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One woman’s journey to open a migrant shelter

Pro Amore Dei, an asylum seeker shelter, is located 4.5 miles from the San Ysidro port of entry between Mexico and California. Lety Herrera, the director of the shelter has lived in Tijuana, Mexico since she was 15 years old.

“I love my country,” Herrera said. “Tijuana is a good city for everybody.”

What started with five double beds, two tables, 10 chairs and only a few people living in the building has turned into a shelter with 204 asylum seekers waiting to be accepted into the United States.

Pro Amore Dei is a shelter for asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo from One Digital World

The journey to open Pro Amore Dei was no easy task, yet Herrera was determined to help her people.

She worked with Caritas for seven years, an international organization, which shares the mission of the Catholic Church to serve the poor, and promote charity and justice throughout the world.

“Caritas (taught) me how to help the poor people,” Herrera said. “(To) see these people was very hard.”

She was taught by different priests on how to form and run organizations in the program, which eventually led her to become the director of Pro Amore Dei.

“When you start to know God he starts to teach you how to (be charitable),” Herrera said.

Before joining Caritas, Herrera helped at a children’s penitentiary where she learned that the youngest people at jail were there because nobody loved them.

“I started to change the way I see life,” Herrera said. “People need opportunities to be better but nobody (teaches) them.”

One day she visited the border and saw the issue of homelessness and felt the urge to take action. Herrera joined a meeting with seven priests and asked to open a shelter for the homeless.

She explained the project and was approved to do so by the priests but several obstacles would stand in Herrera’s way before her dream became reality.

Herrera said initially she rented a big building in Tijuana that could hold 400 to 500 hundred people, but the community members said no to having a shelter in the area. She was upset but did not let this incident stop her.

After two years, retired Archbishop Rafael Romo Muñoz, founder of Pro Amore Dei, helped Herrera get the papers needed to open the shelter.

Padre Mario Heredia Mata, her spiritual director, found the house where Pro Amore Dei is located today.

Herrera used her own personal savings and donations from friends at the church to provide the necessities in the beginning.

Lety Herrera passing out donated gifts at Pro Amore Dei shelter. Photo from Lety Herrera

Through her experience, she found the power of education was a necessity and searched for a teacher for the children staying at Pro Amore Dei.

“God always provides,” said Herrera, who later had the opportunity to join with a non-profit organization named Yes We Can, to accomplish this goal. The school is right next to the shelter, allowing the children to walk over and learn without having to travel far to get an education.

Herrera said the most challenging part of what she does is spending less time with her family. Her daughter was sick for a year and passed away two months ago, so she had to go back and forth from the hospital and the shelter.

“The people at the shelter need me and she needed me too,” Herrera said. “I hope she forgives me.”

What brings Herrera happiness is when people who stay at her shelter get to cross the border.

“In (Pro Amore Dei) you can hear a lot of sad stories, of people who lose their families because someone killed them,” Herrera said.

She shared a story of a woman in the shelter that lived in Honduras, whose daughter and baby were killed, so she fled the country with her two sons. Although the woman had been through such a traumatic experience she was kind and giving.

“She takes care of the rest of the people,” Herrera said. “She helps us a lot at the kitchen.”

Herrera believes individuals need to understand that the people fleeing from their countries are not just looking for a better life but are trying to save their lives.

“These people have sad stories, it's not just about money or house,” Herrera said. “It's about live or die.”

According to Herrera, the more we love, hear, and educate people the more we will be sure that they are strong, healthy and good people. She believes that war is so crazy because we are starting to forget about love.

“I am nobody,” Herrera said. “I am old, but maybe young people can do more than I can.”

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