Refugee by Choice

Justice & Peace

“¡Primeramente Dios!” (God above all!) This unmistakably Mexican and Guatemalan expression gives you goose bumps when you hear it said by a temporary farm worker in French speaking Canada. It sounds like both a sigh of faith and a stinging plea for deliverance.

In the Diocese of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Divine Word Missionaries minister to more than 1,000 temporary farm workers through a diocesan-wide specialized apostolate. Canada grants temporary worker visas to citizens of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and some other Latin American nations. Most of them are male, heads of families who come to Canada for about six months, leave, and then apply to return. Why would this sound the peace and justice alarm? Coming here as a temporary farm worker is not a once-in-a-lifetime dream. It is more of a “no-other-choice” way out of an excruciating situation. These men are not even real farmers in their home countries. And the temporary nature of their work-permit plunges each of them into a spiral of uncertainty. Workers often find themselves facing loneliness and homesickness, physical illness, accidents, conflicts with coworkers, misunderstandings with bosses and an inability to speak the local language. These men become “refugees by choice.”

Through this ministry we encourage workers to speak up for fair wages and safe working conditions, and to foster healthy camaraderie with coworkers. We make house visits, invite the men to prayer and offer personal consultation. We celebrate the Eucharist in Spanish at the centrally-located parish churches in the presence of 50 to 100 young men from surrounding farmlands. We collaborate with immigration and consular services and varied support agencies while decrying any breach of justice inflicted on a farm worker. We provide “homes-away-from-home,” opening doors for faith to come in and peace to dwell within. In the spirit of Arnold Janssen and Pope Francis, we embrace the journeying of the Word, Immanuel God-in-our-midst.

Fr. Nicolas Sengson, SVD (Quebec, Canada)