Sister Karina Farias Torres has been serving migrant workers since her arrival in Canada in 2013, helping them live, work, and adapt to a new culture. Then came 2020, the year of the pandemic. 

The Teresian Carmelite’s work with the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s ministry to Migrant Farm Workers became especially vital when COVID-19 hit, helping thousands of seasonal farm workers from Mexico and Guatemala in the Lower Mainland. 

The migrant workers became particularly vulnerable, some dying in Canada. In a June letter to the prime minster, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, stated migrants are “very often taken advantage of” during the pandemic, living in “cramped quarters that preclude safe physical distancing,” working in unsafe conditions, and without the same rights afforded to Canadian citizens or permanent residents. 

On Sept. 15, Sister Torres was honoured by Mexican consul general Berenice Diaz Ceballos, who presented Sister Torres with the Ohtli award, the highest honour given to Mexicans living abroad, in recognition of her “most extraordinary example of humanitarian work in support of migrants.”

Speaking in Spanish, Ceballos said Sister Torres “has been a fundamental vehicle for our compatriots to find new horizons and facilitate their incorporation into a new culture and has made a great difference for many of the new members of our Mexican community.”

That became especially true during the pandemic, Ceballos said. Sister Torres “has self-imposed a generous program of visits to farms and hospitals. Likewise, we all know of her kind availability to listen to those who are suffering from depression, isolation, and migrants who suffer from mental health problems.”

At the award ceremony, Ceballos said Sister Torres’ “sensitive and altruistic work has been vital in 2020, the year of the great COVID-19 pandemic.”

She added one of the sister’s greatest qualities is her humility.

“It was difficult for us to get some biographical information about her because she is neither interested in nor seeking recognition. She is content to open her heart and her time to take a worker to the hospital or the airport at any time, to help another during mandatory quarantine. Furthermore, migrant workers know that they can share their greatest concerns and fears with her.”

Ceballos thanked Sister Torres on behalf of the Government of Mexico and of Mexicans living in Vancouver.

The Ohtli award is presented by the Institute of Mexicans Abroad to people who dedicate their time or professional activities to making it easier for Mexican men and women to travel and to promoting their well-being. Sister Torres was nominated in the category of “social responsibility.”

She felt the Ohtli award was a recognition of about 100 volunteers and many priests from six parishes in the Archdiocese of Vancouver who together work for the needs and best interests of local migrant workers.

“It’s so good they recognize our job and I received [the award] in the name of all people who are working in this ministry,” she told The B.C. Catholic. 

“I am very happy because this work is not only for myself, it is for the whole Church.”

During the pandemic she said the archdiocese’s migrant ministry strives to continue to provide spiritual, emotional, and other support for vulnerable workers in physically-distant, acceptable ways.

“We deliver meals and we pray for them. They receive us at the entrance of the farm and some of them are behind doors,” she said. “We provide also [access to] medical appointments, we help with translation, with papers, with documents.”

She said she’s aware of one farm worker who is currently in intensive care and on a ventilator. She tried to visit this person in the hospital, but staff wouldn’t let her in.

“We can pray for him only.”

Another farm worker recently sought her out for comfort and guidance after his mother had passed away (not due to COVID). He was distressed trying to decide whether to fly home for the funeral or continue to work on the farm to help his family pay for medical bills that had accumulated.

Lay Scalabrinian Ana Maravilla (left) with Sister Torres, lay Scalabrinian Anita Morales, and Father Richard Zanotti, pastor of of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish