Notes from a recent LWCF service trip to volunteer in a shelter on the border
by Sue Abrams, LWCF Board Member

El Paso is the brownest colored landscape I’ve ever seen. The ground is brown, the buildings are brown, everything is low to the ground and, in the background the mountains loom.huge and barren…and brown. It’s not exactly a welcoming landscape. 

We came directly to the shelter from the airport, a little behind the bus that shuttles the folks from the border, which meant that the shelter was bursting with people. There is a big main room that is packed tightly with green army cots, only inches between each one. This latest bus load was almost entirely families with children, as is generally the case. The kids ranged in age from several months to 11 or 12 years old. I was amazed at the number of smiles I got-after traveling for who knows how long under conditions that I can only imagine, and the future a complete unknown, they can still smile. 

Most of the time the stay at the shelter is one night, maybe two. Sometimes there is some kind of glitch that keeps them there for more days. A bus ticket that is for a Time when there is nobody to drive them there will trigger the need for yet another ticket, which triggers calls to the sponsors (family, friends or a volunteer) and a lot of phone calls to make the new arrangements. This is all done by volunteers who speak Spanish. Obviously that’s not me! 

Several of the kids who have been at the shelter for a few days, were our newest best friends. They hung around us and helped out in the clothing room, as did their moms.  One of the girls, an 11 year old from Honduras, speaks beautiful English and she actually did become my newest best friend! I was in the clothing room, manning the line to collect towels, toothbrushes, combs etc. before they took showers, but people came with a hundred questions and I can’t speak Spanish-thank heavens for Genesis! She translated on both sides and helped keep me from failing at my job! The clothing room is filled with clothes of every size (except the ones you are looking for of course) and the families are able to choose new clothes for themselves and the kids. 

How to explain what I am seeing, and the places my mind goes when wondering what these people have gone through in order to get here. Some things that sound random but are images of the situation…the sneakers people wore-always with the tongues flopped out…huh? Well, it seems that the border patrol people take their shoelaces. Why, you ask-so did I. The party line is so they don’t use them to commit suicide. The reality is probably that, without shoe laces they can’t run. We brought hundreds of pairs of shoe laces in every color…who would think that choosing the color of your shoelaces would bring such joy!

So many parents arrive with their kids but no spouse. And a lot of them are men… A man holding the hand of a toddler, the man who arrived with his kids-in his hand he had the paper bracelets that they were issued as they were processed at the border. They look a little like the bracelets you get in the hospital but thats where the similarities end. They are a number and that is what they have become. Our job is to help them reclaim a little of their humanity.

The children-the little ones who have already seen more than anyone should, are so quiet, so many of them passive witnesses to what is going on around them. They watch but they don’t engage and so many of them don’t speak. But there are the others who peek around the corner at you and timidly smile back with beautiful eyes and you wonder what is next for them. One of the volunteers shared the statistic-98% of them will probably be deported! 

Thank goodness for Google translate! It’s not perfect but it sure beats hand signals and making faces! 

Given my limited (okay, zero except for a few words) Spanish, I’ve been doing lots of driving to the bus and airport. And those rides are very quiet! Hard to use Google translate when you’re driving. The guests at the shelter get their transportation through their family or whoever is sponsoring them. The lucky ones get airline tickets but many are on buses for days-one guest was going to Framingham (that was about the farthest destination I’ve seen.) 

Sitting in the bus station you can look around and see lots of white trash bags. That’s their luggage, along with a big yellow plastic bag filled with snacks and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The longer the trip the more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we pack. The first time I drove to the bus I forgot to put the sandwiches in when we left. A trip to the cafeteria at the bus station and, $35 later, they had tuna, ham and cheese and yogurt for their trips. A lot better than peanut butter and jelly but the last time I will forget to put the sandwiches in! We put in a book and a stuffed animal for each of the kids too-thanks to all the donations we got. The bus station is kind of an equalizer…no fancy luggage, expensive clothes…mostly others just like them. And a lot of brand new shoelaces. 

Not so at the airport. There most of these folks are in a place that they have never seen or even thought of. Several asked us if they could speak to the pilot so he could help them with their travel. I took a dad and his teenage son and the dad had clearly never been on an escalator. He held on for dear life with both hands and when it came to the end he took a giant step off with each foot. Going through security we have to stand in a separate line because the TSA Supervisor has to take care of their paperwork. So that leaves us at their mercy, standing around waiting for them to come over. Explaining security to the guests is a challenge, to say nothing of trying to get them to understand the gates and lining up to get on the plane. Watching them go through the security line is heartbreaking. All these other travelers put their suitcases, briefcases, computer bags in the bins. Our guests put a white trash bag and their yellow food bags in the bins. 

There’s a certain relief for them that their journey is almost over…at least for the moment. You try not to think of what might be next. 

I know people are going to ask me to describe my experience and I have been trying to think of how to do that. I’m still not sure I have the language to do it…the response is so visceral and it’s hard to put that into words. 

Each day the bus arrives from the border and disgorges 50-60-70 people. The line waiting to be given their next set of instructions is a collection of people in various stages of exhaustion, sickness and even hope.  The volunteers take all their information and arrange for their transportation to wherever they are going.  That requires calling the person on their paperwork from the border. It’s a day long process (sometimes multi-day) that ends with taking them to the bus station or airport. The slumped shoulders they arrive with disappear when one of the volunteers talk to them in Spanish…finally someone who can communicate with them and is actually trying to help them. Their days are spent lying around on their cots, playing soccer, helping with everything around the shelter (you never have to ask-they look for what needs to get done and step up to do it)  and trying to get medicine for coughs, upset stomachs, headaches and any number of various complaints. Babies and little kids all seem to have runny noses and coughs.  Some are much sicker-at least two kids went to the hospital while we were there. All of this organization depends on volunteers.

I can get to the bus station without my GPS now-not exactly a great accomplishment but it proves how many time I did it.  The road to the bus runs right along the border fence-metal slats that run for miles and miles of fencing and lights. I had to balance paying attention to the road and staring at the fence and wondering what was going on on the other side. You can see through the slats so I was always looking to see if there were any people walking. 

One day a local priest brought several immigrants to our shelter-they had come across the border and not gone to find a border agent. That’s unusual…the fence is not the actual border so there is a great deal of the US land on the Mexican side…people often walk close to the fence so they are standing on US soil, and they hold up their hands as soon as they see an agent and say “asylum.” That gets them arrested and starts the process of potentially getting papers to come into the US. These folks managed to get across the border somehow and were walking on the road and were picked up by a driver and brought to a church. That’s how they found their way to the shelter but the folks in charge of the shelter were stumped on what they could do. Having immigrants without any paperwork put them into a potentially dangerous position. They were eventually brought to the office connected with this shelter (there are several sites run by Annunciation House). 

When we got to the airport we had a very long wait for our flight (it was cancelled so we are on standby) so we sat on the other side of security and when people came through (easy to spot them…no luggage and looking confused, holding their precious paperwork) we asked them to show us their boarding passes and we helped them to their gates and explained the boarding process, how to transfer planes and any other questions they had. Google translate at work! Every single person I helped thanked me over and over and gave me a hug. 

Four days here was definitely not enough. I’d like to come back….anyone want to come with me? 

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