A recent newsletter from the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia was like a cry from the depths: hundreds of migrants from Russia are gathering in Mexico City, and nobody cares about them – neither the government nor charity organizations – and they have only one hope: a small Russian Orthodox mission there.
When I called the mission’s spiritual leader, Archimandrite Nektariy (Haji-Petropoulos), I supposed it would be a relatively short call. However, we spoke for an hour, and every minute, every word from this priest was like his own “cry of the soul” – not about himself, but about these people who are facing real troubles thousands of miles away from their homes.
This interview contains only mild edits, because I think it is important to deliver Fr. Nektariy’s thoughts without additional interpretations.
– Dear father, I recently received a letter from the Fund for Assistance to ROCOR, and it was like a cry for help. The letter said that there are hundreds of Russian migrants in Mexico City now, and nobody helps them, and they have only one place to come – the Russian Orthodox mission. What is happening?
– Yes, that is right. Before, we had many Ukrainians who fled Ukraine to avoid the war. But now we have Russians, many Russians, whether trying to run away from going to war, to the battlefield, or they have other reasons. We have many, many, many families who come to Mexico on their way to the United States.
So, they do not come to Mexico to stay, but they are trying to go to America. The reason why they come to Mexico is not because they choose to come here, it is just because it is easy to come to Mexico from Russia, especially from Moscow.
Since our country has a very large border with the United States, they think they should come to Mexico, and then from here they head to the border.
Some of them told me that they do not agree with Russian policy and that they are against the war. Many of these people are very young, and I understand that they are running away from being chosen to go to the battlefield. These people left families in Russia, or some of them, if they have better financial resources, came with wives and with children
They think that it will be easy for them to become refugees to get into the U.S. They hope to be accepted immediately if they say that they are against the Russian government. They think they will be accepted, which is not true.
That is not true because we are aware that the U.S. is not accepting Russian refugees. It is very hard to get into the United States through the Mexican border. I know that for a fact because I have many connections with different institutions, including the United Nations, and also with the Catholic Church here, with organizations that provide shelter for refugees at the border.
When people from Ukraine came to Mexico, they were supported by our government, which opened homes to shelter them, but now, for the Russians, of course, there is no shelter. I have tried to talk to Catholic nuns, religious orders from the Catholic Church because it is the major faith in Mexico, which has big resources. But it is very difficult to ask them to accept the Russians, because now we have too many refugees, thousands of people from Central America, Asia, from China, from Arabic countries, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia.
It is really, really hard for our Russians to find a place. So, they come to church and ask for help. We can not do much for them. We shelter them right at the moment, give some food or clothing. At the beginning, some people have money, but most of them manage to get on the bus all the way to the border with the U.S., which takes about two days from Mexico City to the Mexican border, which is Tijuana, which is the border with San Ysidro, California.
It is a long way, it is expensive, and it is dangerous because they will be stopped by the police, by the immigration officers, and they will be [questioned]. Of course, they have a Mexican visa, and they are legal here, but they are so many that now it is not easy for them to be left free to get to the border.
They have to wait in lines for 12-15 hours, and finally, they talk to the U.S. immigration authorities and get rejected. Immediately! They just go back to the line – just to be rejected for the second time on the same day. And if they do not find a place where to spend a night, or if they do not have money, then they would be received by mafia groups, who will promise them to get into the U.S. illegally. Bandits just rob or beat them, so, finally, those people find themselves without money, without documents, and with nobody to help them.
So, I am quite busy every day talking to many of these migrants because even though Mexico City is really far from the border, they do not have anybody to help them in Tijuana, and they need support. They only have our church to rely on. There are very few Orthodox churches in Tijuana, there is an Orthodox orphanage, but it is Greek, and they will not help the Russians. I even tried to get support from Orthodox churches in San Diego because I know many clergymen from other Orthodox jurisdictions. It was without success because they are overwhelmed with so many refugees coming to America and crying for help.
Sometimes they are accepted. But I will tell you, for 50 people, probably, only one will be successful. I am always worried about these people: they come to the church – almost every day, they come to the monastery, they knock on the door, and they ask: “Father, please help me!” Sometimes they come to Sunday Liturgy, for confession, they receive the Holy Communion and say: “Father, now bless me, because I am going to the border.”
I tell them: “Yes, I am blessing you. But it is dangerous, please, do not go! Do not get involved with these mafia groups, they will take everything, and you will be left without anything. And then, how will you manage to come back?”
Well, we have helped some people to come back to Mexico City, and here they finally decided to go back to Russia – because they found out that it is really difficult to get into the U.S., and it is easier to return home than to reach the U.S. with this stupid and fake American dream.
If I am able to help – of course I will do. I talk to an immigrant home – a shelter in Tijuana – and ask them to help these people. Sometimes, yes, they do, but often they tell me: “Father, sorry, we are packed, we have a full house.” And very often I lose contact with these refugees, and do not know if they are alive or not, if they managed to get in the U.S. or not.
– How many Russians did you accept in recent months? Is it really hundreds?
– Yes, I would say so. For example, in March, there were probably about 300. In April, I saw about 150 people or so. But every week we see dozens.
– How do you help them? And what aid does the mission itself need to support these people?
– I would say all of them ask for shelter, they want to find a place to sleep – for one or two nights only. Sometimes I ask the Catholic shelters if they have a place for a person or two, or three, or more. If we are talking about one or three nights – yes, they accept them. If longer – usually no.
Then, many of these migrants just disappear and do not maintain contact with me. So, I do not know what is happening with most of them after a few days.
Some people ask me for money, for food. I tell them, “Listen, we can not help you for a long time. If I give you money, it will be only for one or two days, but this would not help you. So, I will try to find a place, I will pay them to accept you instead and give you shelter and some food.”
Some people ask us about clothing, and we help them because we are collecting clothes from our parishioners. Whatever we have – we give them.
If they are sick, we give them medications. This is what we can do.
Of course, we pray for them, but we really can not take care of them for a long time because we are overwhelmed. We are a small monastery that is struggling to survive. Of course, God takes care of us, but it is really sad what is going on.
We all understand – there are Ukrainians who need help, yes. But there are also Russian victims, Russian soldiers also dying on the battlefield. We care about all the Orthodox people, not about particular nationalities. But now we are overwhelmed and do not see any help from anywhere.
– What support does your mission need in order to help these people and maintain its own activity?
– It is very hard for us, because we do not want to get involved in anything illegal. But the truth is that these migratory groups from different countries are something normal these days, and the Mexican government is not preventing them.
Some people, and this amazes me, buy tickets from Russia to Mexico and have no money for anything else. If you are thinking about going to another continent, you have to save some money and at least have something in your pocket. But many of them tell me that they had no time or could not get resources, they have no access to their bank accounts in Russia.
Some of these people are clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, this is a delicate issue, and I will not talk much about that – it is simply not proper for me. Well, I do as much as I can, but even if they are clergymen, I can not do much for them. Of course, I will do more if the diocese asks me. It has happened several times that a priest or a church from ROCOR requested me to give some support to these clergymen because they are willing to help them to get legal status in the U.S.
We help them, we manage to send them to the border, we pay for everything, but we did not get any money back. It is difficult.
I have several offers from the Fund for Assistance (FFA) to ROCOR. It was several months ago when Ukrainian refugees were coming to Mexico City. The FFA asked me if I needed money to help them. But the Mexican government was taking care of them. So, these people told me that they needed only spiritual support.
However, that was also a difficult issue because some of the Ukrainian organizations rejected our mission immediately. They said: “You are from the Russian Church, you are our enemy. We do not want to have anything with you.”
So, I have to tell them: “Ok, those willing to come to the church – please, please, come, and we will give you spiritual help, consolation, whatever is needed.” But we can not get involved with these Ukrainian organizations because they think we are a part of the problem. We are not!
So, I thanked the FFA but rejected their assistance because there are many institutions that are taking care of the Ukrainian refugees.
However, now they asked me again: “Father, can we send you financial resources?” It is a difficult issue because if I get support from the FFA, this will be well known everywhere, and I will get even more people who try to ask for money to get the border. So, I really do not know what to do because we do not have the human resources to do so much. In these circumstances, we looked like a Russian institution, so many other official organizations would not help us anyway. Yes, we can coordinate some of our work with the Catholic Church in the country, but not with the Mexican government – they will not do anything for the Russians, whether it is politics, or whatever it is, but they do not support any work with the Russian refugees.
We do what we can do, as much as we can. Sometimes we give what we have, what we need to survive, we give everything out, and other monks then ask me: “Father, what are we going to do?”
I answer: “Do not worry, God will help us. If we take care of our people, then God will take care of us.” And this is what we are doing.
I do not think we should open a big project or a shelter house for all these people – no, because it will be even worse, because not only Russians will come, and not only Orthodox. There will be many, many other refugees from different countries who will come and ask for our support. And I do not think we, our diocese, or the FFA have the resources to open a program for this situation. So – we are just praying.
– But regardless of this situation with migrants, what are the most imminent needs your mission has, and how can people support it?
– Of course, we need their prayers, we need moral support because we feel isolated. We do not get associated with other Orthodox jurisdictions in Mexico, so we are all alone by ourselves. Yes, we are the Russian Church Abroad, but for some people that means that we are Russians and we are their enemies.
Yes, we need financial resources, and it is not for ourselves. Every time I tell people: “If you give to the monastery, it will not be for the fathers to eat because we all have a secular job and salary there. It will be for all of you, for the Orthodox community.” Whatever we get – it is for help for these people, for refugees. We ourselves are not in need: God provides resources for us through our civil employment, and we have enough to survive. But we do not have much to give to all the needs of the refugees. This is our situation.
– What lesson should all of us learn from this situation with migrants?
– I have told people all these days, especially during Great Lent: “Please, please, please! Give to others what you have, share it with them because the Lord is very generous with us, so we all can always give. We can always share with those in need. Our Lord Himself was a refugee. He had to flee from one place to another, and we all have to understand that we ourselves could be in that situation as well – without our home, our family that we could become a refugee – whether we like it or not, expect it or not – this could happen to anybody. We have to be generous, kind, gentle. We have to feel the suffering of all these people. They are in need, and we have to share with them what we have. Even if it is very little – we can always give.
Sometimes people ask me: “Father, how much should I give?” And I say: “To the point that it hurts. Then, it will be a sacrifice. If you give what is left, then you are not giving much. But if you give to the point that hurts your pocket, your life, that takes away some food from you to give to other people – then you are doing the right thing.”
– I am listening to you, and I feel how your heart is bleeding. Correct?
– How is it possible to survive this situation?
– These days, especially Holy Week, I cried. I cried by reading the Gospel, the suffering of our Lord. I felt it really deep myself by being surrounded by so many people who are in hunger, in need, in a difficult situation, who have no place to go.
But then I realized – it was on Holy Friday – that I have to be strong because I am the under-shepherd of these communities, I have to lead them, to help, to support them. I have to give them words to encourage them. If I feel the pain, I cannot show it, because then I will show this weakness, and they will feel desperate. They will feel that there is no hope. So, I have to show them that I am strong, that we have to keep our faith and our life. That we have our hopes, and the Light of the Resurrection of our Lord will guide our steps to the right direction.
So, even if today we have no place to go, we are hungry, we have to believe that God will take care of us, and hopefully, tomorrow we will be in a better situation.
– I know this is a very sensitive issue, and it is really dangerous for you. The mission and you personally are under the threat by gangs in Mexico. Can you tell us about that?
– It is a reality, a part of our daily life. But I will not get into details because it is very dangerous and painful. I know that things could get really bad.
Yes, I received threats. But I am not worried because I have the Lord at my side. What I do is out of love for my Lord. I am not doing anything to project myself, to pretend to be someone. I am doing it out of love for the people of God. He will take care of me, and if it happens that I die for some reason under these circumstances – well, somebody else will come after me and will continue my mission because it is necessary. Somebody has to do it. Not because we are risking ourselves, we will stop. No. We will continue faithfully.
– Is it right to say that the Russian Orthodox mission in Mexico City receives threats from gangs constantly?
– Yes, we receive threats from the locals. From unknown people. We can not talk much about that. I have some information and some ideas but I am very prudent. Since I am prudent, I think this is the reason to continue because I have also worked against the trafficking of women, which is a very delicate and dangerous issue.
How do I manage to stay alive? I guess it is because I am prudent and do not talk about any particularity. I do not give any deep information and just mention that there is an issue. I can mention it – yes, but I will not get into details because it will make the situation worse.
– But what is the reason why these bandits are threatening the mission? You are a small and poor mission – what do they want to get from you?
– I think our presence gives a witness of the presence of the Russian Church, and they wish there was no Russian Church in Mexico because though we are small and a new community – we have been here only for 20 years – our work here is very successful and very active. We are in the news, and I am not a person who hides himself. I go to receptions, to official events, I will talk about religious freedom, about the trafficking of women. I represent the Russian Church, and they wish that we had no presence here.
The presence of the Russian Church in Mexico is a living one, it is well known. We give a witness of the Russian Orthodox Church in a county which is very important for Latin America.
I am prudent, but I have no fear. And I say the truth. To add pain to someone is not my intention, but the truth has to be said, and I am always speaking the truth.
Interview by Dmitry Zlodorev