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cintas a week spent working at an asylum-seeker shelter 33 miles north of the US-México border

May-June 2019, Deming, NM

begin with some background (the personal and the bigger picture)

Let's first clarify who these asylum-seekers are.

These humans who my team and I have been interacting with over these past few days are asylum-seekers mostly from Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They have already been processed by immigration and are now waiting to have their asylum cases heard. These are humans who were processed in El Paso, TX by the El Paso Sector of Border Patrol whose plan was to drop off these humans, now labeled "asylum-seekers," at the McDonald's in Deming, NM with no further assistance.

Deming, NM is a smaller town of just under 15,000 people located about 33 miles north of the US-México Border. It is the town where my team is currently serving until mid-July.

Enter Deming City Officials: on Saturday afternoon, after hearing the news that hundreds of humans were to be dropped on in their town, Deming City Officials decided that having these humans (mostly family units) on the streets with nowhere to go was in no ones' best interest, thus, they came together as a community to find some shelter and get somewhat of a system going in order to get these humans to sponsors (places to stay while they wait for their asylum cases to be heard).

When news spread that these humans were coming in from El Paso, the concentration of Deming City Officials shifted towards figuring out how to accommodate these humans who were going to be dropped off in the middle of their town.

And this is where my team enters the scene.

My team has been in Deming since the beginning of April, working with a local charter high school and doing other service projects with the City of Deming and other local towns. Our work was scattered and inconsistent, but we were making it work.

So, to match the focus of our sponsoring town, the team shifted its focus too. On Monday, May 13th, our sponsor at the local charter high school told us to check out the pop-up refugee shelter to see how we could help there. Since then, we, have been assisting the City of Deming in their efforts to feed, clothe, and provide shelter for these humans at the Southwestern New Mexico State Fairgrounds while other volunteers from local organizations and the surrounding community work to find transportation to the sponsors for these humans seeking asylum.

the "p" word

I am technically an employee of the federal government as a member of AmeriCorps NCCC, a branch of the larger Corporation for National Community Service (CNCS). I get a small stipend every 2 weeks that goes into my bank account labeled "FED SAL".

Every year, the budget of CNCS is decided by those in Congress. The funding for CNCS was actually cut by the president in his budget proposal at the beginning of this year. However, as of now, the House has added our program back into the budget for the upcoming fiscal year (they actually gave it more funding than this past fiscal year), and they (my supervisors) are pretty sure it'll be safe going through the Senate.

My current "salary" was decided upon by politicians last year, and the fate of a program that has taught more than words can describe rests in the hands of politicians as we speak.

Having been a federal employee now and for the past 8 months, I have been and am currently living a political life whether I choose to recognize that or not.

As you've probably gathered from the above explanation about the migrant refugees in my current community, it just happened to get a little more political.

Right here, I am writing what I have experienced, nothing intended to lean left or right; simply a reflection on what I have seen, who I have met, and how I have processed it.

a little rusty

As the team walked into the Fairgrounds on Monday, we offered our assistance and were immediately asked if there were any Spanish speakers. Tentatively, I raised my hand.

After that, I felt like I had been drafted and I didn't even know I was in the draft to begin with. Before I really even knew what was going on, I was introduced to a nurse who called himself "Pancho." He handed me a clipboard with questions on it and a space to take vital signs.

He was a nurse but he didn't know Spanish, I wasn't a nurse but I knew Spanish; an odd duo, but we were going to make it work. We had to.

I knew how to ask the questions, but I was so unprepared and I was a year or so removed from having regular Spanish conversations, a needed practice to maintain a sense of ease when using any language. I kept doubting my abilities and the knowledge I knew I had hiding under the rust. Forming questions in Spanish has always been a rough spot for me let alone more intense medical questions intended to gauge the physical and mental health of others humans.

But I had Pancho. He was my rock.

I was only a few questions in and was already stumbling over my vocabulary and verb conjugations and getting more and more flustered with each error.

He looked at me and said:

"Look at me and take a deep breath. You're doing great."

I did exactly that. I breathed. It helped.

It also helped that the father and son from Guatemala who I was asking questions to were very patient as I sputtered out garbled translations of every medical question on that sheet.

While it wasn't a needed question for the father and son, I did remember that "estás embarasada?" means "are you pregnant?" as I once said "estoy embarasada" when I was in Costa Rica because I thought it meant "I'm embarrassed"...a common gringa mistake that I vowed to never make again.

Soon, an EMT from the Deming Fire Department (who's native language was Spanish) came and took over the translations as I wrote down the answers. This helped a lot because hearing the way she asked the questions helped me shake off some of the rust in my mind, later giving me more confidence in what I was saying and asking.

eyes open

The day continued. I continued speaking and writing, writing and speaking, my Spanish getting better and better with every question asked.

The days passed, observations and realizations came to me throughout the time spent at the Fairgrounds. I gathered more and more knowledge, continually removing pockets of ignorance from my mind during the days my team spent there.

Some of my team went from playing with the children to sorting clothes and shoes and toys to be handed out to those who needed them (which was almost everyone there because these humans had little to no possessions).

Many of these humans who had chronic medical conditions had their medicine taken at the border and never given back to them.

Many of these children wanted to look nowhere else but at their parents, the only familiar face in a room filled with hundreds of strange ones. Pancho and I worked together to make them smile or maybe even get a laugh. Telling the children that Pancho only found elefantes y tigres in their hair not piojos, lice, usually helped to get said laugh from both child and guardian.

As I took down the birthdates and ages of these humans, I couldn't help but feel a little tug in my head whenever I wrote down an age close to mine; they are my age and they have been on a "journey" ( a word that seems too positive for this instance) that I knew I never could really imagine and most likely never will have to experience.

Children are resourceful. One little boy was kicking around an empty water bottle with another small boy, a game that continued until one of the paramedics doing medical screenings pointed out a soccer ball in the far corner of the room.

Donations of shoes that are larger than a men's 9 or a women's 8 are seldom needed in centers for refugee migrants. The same goes for any clothing larger than a size L in shirts and pants. I'm not sure the exact reasoning behind this, but humans from this region tend to be smaller in body size thus in shoe size as well. I first noticed this living in a Central American country for 4 months; if you have size 10 feet like me, you need to go to the second floor of the shoe store to find your size (#grandegringa)

volunteers sifting through the organized chaos of the clothing donations room

Pizza does no good (other than to help feed volunteers). Most of these humans have never had food as processed at the pizza that comes from places like Domino's or Little Cesar's. This can cause all sorts of problems, mainly messy ones that involve upset stomachs and bathrooms. The best foods are simple and bland; rice, beans, burritos with cheese and/or refried beans, etc.

Fruits are to be treasured. I saw a man walk into the building with a bag of apples, and he never made it to the kitchen because a crowd of humans came up to him asking for one, and he ran out of the valuable fruits before he could get there.

food donations at the beginning of the week (the amount of food in this room grew enormously throughout the week)

Lockdown. On Friday, all humans were asked to go their beds as quickly as possible. All doors and gates were closed. There had been a threatening message about all those at the Fairgrounds. Earlier, there had been a man driving around in a car (there were rumors that he also had a gun with him) shouting at the families picking out clothing outside to "go back to their countries" along with expletives and other vulgar statements.

Cardboard. The third day my team helped out at the Fairgrounds, we heard upon arrival that a group of humans had arrived at 10pm the night before. There was not enough space to shelter these humans nor enough personnel to do medical screenings at the Fairgrounds, so they had to bring them to another building, an old airplane hanger, right down the road. When my teammate and I arrived at this building to handout breakfast the next morning, the most prominent item in the cavernous space was cardboard; the beds for the humans brought to this space, many of which were children.

the hanger about a minute down the road from the main shelter that is now being used for initial intake and medical screenings

I broke down at one point. It was in the doorway of a side room where the medicine was kept. As the paramedics worked to get a boy of about 5 years old with a fever of about 101 to the hospital, I could see the fear in his eyes and the terror on his face as he turned towards his mother for comfort, tears coming from his eyes and screams coming from his mouth. The worry on the mother's face, the face of a woman my age, when she heard me say that his fever was too high and that it was best for him to go to the hospital because all we have here is throat spray and ibuprofen. I did my best to bring comfort to her by saying there would be no cost, and that there would be plenty of time to make a phone call to coordinate their next moves after going to the hospital.

I tried to bring comfort to this woman and her son with the language she knew, but with a mouth that was strange in a place that was even stranger, I knew I could only do so much.

I stood shaking in that doorway of that back room as the paramedics gently led the woman and her son to an ambulance. I felt tears come from a place I couldn't really explain. I made eye contact with another refugee who was in line to get dinner, and I could feel him staring at me, wondering why I was quietly crying in that doorway.

But Pancho and I had to keep going, so we did.

shoelaces

While I worked with Pancho to help transcribe the families' medical information, I noticed that no one had shoelaces on their shoes, even the children. I wanted to ask why, but I couldn't remember the Spanish word for shoelaces, and I didn't want to stumble over a word that I couldn't remember and didn't really have anything to do with the medical questioning.

We were later told that Border Patrol takes them to prevent any of the migrant refugees committing self-harm.

At the end of the day when the number of humans coming in and needing medical checks died down, I joined in with my other teammates to help handout clothing and other items that had been donated by the community.

While going back and forth between the window and the table overflowing with clothes, the son of the first pair of humans I had helped translate for during medical checks, the one I was most garbled with, asked me, "tienes cintas?" which translates to, "do you have..."

I racked my mind and tried to unearth what cintas meant, and all I could gather was cinturón, the Spanish word for belt.

And then the boy pointed at my shoes and realization knocked around in my mind.

Shoelaces!

"Sí! Tenemos cintas!" I turned to grab a pair from the table behind me and my mind meandered back to the countless people I had seen without these simple accessories that many of us don't think too much about.

I almost had what cintas meant in English, thinking that it was related to a belt; both are related to keeping things together that want to fall apart, for holding things close that want to pull away.

I couldn't help but think about the humans we had been working with from the local community, holding the Fairgrounds together, keeping it running. From the paramedics to the nurses to the everyday community members who could just offer their lunch break but wanted to help out regardless. They continued to show up and work to figure our better processes for meals and handing out clothing. They were and are the continual cintas of the Fairgrounds.

I thought about myself. I was drained. My mind was going back and forth all day between different languages asking questions about intense and important topics and then translating back complex answers. I was drained, but it was a good drained; it was an I-used-myself-as-a-resource-to-help-the-people-around-me type of drained. I held it together (with the help of Pancho, of course). I would continue to hold it together (sometimes barely) for the several days we continued working there.

I thought about my team. We were put in this scenario none of us had training for. We played with children we didn't know and tried to speak their language. The team spent hours caring for those humans through direct and indirect means, sometimes through mounds of shirts and shoes, stuffed animals and medical supplies, canned foods and cut fruits. In a way, we were our own cintas and sometimes we were each other's.

I thought about the guardians of these children who travelled thousands of miles to move away from things, bad things, I could not and probably will never have to wrap my head around. I couldn't help but think about how much they had to hold together and how much longer they were going to need to do so.

These humans may have had their cintas taken away at the border, but in a way, I could tell that they still had some cintas with them.

No one knows how long these humans will be getting transported here from El Paso. There is no definite timeline, no definite stopping point.

Maybe my team's main purpose in the Deming community is not to be a from of cintas for the Fairgrounds. But I think you could maybe see it forming into that; we're helping a small community with something that's bigger than what they probably can sustainably handle.

I've helped a small community in Texas handle long-term hurricane recovery when it became too much for what they could handle for a prolonged period of time. There were individuals that got pulled away from original projects to help respond to hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. There are teams that get sent to help with short-term disaster relief in small communities while also working towards jumpstarting long-term efforts.

Maybe humanitarian relief isn't that much different from hurricane relief other than the initial damage being caused by other humans as opposed to being caused by nature.

Whether or not my team will continue to offer assistance to what is happening in Deming, NM is still undecided. We have to question what our true purpose has been and will continue to be in this town.

Is our work here sustainable?

What is the larger impact?

If this is directly affecting the community we are living in and serving in for the next several weeks, maybe we should continue working there?

Or maybe we should figure out a process of balancing work at the Fairgrounds and other work within the community. It's hard to put other community work on hold; it's not a question of what's wrong or right, I think it's more of a question of resources and long-term impact.

Overall, I think there are several layers to the work we have done and the work we might continue to do at the Fairgrounds.

Maybe need to re-lace the cintas of some of the processes in this country. I'm not saying we should loosen or tighten them...I'm saying we should work towards re-lacing them.

But maybe we need to re-lace some of the cintas around the beliefs and understandings we have in our own mind first.