Since January 2018, Maria Elena Macario has been confined to a makeshift apartment on the second floor of the First Parish Church in order to avoid deportation. “I didn’t come here because I wanted to, I came here out of necessity,” she said.
Maria, who would frequently attend church services and youth group sessions, has been adapting to the extremely limited interaction she’s been forced to have with parishioners and volunteers due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She’s been passing time by crocheting, sewing, gardening — and learning.
“I just wanted to make the most of my time here and really learn as much as I could,” Maria said. “I have a table that’s right by the window, so that’s where I do all my studies.” (Quotes attributed to Maria were translated by sanctuary volunteer Sylvia Cowan.)
She said this same window has been her only “connection with the world” for more than three years.
But on Tuesday, that all changed.
On March 9, Maria, accompanied by her lawyer, her son, and First Parish minister Rev. John Gibbons made a long-awaited trip to the Burlington office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where Maria was granted a one-year stay of deportation.
Judi Curcio, co-chair of the church’s Sanctuary Committee, said this means Maria faces “no restrictions,” and can finally work toward proving her case in court and becoming a citizen. “She was so emotional that she got sick afterward. It was such a big deal,” said Sylvia Cowan, a member of the Sanctuary Committee and close friend of Maria’s.
It’s still uncertain when Maria will leave the church, and although she’s happy to finally be free, she is “very sad about having to leave her family at the church,” said Cowan, who was also translating for Maria.
“I’m very emotional with all of the gratitude [I have] for everybody who has helped me at the church, and the love that I feel for people here,” said Maria. “I thank God every day that I am going to be free.”
Maria said she’s most looking forward to spending time with her sons and cooking them some of their favorite meals. She’s also looking forward to working and providing for her family, so “everyone can live well and can live together,” Cowan said.
“The reason I came into sanctuary in the beginning was that I wanted to be with my family and not be deported so that I couldn’t see them,” Maria said. “What I want now is to make the most of the time I have being with my family.”
Despite having a stay of deportation, Maria still cannot see her husband and eldest son, who were deported a while back.
“I feel like I’m in the middle of a wall,” Maria said. “On the one hand, my husband is very far away, and on the other hand, my children are here. How do you choose between your husband and your children?”
She continued, “My children really pull at my heart, so I had to choose to be near my children.”
While holding back tears, Maria said the toughest part about being in sanctuary has been the separation from her family and the effect it has had on her sons. “I was not there to be with them,” she said. “The pieces of my heart were taken away when I had separation from my family.”
Although moving to the United States caused Maria so much pain, she said she “love[s] this country” and is “grateful” she was able to come here. “Liberty is a freedom, it is marvelous,” she said.
“The people who don’t know liberty, they take advantage of it. They enjoy it all the time, but they really don’t know what it means not to be able to be with their children, with their family,” Maria said.
“When I looked out that window, I had been able to see mothers with their children, walking and being together,” she said. “They’re able to be together.”
In May 1994, Maria made the “hard decision” to migrate from Central America to the United States because she “never felt safe” in her country and wanted a better life for her children. She has resided in Massachusetts ever since, where she has had three sons, who are all citizens. All together, Maria is the mother of six children and grandmother of 10.
She said her time in isolation made it clear that family “is a gift” from God. “If you don’t have family and you’re all alone, then you don’t feel that gift from God,” she said.
“I’ve suffered a lot of pain and I have anger that I had to go through this when I came here just to work,” Maria said. “I don’t know why it’s happened this way, because I haven’t done anything to harm anyone.”
“Maria is one of the most resilient people I’ve ever met,” Curcio said. “No matter what was going on, she kept her belief and her faith — and she trusted us to help.”
Cowan said prior to entering sanctuary, Maria was working two jobs and doing all she could to support her family. She never had time to study or learn English because she was “working so hard to make a living,” Cowan added.
“While I had the time to be here, I really took advantage of all the opportunities that were available to me,” Maria said. Over the course of three years, she has had six different English teachers and is tutored multiple times a week.
“It’s the teachers. The teachers have been wonderful,” Maria said. She explained how one teacher gives her a story written in Spanish, then an English translation of the same writing. This taught her to write, read, and speak English to an extent.
Phyllis Neufeld, one of Maria’s English teachers, said Maria “delights in learning things that are new—and she loves stories.”
Cowan agreed. “[Maria’s teachers] have a lot of stories to tell, and she loves the stories that they tell.”
Maria said she’s “very, very grateful” for her teachers because they’ve had so much patience with her. “When I came into this country and into this church, I didn’t speak much English at all,” Maria said. “Now, I’m not going to leave here not being able to speak [English].”
But Maria isn’t the only one who’s been able to learn while in sanctuary. She has also taught the volunteers a thing or two. “We have learned at least as much as Maria,” Cowan said.
“I liked being able to share my knowledge with other people,” Maria said. “I cook a lot, so I taught people to make guacamole, tortillas, and tamales. [One night], I made a whole dinner for everyone here, which really gave me such pleasure.
“Being in the church was not like being in jail, because I could learn and do so many things,” she added.
Following her arrival at First Parish, Maria made a garden in the back of the church with the help of some volunteers. Her garden has contained fruits and vegetables ranging from watermelon to tomatoes and peppers.
“I was very grateful to everybody who did all the different things they did,” Maria said. “There were over 400 volunteers … and I was never alone here. They always came to be with me so I wouldn’t be alone in the church—of course, until the pandemic.”
Since volunteers have been forced to stay out of the church due to Covid, Maria said she has “missed them a lot,” and was never concerned for her safety being alone—but more so theirs.
“I miss not seeing people, I miss not being able to get hugs,” she said. “But I was worried for [the volunteers] because I wanted them to be safe … and I understood they needed to be safe.”
Throughout her three-year tenure at the church, Maria said she has always felt “very safe” and credits the volunteers for allowing her this comfortability. “I’m very grateful to all of the people who’ve helped me and are continuing to help me,” she said. “I want to bless them all because they’ve helped me so much, in so many ways.
“Faith in God” and the many volunteers who dedicated their time to Maria’s cause kept her optimistic during her time in sanctuary. “I landed with a lot of really good, loving people and they’ve helped me a lot,” Maria said.
She joked that tomorrow she’s walking to the beach.
“I would like to return to something like a normal life, but I don’t know what that will be,” she said. “I have freedom now, but everything is not resolved yet. I really want to get everything resolved so I can be totally free.”