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Abraham Barberi, pastor to everyone from migrants to stray dogs

Photo: Adil Boukind Le Devoir Pastor Abraham Barberi, right, helps and welcomes migrants despite the presence of cartels and restrictions from the Mexican and US governments.

Lisa-Marie Gervais in Brownsville and Matamoros

Published at 0:00 Updated at 8:08 a.m.

  • Americas

In Brownsville, Texas, on the Gateway International Bridge which spans the Rio Grande, it is impossible to cross to the Mexican side with Pastor Abraham Barberi without being stopped every two steps. “Hey, hey! Que tal ? Como le va ? » Dressed in jeans, the bald pastor, who wears a goatee on his chin giving him the look of a « cool guy” who is not in his late fifties, is known to everyone, from migrants to stray dogs.

“It’s not not always like that,” he said jokingly.

In 2016, Abraham Barberi began coming under this same bridge, to Matamoros, a Mexican city under the yoke of cartels that control drug and migrant trafficking. He came to offer food and drink to the migrants who camped there, but above all to lend a kind ear. “I quickly understood that beyond food, they had a great need for spirituality,” emphasizes the Baptist missionary and founder of One Mission Ministries.

Abraham Barberi, pastor to everyone from migrants to stray dogs

Photo: Adil Boukind Le Devoir Excursion to the town of Matamoros, Mexico, on the Texas border

Himself a Mexican immigrant, Pastor Barberi, who became an American, certainly has a particular sensitivity. Nomadic and precarious, migrants have necessarily become “priority”, he maintains. “As a Christian, my responsibility is to help all people in need, whether they are asylum seekers, the poor and the sick… even dogs! »

Yet this father of four children was not destined to become a man of faith. At the turn of the 1980s, his vocation was more… the electric guitar. “I was a teenager with very long hair, I wore skinny jeans and black t-shirts and, with my cousins, I listened to Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Black Sabbath. »

His passion led him to play in various heavy metal groups and, even today, he continues the adventure as a dilettante with his group My Place Was Taken, whose songs carry messages of God and love. He has even performed in concerts and festivals in Mexico, the United States and as far away as Europe.

As a Christian, my responsibility is to help all people in need, whether they are asylum seekers, the poor and the sick… even dogs!< /p> —Abraham Barberi

CBP One, a “political” tool

On this hot May day, Pastor Barberi leads us next to the Gateway Bridge on the banks of the Rio Grande. The waste and torn clothes strewn on the ground bear witness to the numerous passages of migrants. “See, over there, that was one of the places they passed through. They were stretching a rope between the two banks,” he said, pointing to the river. “In the middle it’s 10 feet deep, and the undercurrent is strong. Many drowned. »

After the pandemic hiatus, thousands of migrants were entering the United States daily at different points on the border from Mexico, with peaks at 10,000 per day in spring 2023.

In the crowded Matamoros camp, the pastor gave masses, while others distributed food and taught children. There are only around fifty of these migrants left today.

Sitting in the shade, Yohandry enjoys a moment of rest in this makeshift camp, without toilets nor water. “These are our bicycles. We call them warriors,” the 23-year-old Venezuelan says proudly.

With a friend, he traveled sometimes by bike and sometimes by train the 1000 km from one border to the other of Mexico, information gleaned from Instragram and Facebook as his only compasses.

Abraham Barberi, pastor to everyone from migrants to stray dogs

Photo: Adil Boukind Le Devoir The city of Matamoros

Like other campers, he would like to successfully file an application through CBP One (Custom and Border Protection). Since May 2023, this border services application allows asylum seekers to obtain an appointment at an official point of entry.

But for the more than 100,000 people who try to connect each day, CBP One only makes about 1,500 appointments. “You need a better connection if you don’t want to wait months,” the pastor advises them.

He rails against this “political tool”, which makes people look good the leaders. “It’s all well and good to allow them to apply for asylum, but at the same time, [the authorities] are deporting thousands of migrants a day! And no one talks about that. »

On slavery

As the American elections approach, Abraham Barberi doesn't really know what to think about the future of migrants. The acceptance rate is very low for asylum seekers. Very few qualify and they hide underground. Others can wait up to five years for their court hearing, and often have to work undeclared because they are not automatically granted a permit.

“These people are taken to the United States even if they don’t want to stay there. Life is expensive, and at the same time they have to send money to their families. They end up working 15 hours a day, almost 7 days a week,” he says. “It’s slavery. »

Abraham Barberi, pastor to everyone from migrants to stray dogs

Photo: Adil Boukind Le Devoir “It’s all well and good to allow them to apply for asylum, but at the same time, [the authorities] are deporting thousands of migrants a day! And no one talks about that,” explains Abraham Barberi.

If Donald Trump is elected, the border risks closing completely, he laments. For his part, Joe Biden toughened his tone at the beginning of June by now imposing daily entry quotas at the border.

More and more people are finally deciding to make their life in Mexico, notes Pastor Barberi. But those who maintain unwavering faith in their American dream now prefer to wait far from the border towns. “With kidnappings, it’s too dangerous,” notes Pastor Barberi. “They go to the big cities, like Mexico City and Monterrey, where the cartels are never as powerful [hardcore] as they are here. »

From hip-hop church to refuge

In Matamoros, a few streets from the border, the pastor's church is also the kingdom of abandoned dogs. “I found this one attached to the big sun,” he said, vigorously petting a black female dog.

Freshly repainted, the now empty church is unlike any other, with its dormitories and graffiti walls. It’s hard to think that there were once thousands of migrants within its walls. “There were really many of us, but we were well organized. »

Abraham Barberi, pastor to everyone from migrants to stray dogs

Photo: Adil Boukind Le Devoir The city of Matamoros

In March 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott launched Operation Lone Star, a more than $10 billion initiative to militarize the border and block immigration. At the same time, authorities forced the dismantling of the camp under the international bridge in Matamoros. It was at this time that Abraham Barberi opened the doors of his church to migrants.

For a year and a half, the place was renamed Dulce Refugio Shelter survived thanks to donations and the help of volunteers who organized activities. “We had to close it due to lack of funds,” explained the pastor.

Spared by the cartels

This apostle of deathcore music — among the most “heavy” of metal — has also started bringing in groups for a few years music that young people loved. He sees that it's a way to entertain them while keeping them on the straight and narrow, far from the drug cartels. “Eventually we became a hip-hop church,” says the pastor with a laugh, who admits that it gave him a certain immunity.

“So far, it’s as if God had saved us from the cartels,” he adds, including an incredible anecdote.

Abraham Barberi, pastor to everyone from migrants to stray dogs

Photo: Adil Boukind Le Devoir Excursion to the city of Matamoros

At a concert by a rapper popular with the gangs, one of the cartel’s leaders asked to see the pastor in the parking lot behind him. The leader, who wore a cast on his leg after being shot, sat on the ground among about 20 heavily armed men. “He wanted to tell me that he and his teenagers loved the concerts and that I could call him if I needed anything,” he says, still looking surprised. The pastor offered to pray for his leg. “They all bowed down and I found myself praying with these guys.”

Abraham Barberi knows that if he and his church are left alone, it’s because he’s really helping the community. “When you do good, you earn peace.” » So be it, pastor.

This report was financed with the support of the Transat International Journalism Fund-Le Devoir.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116