In recent years, Chile has received hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants from other parts of Latin America. Fr. Daniel (Dan) Harding tells the story of some of these migrants who live in the parish of San Columbano, Santiago, Chile.
Ursula's body was to be released from the hospital morgue in midafternoon. She had died in the early hours of that day. Her husband, Michel, full of grief and with hardly a penny to his name, spent all that morning trying to find a place to give her a funeral. The parish of San Columbano welcomed Michel, giving him the use of a chapel for Ursula's wake, which lasted for two days. The parish took up a collection to help pay for a considerable portion of the funeral expenses.
In her native Haiti, Ursula, 29, had been a kindergarten teacher and Michel, 30, an office worker. Out of desperation and full of dreams for a better life, about a year ago, Ursula and Michel spent the little savings they had and migrated to Chile. Ursula found work cleaning homes, and Michel worked as a day laborer. They lived with many other Haitian migrants in an overcrowded shed, with a shared kitchen and toilets, and double bunks and mattresses on the floor for sleeping.
In Chile, Ursula became pregnant and gave birth to Jazmin, a healthy baby girl. However, not long after giving birth Ursula become sick with an infection. Speaking very little Spanish, she was unable to explain her situation to the doctors in the public health system. She died of septicaemia, which could have been cured had she had better medical care.
Michel and his baby daughter, Jazmin, are now regular parishioners. It is very moving to see Michel, the young widowed father at Sunday Mass, gently attending to his baby girl. All the parishioners make a huge fuss over them, all trying to help baby Jazmin. Our parish continues to support Michel and Jazmin, providing a stroller and a supply of infant milk powder and the ever-needed diapers.
Brother and sister, Jesus, 30, and Natalia, 33, are qualified civil engineers back in their native Venezuela. Until recently, both worked as engineers for different companies in Venezuela. However, as the nation of Venezuela continues to disintegrate into chaos, like hundreds of thousands of other Venezuelans, they decided to leave. With great difficulty, they migrated to Chile a few weeks ago.
Another parishioner, Angel, 38, was a lawyer and public servant back home in Caracas, Venezuela. He is covered in stab wounds he received after a group of thugs attacked and robbed him. As the nation slides into collapse, law enforcement become weaker, and criminal gangs grow stronger. Angel became one of the hundreds of thousands fleeing Venezuela, eventually arriving in Chile.
Angel works selling fast food in a take away restaurant. Recently when he related his story at a parish meeting, he burst out crying, profoundly sobbing and saying how much he missed his family and his country. Everyone present was touched and there were very few dry eyes in the room. Angel sends the little money he earns back to Venezuela for his family. He also sends diabetes medicine, blood pressure and cardiac medications back to his family, as these are now unavailable in Venezuela.
Celestin, 50, is a qualified mechanic who worked for many years in France and his native Haiti. He migrated to Chile one year ago, looking for a better life. He wanted to be able to send money back to Haiti to support the education of his 17-year-old son. Last November however he had an accident on his bicycle on the way home from work. He ended up with a broken leg, a broken arm and broken ribs. Since then he has been unable to work and survives on a little money sent by a relative working in France. He speaks very little Spanish.
In the parish of San Columbano, we have a team to support migrants and advocate for their rights. We are also about to begin free Spanish classes for Haitian migrants. The parish migrant support team decided to investigate Celestin's situation, discovering that his place of work had not been paying his obligatory medical insurance. After visiting the necessary government offices, Celestin will now receive all the back payments he should have received since his accident. The parish team will now also accompany him into the labyrinth of the public health system, finding out why the operations he needs are taking so long to happen and why he has not been receiving the free pain relief medication to which he is entitled.
Miguel, 35, comes from Cuba. He managed to get an officially approved job in Guyana. From there he decided to migrate to Chile, seeking a better life. He walked and hitched rides across the Brazilian Amazon, then across the Peruvian Amazon, then over the snow-capped Andes mountain range and then across the Atacama desert into Chile. Upon arrival in Santiago, he spent three days sleeping in the bus terminal, begging for food and eating out of the rubbish bins. One of our parishioners met him and offered him work. He now is a regular parishioner and gladly thanks God that he is still alive and can begin a new life in Chile.
Recently while I was buying some dry dog food in a supermarket for my dog, I ran into several Haitian parishioners. "Poor families in Haiti make meals of dried dog food mixed with dried milk powder," they told me. Even though these parishioners make a very modest living selling chocolates and ice creams to motorists at traffic lights, they always say to me in their broken Spanish, "Haiti, bad, very bad, bad, Chile, good, very good, a better life."
Columban Fr. Daniel Harding is the parish priest of San Columbano parish, Santiago, Chile.