WE ALL SHARE ONE HEART :: But Some Have Forgotten
Last summer I needed to see for myself: are the stories of people seeking asylum in the United States of America accurate?
Is there anything I can do in this situation that’s more productive than cursing the darkness?
To get answers to these questions, I made contact with Sacred Heart Church of McAllen, Texas, which sponsors the Humanitarian Respite Center of the Rio Grande Valley.
Then I found a fellow compassionate action taker to come help care for the needs of asylum seekers, and we made our way to the US/Mexico border.
As we approached McAllen, the woman I was traveling with, Dawn Dexter, and I both wondered if we were wasting our time and travel because we hadn’t been hearing so much in the news about the detention centers and the Respite Center wasn’t great in their communication.
On arrival we discovered that we weren’t hearing much because the sexiness of the story had passed after the fury over Melania’s coat had subsided and communication from the Respite Center wasn’t great because they were overwhelmed by the flood of humanity in truly desperate need.
I am incredibly grateful that I followed the line of questioning that I did.
The first question has a grave answer.
I saw that not only are the stories of people literally fleeing their homes with the clothes on their backs to save their own lives and the lives of their children true, but the stories of cruelty masquerading as national security that they face when they get to the US border are also accurate.
We weren’t allowed access to the ICE detention centers, of course, but we did witness their effect on about 1,000 people in the week we were there.
Men, women, and children are kept in ICE detention centers with no sense of dignity, somebody’s eyes are always on them. They stay in the clothes they’ve been wearing through the whole journey, which can take months on foot or which can be shorter but more terrifying if they hop the train known as “The Beast”.
ICE takes everyone’s belts and shoelaces, including toddlers, under the pretext of preventing suicide, and does not return them when they leave.
The only “clothing item” added is a tracking device, the same as those given to criminals under house arrest.
The debasing treatment is compounded by the fact that the people in this already horrible situation are given no access to hygiene care: no toothbrushes, no showers, not even a hairbrush.
This is all the tip of a very big, slow to melt iceberg, I’m truly sad to say.
The second question, I can say with happiness, also has an answer.
Although in the short term, we will not stop the actions of ICE and a paranoid system, we do have the power to give care to people coming from and to desperate situations.
I had a privileged job at the Humanitarian Respite Center of the RGV. I took care of the showers. I washed and folded sometimes 300 towels a day, depending on the number of people passing through. I made sure that the men, women, and children who hadn’t had access to personal care for a much longer time than any of us will probably ever experience had a clean shower stall, soap/shampoo, and a toothbrush and toothpaste.
When I got there, the only thing the women and girls had to get the knots laid by brutal travel and detention out of their long, lush, THICK hair were barber shop combs.
With the kindness of a number of friends on facebook, I bought boxes of spray in conditioner and hefty brushes and combs for the sake of a little ease for the women and girls.
When I say that my 10 hours a day in what we affectionately called “The Sauna” were privileged, I do not exaggerate. I got to see the relief on hundreds of faces after the first feeling of clean in too long a time, the effect of the first 5 minutes of privacy in maybe a longer time.
The only down side of my job was when we ran out of donated clothes and I had to say no to people after they had just had the exhilaration of having felt the first soap and hot water on their bodies in such a long time.
When I arrived, I thought it was terrible that the center was just throwing away people’s clothes when they showered (when we had clothes to offer), so I went commando and snuck some clothes in the laundry since I was the Sauna Commander.
I very soon learned that the reason they throw the clothes away is that there is no way to get the stench of months of travel, despair, and fear out of a pair of jeans.
It was truly heartbreaking to see the disappointment on the faces of people when they realized they were going to have to put on the same filthy clothes they thought they were free of.
A couple of times, after my shift at the Respite Center, I went late night to the Greyhound station where groups of tireless, compassionate people help asylum seekers figure out the next leg of their journey. The Angry Tias Y Abuelas and Woodson Martin make sure that these Spanish speaking people in a refugee situation (sometimes single people, sometimes whole families) know their written-in-English itineraries to cities with geography foreign to them, can call the family member or friend waiting for them in another US city, can also call their families in the countries they fled to let them know they’re alive, and (with donations from a number of generous souls) make sure the weary travelers have a few bucks in their pockets to feed their family on the days long journey ahead of them.
On one of my visits to the station, I had a lovely conversation in my broken Spanish with two gentlemen who will look like “bad hombres” to many US citizens.
In the course of our talk, one of these guys pointed at his ankle tracker and said, “Who is going to hire me???” I stopped. “I can’t lie. In my country there are many pendejos. But there are also many Buena Gente who care about what happens to you. We all share one heart, but some people have forgotten. I hope that you always find the Buena Gente.”
He kissed his thumb, touched it to his heart, and lifted it to the sky, because he remembers, too.
I know that there are scores of people who will go uncared for in this situation across a huge border. I also know that there are scores of people who WILL be cared for as those of us who remember our shared heart stand up and show loving action in the face of fear.
As we stand up, more will know that they, too, can stand and give support to organizations like the Humanitarian Respite Center and the Angry Tias Y Abuelas and to individuals like Woodson Martin, Sergio Cordova, and Brendon Tucker (#TeamBrownsville) as they give much needed care to families and individuals seeking asylum from violence, seeking safety for themselves and their children.
And every time we do help another, maybe that’s the memory they will hold onto rather than the one where somebody was trying to steal their dignity.
Thank you for remembering.
HOW CAN I HELP?
DONATE LOCALLY THROUGH JANUARY 15TH, 2019
Drop Off Locations ::
Needed Items ::
There is always a need for clothing of every size and for all ages and genders. The best things are clothes that are easy to move and work in and to be on a bus for a long time in. The center WILL NOT take any women's sleeveless or sheer tops, or dresses or skirts, no matter how beautiful.
Underwear, for all shapes, sizes, and ages.
Socks and shoes.
Winter coats and accessories (almost everyone is coming from equatorial climates and going to northern cities).
Belts for women and men
Hygiene products : soaps, shampoos, toothbrushes and paste, spray on conditioner, women's menstrual products, hair ties.
Baby clothes and diapers and other baby things.