year, a new need has challenged Sister Mimi and the women of Casa Ursulina — the coming of Haitian migrants to Chile.
During the past two years, more than 150,000 Haitians have arrived in Santiago, the capital, with at least 600 making their way five hours south to Chillán. Most of these are young men seeking a better way of life for themselves and their families. Some bring their families. Others hope to send money home to them.
Why are people fleeing from Haiti? During the past three years, this island nation has been plagued by natural disasters, an unstable economy, and political chaos. Already among the world’s poorest nations, Haiti promises only a bleak future for its young citizens. Chile, with an open immigration policy, inspires their hope. Chillán, located in Chile’s most productive agricultural area, offers possibilities for employment.
Once in Chile, however, the newcomers run into serious obstacles. Haitians speak a French-based creole language, so they must learn Chilean Spanish. And even the most highly educated are faced with Chile’s own high unemployment problem. Finding a steady job can require weeks and months of searching and waiting. Meanwhile, many migrants “make do” by selling candy bars and other items on the street. Churches, civic organizations, and generous Chileans do try to help.
Sister Mimi Ballard and the women of Casa Ursulina cannot respond to every problem, but with their traditional generosity and creativity, they offer what they can to those who come. The migrants typically live in limited spaces with limited resources.
Although Chilean tourist literature advertises “a Mediterranean climate,” winters in Chillán are rainy and bone-chilling, requiring space heaters for those who can afford them. Most migrants can’t, and makeshift heating solutions can be deadly. Casa Ursulina women have been busy searching out beds, blankets, and warm clothing and shoes, along with supplies to keep the food pantry well stocked.
Sister Mimi and several retired teachers have begun offering basic Spanish for the Haitian migrants. Along with the language, they learn Chilean culture and matters of etiquette — like greeting and saying goodbye. There’s help for making job applications and, Sister Mimi says, “they learn the right way to talk to the boss.”
Class attendance isn’t as faithful as one would wish, since anyone with the possibility of a job tends to disappear. But the teachers respond to those who appear.
In addition to language learning, Haitian women are invited to participate in the regular classes and workshops at Casa Ursulina.
Perhaps above all, for the newly arrived Haitians, Casa Ursulina is a place to BE — a safe place with a warm welcome from people who will try to help. “Solidarity and respect” are the watchwords of the Casa Ursulina community and the experience of all who come.