At first, I was thrown by the big smiles on the faces of volunteers welcoming people arriving from the detention center. I was doing my best to choke back tears. How could they be so cheery?
Then I realized that we were the first friendly faces these wearily travelers had seen in a very long time. We had a job to do: reassure them that they were safe, they could relax, and everything would be ok.
I put on my best smile and started to greet newcomers.
ME: “Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos. ¡Has llegado! Estás seguro ahora.” (Welcome to the United States. You made it! You’re safe now.)
A wave of relief washed across their faces– and we even got the occasional teary embrace.
YOUNG MOM WITH A BABY: “¡POR FIN!” (At last!)
I began to get the hang of it. Soon I was sneaking the kids candy when the supervisors weren’t looking (but always with parental permission).
I can’t imagine what the past few days had held for these kids but I’m sure they had earned a Reeces Peanut Butter Cup. The little ones squealed in delight. Their parents smiled affectionately.
Back at the respite center our job was to help bathe, clothe, feed, and supply people before they turned around and boarded a bus to the city where their sponsor lived.
We sorted a lot of clothing. We made a lot of sandwiches. We handed out a lot of diapers, formula, and women’s hygiene products.
People like Meagan made it work. She’s a local volunteer and the defacto manager because she’s the best (and toughest) cat-herder here. Today I learned that you should always do exactly what Meagan says.
Temperatures plummeted today and these kids weren’t equipped for the cold. Many had colds and some even had fevers. But Meagan isn’t interested in solutions that don’t scale.
So as I ran out and buy some knit gloves and hats Meagan commanded: “If you can’t buy 600 pairs to get us through the day, focus elsewhere– we need to help *everyone* not just some!”
Challenge accepted! After some bargaining at the .99 cent store I returned with enough knit hats and gloves to get us through at least two days. Meagan pretended to be irritated but I’m pretty sure I caught her smiling.
Back at the bus station, we helped people understand how to read bus tickets, routes, and transfers. Since U.S. bus lines don’t print tickets in Spanish (!), we wrote the itineraries on manila envelopes that also had a sign that asked for help in English.
We also stressed the importance of connecting with a lawyer, and distributed contact info for pro bono resources in their area.
Before they said goodbye, we’d ask: “Lleva effectivo?” (“Are you carrying cash?”) The answer was usually “no.” In one case a pregnant woman with two little ones was bound for New York on a bus without a cent.
But many were reluctant accept an outright gift. So I’d agree to trade, knowing that the bills they were offering amounted to pennies and after what they’d been through, you could not put a price on their pride.
Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos.
UPDATE: We’ve almost met our fundraising goal! You can help support asylum-seekers and immigrant families here: bit.ly/2AKSbYF 🙏🏽