Pope Francis on Wednesday announced a new initiative encouraging a “culture of encounter” and efforts to warmly welcome immigrants and refugees. Sponsored by the global Catholic charities network Caritas Internationalis, the “Share the Journey” initiative is a two-year campaign dedicated to promoting both awareness and action on behalf of migrants and refugees, and helping them build connections with local communities.

“Don’t be afraid of sharing the journey. Don’t be afraid of sharing hope,” Pope Francis said during his weekly General Audience in St. Peter’s Square Sept. 27.

According to Caritas, the project was launched as a response to Pope Francis' frequent call for a “culture of encounter.” The project also aims to shed light on both the challenges and effects of migration at every stage of the journey in order to promote a “shift in thinking” on the issue. It will have the support of the ACT Alliance, which is a network of 145 Christian agencies and a variety of other religious congregations and civil society groups worldwide.

As part of the project, Caritas will launch various action-based initiatives in the communities in which they are present throughout the world. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, president of Caritas Internationalis, said he himself is an example of what young migrants can offer if given the opportunity.

“Whenever I hear news about the restrictions or even some moves that might affect children, minors (who are) migrants, I remember my grandfather, my maternal grandfather,” Cardinal Tagle told CNA. “He was born in China and his mother was widowed, and she in her desperation didn't know how to raise her child up into a decent life, so I suppose with a heavy heart, she decided to give away the child to an uncle, who was trying to do some trade in the Philippines.”

Cardinal Tagle explained that his grandfather never went back to China, but “thanks to people who received him, helped him, educated him, he was able to contribute to society.” In addition to his work, “he was able to contribute a priest, a bishop, in my person,” Cardinal Tagle said. “So watch out. The children that we might be rejecting might be giving valuable contributions to society.”

The cardinal’s comments were made in reference to rising tensions surrounding the issue of migration in the U.S., where controversy has arisen over President Donald Trump’s travel ban, proposed border wall, and recent announcement of the phasing out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which has benefited hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors.

In a press conference announcing the “Share the Journey” initiative, Cardinal Tagle said world leaders should remember that “we are all migrants. Nobody can claim to be a non-migrant, we are all passing in this world.” “Nobody is a permanent resident,” and no one can claim to “own the space they occupy,” he said, voicing his hope that there would be a universal “conversion of mind” on the issue.

Acknowledging the fear that some might feel at having foreigners enter their country, the cardinal said these fears often dissipate when people take the time to sit with immigrants and listen to their stories. “You will see that they are like you and me,” he said. Recalling how his grandfather came to the Philippines as a “poor boy from China,” he said, “who would have thought he would have a cardinal for a grandson?”

Present alongside Cardinal Tagle at the press conference was Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, along the U.S. border with Mexico, as well as the director of Caritas Ethiopia, Bekele Moges, and three young migrants from Africa. The migrants were Yancuba Darboe from Gambia, 21; Amadou Darboe from Senegal, 20; and Berete Ibrahima from Guinea, 23. Each of them left their homes due to poverty or a lack of opportunities and endured harsh conditions, including torture at the hands of traffickers, before eventually arriving in Italy and finding a fresh start.

In comments to CNA, Sr. Pimentel stressed the importance of getting to know migrants personally. Meeting and speaking with migrants face-to-face is “so important,” she said, “because that's what causes the transformation in us.”

Sr. Pimentel recalled the story of a woman who had come to visit one of the centers operated by Catholic Charities in Rio Grande Valley. The woman was “one hundred percent against” their work, believing that migrants shouldn't be allowed into the country. In response, the sister gave the woman a tour, and “took her to visit the families and the children and showed her the reality, and she met them personally.”

When the visit ended, the woman's whole perspective had changed, and she encouraged Sr. Pimentel to continue the work they were doing. The woman's husband even called the center later to express his shock at the change in his wife's attitude toward the issue. “So I believe if somebody can be transformed so fast because of the fact that they saw that mother, that infant, that child (and) we have it in our hearts to reach out to those we find suffering, we will help that person that needs our help,” she said.

Sr. Pimentel described current immigrant policy in the U.S. as “harsh.” “All the administrations, even the previous administration, were very harsh in deporting a lot of the immigrants and making those detention centers for family units,” she said, adding that in her view, “it's so unjust and so unfair for a family with children, with infants, to be placed in detention facilities.”

“Just like the previous administration, this administration is doing the same and probably harsher,” she said, stressing that placing families in such centers is “not humane,” because they are essentially being put “into prisons.” Whether you call it a detention center or even a “child care center,” Sr. Pimentel said, the reality is that “they really are prisons and it's very depressing, so children should not be in those conditions.”

Instead, the sister said there should be an alternative available where families are allowed to stay together with someone to help them in the immigration process while authorities “figure out whether they have a reason to be in the United States or not, but not keep them for months in facilities that are so depressing and inhumane.”

Sr. Pimentel voiced hope that the new Caritas campaign would help people to truly understand the plight of migrants and push for “laws in our countries that respect the dignity and human life of people.” The process of breaking the stigma surrounding incoming migrants starts with individuals and the process of encounter, she reiterated.

“Find that immigrant, just one, find out who they are,” she said. “Find out why they left their country and try to understand that, try to put yourself in their shoes and see if that helps you understand better why an immigrant has to go through what they do and what should be your responsibility and response to that reality.”