I recently had the opportunity to visit the US/Mexico border with This is About Humanity, an organization working to raise awareness and funds to support families, refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers. The purpose of this particular trip was to bear witness, first-hand to the realities in Tijuana.
It’s tough, perhaps impossible, to keep politics out of the conversation but my goal here is to just relay what I learned and to illustrate what I saw.
Over the course of the day, we visited three immigrant shelters. The first, a shelter that sits directly across from the wall. (That’s right, there already is a wall.) At this shelter, a teenage girl came out and told us her story: She arrived there from Honduras and is waiting for asylum. She fled her home because she was being sexually abused by a local gang who had threatened to make her “their woman.” As she waits, she worries the gang will still find her.
The second shelter was home to families of mothers and young children who all smiled as we walked into their home. There were babies in diapers asleep in beds, toddlers grappling for the coloring books we unpacked from our bus, and mothers keeping order. We had brought fresh sheets and changed their beds (one family to every mattress). Up on the roof, an elderly, aproned woman stood slicing vegetables, presumably for that night’s meal — one I could only imagine would be full of community and love.
The director of the shelter stood and began to speak. She thanked us for our visit and then applauded the women and families who were living here. Those who had lost their spouses, children, siblings, finances — everything. And yet still have hope for a better life. She told us that the people who live here are hard-working people, they are not thieves and they are not killers.
It was then that my already cracking heart completely broke: they hear us. When we call them names, when we say they don’t belong, when we put up walls — they hear us. They hear us as we say: “You’re not welcome!”
The third shelter was for unaccompanied minors and the mood was instantly different. Where little kids had been running and playing, these teens stood with shoulders caved in and eyes cast downward. In the difference of just a few years, these children had hardened.
Four of them bravely stepped up and shared their stories with our group. We heard from a young boy who had left Honduras to escape the pressures of joining a local gang. He joined the caravan walking to Tijuana (please take a moment to look at a map to imagine what that might be like: Honduras to Tijuana… by foot). He told us that sometimes they slept, but mostly they walked. And if he ever found himself somewhat separated from the group the terror of the gang finding and capturing him would settle in. He spoke as his eyes rarely left the ground and a sincere, polite smile rarely left his face. He was a handsome boy, tenderly speaking to a group of strangers, sharing the story of the life he was born into.
A young woman was invited to speak next. She told us her age (16) and where she was from (Mexico City). Her grandparents were ready to sell her for $270, the equivalent of a chicken and some land. She took it upon herself to leave. Fast-forward three weeks and she is standing at this shelter and sharing her story with us.
What were you doing three weeks ago?
These are the stories of the people seeking asylum — stories of escaping domestic abuse, gang violence, and human trafficking. They didn’t win the lottery of being born into a life free of life-threatening worries… so us that did have an obligation to help those fleeing by not sending them back into danger.
This isn’t about politics, this is about humanity.
Jane Neiman is a writer, reader, and social strategist based in Los Angeles by way of Portland, Oregon and Denver, Colorado.