Armando Borja, KBI Board Member
By: Roxane Ramos
Armando spends a lot of time on the road. As national director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, based in Washington, D.C., a big part of his job is looking for new projects to expand the organization’s service, accompaniment and advocacy for the displaced, undocumented and vulnerable among us. “JRS goes where the need is greatest, and helps to create the initial momentum to get things started,” says Armando. Back in 2008, the leadership of JRS/USA saw an opportunity to serve along the U.S.-Mexico border, and was interested in starting a project there. So that’s where Armando went.
With a JRS chaplaincy program already established in Florence, AZ to support migrants of all faiths held in the detention facility there, the next task was determining how to expand that accompaniment, and support the migrants throughout the deportation process. JRS/USA conducted a needs assessment with the California Province of the Society of Jesus, and opted to help launch the Kino Border Initiative in Ambos Nogales. Almost six years later, the KBI has served tens of thousands of migrants and educated thousands of visitors, workshop participants and policy makers about the reality of the border.
During those first months, Armando’s steady commitment and hands-on approach involved making frequent trips to Nogales, even at one point, renting a truck and filling it with desks, beds, and equipment to furnish the KBI office and shelter in Nogales, Sonora. He helped set up a financial system for the KBI, establish protocols for the shelter and volunteer program, and create a board of directors. That year, Armando spent Christmas with the migrants and the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist who run the comedor and shelter. And as a KBI board member from the beginning, he continues to work on behalf of the KBI.
Armando’s interest in social justice and human rights started early. As a boy of six in Ecuador, he remembers peeking out the window as the police arrested his neighbors—students involved in community organizing—and dumped their books and belongings in the street. At the time, the country was in the throes of a military dictatorship, and the atmosphere of fear and tension was palpable.
The incident left a deep impression, that initial seed of conviction and future activism that subsequent experiences have only reinforced. Like so many children affected by immigration, Armando endured 14 years of family separation when his father migrated to New York. And as an adult working for one of the largest community education programs in upper Manhattan, Armando encountered hundreds of Dominican immigrants whose lives were completely reconfigured and sometimes overrun by immigration and relocation issues. Those five years “sealed the deal,” so to speak, and Armando counts Fr. René Dousdebes, S.J., founder and director of the program, among his mentors. From Fr. René and the immigrant community they served, he learned how accompaniment provides invaluable assistance to people going through destabilizing challenges or major life transitions—and importantly, how it is our responsibility as fellow humans to offer that supportive hand.
It’s a lesson Armando has lived by throughout his career. Since the mid-80s, when he first moved to the U.S., Armando has worked as a program officer for the United Nations, an emergency program coordinator with Catholic Relief Services in Honduras, a community planner in Washington, D.C., a high school teacher in D.C.’s inner city, and finally as the director of management and programs for JRS/USA, before becoming national director. Along the way, Armando has been both an educator and a student. An alumnus of Fordham University, he acquired master’s degrees in Political Management from George Washington University and in International Planning from the University of Virginia, and also completed his coursework toward a PhD in Environmental Design and Planning with a concentration in Organizational Development from Virginia Tech.
Even with its many rewards, Armando’s work can be formidable. “My biggest challenge is to make people in the United States care about the plight of refugees around the world,” he admits, particularly when a crisis is not front-page news. And there are some tradeoffs, such as the frequent travel that takes him away from his family—wife Alexandra Medina, program director for evaluation and assessment for the National Science Foundation, and their children, son Felipe, 17 who wants to be an engineer like his mom, and daughter Camile, 15, who plans to go into psychology. Still, one of their favorite joint activities is to get right back on a plane and travel together.
With so many worthy projects initiated and sponsored by JRS/USA throughout the U.S. and internationally, Armando considers the Kino Border Initiative one of the most noteworthy and gratifying. “The KBI’s bi-national programs for direct service, education and advocacy have become an important catalyst in the discussion of U.S.-Mexico border issues,” he explains. On a personal note, he adds, “It is a humbling experience to bear witness to an initiative that over the years has offered consolation for so many.”