Forced to Flee – World Day of Migrants and Refugees – and a Remembrance of Maria Isabel Macias Castro

Fr. Pat Murphy, c.s.
Centro Scalabrini – Casa del Migrante
Tijuana, Mexico

Credit: Migrants and Refugees Section /

Forced to Flee – World Day of Migrants and Refugees – and a Remembrance of Maria Isabel Macias Castro

This Sunday, September 27th the Church celebrates the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. On this occasion, Pope Francis issued a timely letter entitled Like Jesus, Forced to Flee. In the letter, the Holy Father summarizes the reality facing so many displaced people throughout the world who have been forced to flee for their lives during the worldwide pandemic.

Let us face it: No one wants to be a migrant, refugee, or displaced person. It is not a fun experience. It is not an adventure or a vacation. Everyone would like to stay home and live a safe life with their family and grow in God’s grace and make a positive contribution to the world. However, what can you do when you are confronted by threats to your life?

When a war breaks out and you are caught in the middle, you must flee! When the neighborhood gang comes calling at your home looking to recruit your son or daughter, you must flee! When a hurricane rips through your hometown and destroys your house, you must flee! When COVID-19 overwhelms your hometown’s healthcare system, you must flee!

People have always fled from life disasters in search of safety. Migration is indeed the oldest story in the world. The Bible is brimming with stories of people on the move in search of a better life. Pope Francis is inspired by the legacy of migration in the Christian tradition, and in particular by the family of Jesus. He reflects on this reality in his new letter and concludes that today – just like in the time of Jesus – people are forced to flee. Just as Jesus’s parents fled the brutal reign of King Herod, parents today flee and seek safety for their children.

Pope Francis does more than draw a comparison between Jesus’s families and families today.  He also suggests four specific actions that all people are called to take when faced with the reality of so many people fleeing for their lives. He sets forth four action words that are simple to understand but challenging to put into practice:

  1. Welcoming – Perhaps the worst feeling in the world is to walk into a room and feel out of place and unwelcomed. Today the anti-migrant rhetoric hurts immigrants, refugees, and displaced people. However, Pope Francis reminds us that we must see Jesus in the face of every migrant. And as followers of Jesus, welcoming newcomers is an opportunity to see Jesus as “as he was at the time of King Herod” and to welcome him. At the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, we see Jesus every day, and it is a blessing.
  2. Protecting – All those on the move are in vulnerable positions. They journey from places where they have been victims of violence, only to find the US protection system is closed. At the Casa, we see people coming to our front doors in need of hospitality, food, and clothing, but what they need most is human protection. Once again Pope Francis insists that there is no other option for a follower of Jesus but to protect those who are fleeing for their lives.
  3. Promoting – We frequently hear negative things regarding people on the move, so promoting the life of the migrants, refugees, and displaced persons must be in the DNA of any follower of Jesus. Here at the Casa, when our visitors come face to face with our guests and hear their stories up close, their lives are touched in unbelievable ways. In the end, they become great promoters of immigrants. One way of promoting immigrants is to work at seeking justice and creating laws that are more in line with biblical values. We are all being called by Pope Francis to do this.
  4. Integrating – When we talk about integrating people on the move, we must think about building bridges for newcomers in a world that so often is keen on building walls. The mission of Jesus was all about bringing people together without focusing on their differences. If we want to follow Jesus’s example, we have no other choice but to tear down walls and build bridges with people who have been forced to flee their homeland in search of a new life. This means helping people feel at home as they arrive in their new country.

I want to conclude my reflection by sharing a story about a lay Scalabrinian, Maria Isabel Macias Castro, who went by the name Marisol. It can be hard to imagine how to live these verbs, but Marisol did. Marisol was all about welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating people on the move. There was no end to her dedicated and generous service to migrants. Her steadfast commitment to justice and migrants led to her death at an age that can only be described as way too young.

Traces of Marisol’s Life – A Lay Scalabrinian You Should Know

Her name was Maria Isabel Macias Castro, but she called herself Marisol Castro identifying herself with her sister’s name who died of leukemia. Marisol tried to save her sister by donating part of her spinal cord.

Born in Nuevo Laredo on July 16, 1972. Marisol lived a difficult childhood, affected by poverty. She was very reserved about her personal and family life, but occasionally talked about “her baby,” her 12-year-old daughter, and “her baby” son studying in abroad in the United States. Abandoned by the father of her children after she lost a leg in an accident, Marisol rebuilt her life. She was always a fighter for her children, her family, her work, and in recent years, for migrants as a secular lay Scalabrinian. She tirelessly worked as the editor of the newspaper Primera Hora, specializing in graphic, advertising, and social networking. She was “always online, a permanent reference point,” as a fellow lay Scalabrinian described her. Much of her journalistic work focused on promoting migrants and seeking justice by reporting on organized crime.

Through her work with the “Casa del Migrante” Center in Nuevo Laredo, which included graphic art, she began a profound journey of awareness about migrants or “my dear migrants” as she often referred to them. Accompanied by a volunteer lay Scalabrinian, her “conversion” and commitment to migrants in such a short time passed from indifference and prejudice (typical for the local people) to a deep awareness of the human and social reality experienced by migrants that are crossing or being deported at the border. She was enlightened by the life and writings of Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini, and she read all the available articles and books by him with much passion. In fact, her “Skype” account included a photo of her commitment ceremony as a lay Scalabrini (June 1st, 2009) along with a phrase by Blessed Scalabrini which reads, “We must do good, all the good possible, and do it the best way possible…”

Notwithstanding the extended work hours from Monday to Saturday, Marisol always tried to get her editorials done quickly to spend quality time with her family and to faithfully make herself available for the migrants. She treated anyone who came for help with maternal affection. Her words of welcome were often, “You have to behave well here because this is a house of God.” The words flowed from her deep personal experience of her encounter with Christ the migrant.

On September 21, 2011, Marisol was abducted after work and nobody realized it.  The only sign at first was her cell phone ringing with no answer. Terror and fear began brewing in the hearts of her family and friends, when she did not appear on Skype, Yahoo, Hotmail. Her family and friend began to sense that something serious had happened. On Saturday, September 24th, 2011, three days later, the decapitated body of Marisol appeared naked and thrown into a monument at the main entrance of the city of Nuevo Laredo.

On the weekend she was killed, the Gospel spoke of John the Baptist, who was beheaded because he fought for truth and justice and prepared the way for Jesus. I believe Marisol was killed for similar reasons. Her dedication to truth and justice as a newspaper editor, and her commitment to make a way for migrants – who Pope Francis tells us are “the face of Christ”– made her a target. A keyboard, a DVD, and a sign with an inhumanly sarcastic note rested next to her body. It stated that she was murdered for her publications and her social networking site.

A web of contradictory and dubious information accompanied the early hours of the morning. Several people that drove through that avenue witnessed something monstrous but were unable to report it because they feared for their lives. We had to wait several hours before an officer of the government of Tamaulipas, made the shocking official recognition of what everyone already knew: She had been killed by a criminal organization because she spoke out against their crimes and brutality. The news of Marisol’s murder immediately spread by various news media – newspaper, radio, and news broadcasts in several countries.

The allegations and convictions caused many International NGOs to raise their voices with complaints. The Congregation of the Missionaries of Saint Charles and the movement of lay Scalabrinians, where Marisol was well known and appreciated, were saddened and grieved with unbelief. The staggering number of emails from around the world was an instant reaction from the Scalabrinian community. It filled us with hope that her death would help plant the seed of righteousness and truth, which commits us to care, and to make it grow and mature in our life and vocation as missionaries and Scalabrinians.

In the name of Marisol, I invite you to be about the work of the gospel in welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating migrants, refugees, and all displaced people on the move who are in search of a better life.