What we saw at the border

01/16/2019

Distressed by the talk of the border wall and images of separated families, my husband Noah and I, along with Jennie Pfeiffer of Bolinas, decided to meet up with Border Angels. Founded in 1986 by Enrique Morones and based in San Diego, the group protects scores of migrants in San Diego and Tijuana with a ministry driven by Enrique’s deep Catholic faith. They provide assistance to day laborers and migrants living in the canyons of San Diego and, across the border in Tijuana, fund 10 of the 24 shelters in operation. They also make regular “extreme” water drops in the desert.

We began by sending emails to our friends in San Francisco and Marin to request hygiene supplies, underwear and socks that are needed by these migrants. People gave generously, and helped spread the word. Vickisa Feinberg and Jennie activated their circles around Bolinas, and word got to Tess Elliott, this newspaper’s editor. A small blurb in the paper got out just in time to galvanize the community. Mainstreet Moms got on board, as did Socorro Romo from West Marin Community Services. By the time we packed our cars, there was hardly room for us. Cash donations came to nearly $1,000. 

On a Saturday morning, we joined a caravan of eight cars to deliver needed supplies to two shelters in Tijuana. Before our departure, news stations filmed the gathering, and Noah and I got to play some Mexican tunes for the crowd, me on fiddle and he on mandolin. On the rural outskirts of Tijuana, we drove down a dirt road and came upon a large concrete church dubbed “Little Haiti.” We were warmly greeted into this peaceful oasis, which houses about 50 asylum-seeking families. The interior of the building was lined with tents, each housing a family. The church has two kitchens, one for Central Americans and one for Haitians, that prepare distinct foods for the very different palates. There were toilets and showers and the Mexican woman who ran the center organized a distribution of the goods that was orderly and courteous. We couldn’t have been more impressed. Children spoke Spanish (for some, their third language), and people related to one another with kindness. The kids were snacking on beautiful fresh fruit and the center, though humble, was immaculate.

We loaded back into our cars and drove toward Matamoros, on the opposite end of town, to “El Barretal,” an outdoor concert venue-turned-temporary shelter run by the Mexican Navy. Here were housed many of the asylum seekers who formerly waited in a soccer stadium next to the border. The Navy did not allow us inside, so we parked our cars outside and, immediately, a disorganized line of people gathered. We distributed what we had, engaged in conversations and learned a bit about the situation. The Navy provided an open space inside, tents, minimal facilities and two meals a day while migrants waited for their hearings. Some had clear ideas as to where they were headed; others seemed less sure. No one really knew when they’d be leaving Tijuana, but they knew they would be moving on Jan. 15 to a new location. The scene was quite chaotic and disturbing, and we left in the late afternoon to make our way back across the border, which took about three hours.

The next day we volunteered as translators at the intake center in Imperial Beach. Funded by Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services, the center is staffed with nurses, doctors, social workers and many volunteers. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement drops off asylum seekers in nearby neighborhoods, volunteers somehow spot them and bring them here, where they are greeted with a warm drink and a snack, and are screened outside for lice, scabies and other infectious diseases like TB. Once screened, they come inside and register. Arrangements begin for their journeys via bus or plane to their destinations, and they can phone family members—a big deal, as most do not have a cell phone. They stay in the center for 48 hours, receive showers, meals, a cot, and one clean set of clothes upon arrival and another on departure. The center is well-staffed and efficient. There is a children’s room with toys and books, an organized office and tents full of donated and sorted clothing.

The situation we saw is complex, and calls for people to act in good will. The scenes we saw echoed in our own DNA, as children of Holocaust refugees who found safe harbor in Latin America. We are compelled to step up, witness and offer what help we can. May our great nation rise to this challenge and truly be a beacon of hope and welcome to those who seek refuge.

 

Dinah Stroe is a retired school teacher who lives in Inverness and San Francisco. Her husband, Noah, is a semi-retired small animal veterinarian who went to veterinary school in Mexico City. They will speak about their recent journey on Jan. 21, during the Mainstreet Moms meeting from 3 to 5 p.m. at St. Columba’s Church, in Inverness Monday.