A letter to the refugees my visit to Tijuana, Mexico

By Tabitha Mendez

As soon as the bell rang to signal the end of second period on the morning of Jan. 18, I ran to the car where my family members were excitedly waiting for me. I had prepared a Spotify playlist to make the upcoming nine-hour drive a fun one because it was clear that we were all a little nervous, as this would be our first drive into Mexico as a family, and our first trip together with a big purpose. My father had been to Tijuana several times before, but the last time he went he was a teen and well, he wouldn’t want me to mention how long ago that was.

The process leading up to this trip was extremely rushed. After a quick family talk about what we could do to help the Honduran refugees in Tijuana, we came up with a plan to donate hoodies and sweaters to help the refugees stay warm, and found someone who could take us safely across the border. We frantically contacted over 13 organizations to see if they would help our family cross from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico and finally found one that emailed us back, inviting us to join them that weekend as they headed back to Tijuana like they do every Saturday.

Right away my family and I started posting on Facebook and Instagram, texting friends and contacting our church asking if they could make an announcement in order to ask for donations of new or gently used hoodies and blankets that could be used to keep the refugees in Tijuana stay warm during the winter. We only had about a week and a half to collect all the donations, pack them up and drive down.

At times, I was more scared going into this. I was scared of what people would think and I was scared for myself, not really knowing what I was walking into. I didn’t want to go on this trip with the purpose of impressing anybody and I definitely didn’t want people to think this was politically motivated. I wanted this trip to meet a need ⏤ a very serious one. Yet, I still couldn't shake the idea of what others would think out of my mind. Would they think I was trying to make a political statement about our affiliations with these refugees, because I wasn’t ⏤ I really don’t keep up with politics enough, to be honest. As I kept imagining the different scenarios that could unfold, my parents constantly reminded me that it didn’t matter what people thought. This was solely a humanitarian act of helping people in need. Regardless of political belief or any other thoughts, people are people and people get cold.

When we got to San Diego, we went directly to meet the executive director and founder of Border Angels, the nonprofit organization that we would be going to Tijuana with. His name was Enrique Morones and he was the one who had contacted us, inviting us to join his team for the weekend. Morones’ office was filled with pictures and newspaper articles about their organization’s work.

Photo with Enrique Morones, directer of Border Angels.

See audio from interview here:


I was nervous again when I approached the border, hoping customs would let us bring everything through. The Border Angels staff gave my dad guidance on how to fill out the paperwork, especially since it was all in Spanish. Luckily, they let us through with very little questioning because we were with the Border Angels. As we drove off I found myself constantly overthinking, this whole trip. What if we get lost? What if it’s not enough? What if the refugees don’t want to talk with me?

Once we got into Mexico, we waited for others in the caravan who were still on their way to reach us. Out of curiosity, I crossed the street to the shelter and peeked into a hole in the door where a handle used to be to see what was going on inside. Someone met my gaze and all of a sudden I saw brown eyes look peering back at me.

Soon, one of the Border Angels came and opened the door, and we went inside. Rows and rows of tents filled the giant room. As soon as we got in, I saw hundreds of people ranging from newborn babies to elderly people inside.

I started talking with the kids, trying to use whatever Spanish I had picked up over the past few years in my classes at school. I asked them about where they came from and what they liked to do.

We spent about three hours there, unboxing clothes, unloading donated food and playing with the kids, trying to get a glimpse of what a day in their life looked like.

Kids line up at the table, as volunteers unbox prescription glasses and socks.

I also learned during this time that not all the refugees were from Honduras. Some were from Guatemala and some even from Acapulco, Mexico, all areas that had turned violent. There were even a very few from as far as Africa.

I talked with a pregnant mother, who walked from Honduras to Tijuana with her two other kids. She explained that one of her biggest hardships was the lack of food and the exhaustion of walking while pregnant with two kids to look after. Even though I couldn’t pick up more than half of what she said due to my lack of Spanish-speaking experience, I came to understand that her trip was unimaginable.

I felt so embarrassed, realizing how privileged I was compared to these people. My complaints revolved around having to walk to school when these people, despite facing an uncertain future and many dangers, still had genuine smiles, and were more than relieved to be living in a tent on a cement floor where all their food and health care came from donations.

Two kids at the first shelter, learning how to record with the camera.

People who were coming to Tijuana were trying to escape from rampant violence, rape, theft, kidnappings and harassment of all sorts that I wasn’t fully aware of until we got there.

After spending a few hours at this shelter, we drove for about 45 minutes to the next location. It was a much bigger space, and outdoors, unlike the previous shelter. At this shelter we weren’t allowed to go in at first because the visiting hours were closed for safety purposes.

Because of that, people started showing up to our cars parked along the side of a wall that bordered the shelter. Within a span of five minutes, a group of around 30 people crowded around the three cars we had parked. We waited for the signal to tell us it was okay to open the trunk and the large storage bag we had strapped to the top of the car. I knew that as soon as I opened up the trunk, everything would be gone in a short while.

We opened up the bag and started handing out jackets first. A man from the camp helped us by translating the different sizes in Spanish so everyone made sure to get the right size. It blew my mind how fast the clothes went. I was expecting the jackets to be popular among the refugees, but I hadn’t expected them to go nearly as fast, within a matter of five minutes. This made me realize how much these people needed something so simple as a black sweater with a hood.

At the second shelter, handing out jackets and blankets as fast as we could.

In the large crowd of men, two women approached my mom and me. As they started to talk, I pulled out my phone to use Google Translate, the embarrassment of not being able to keep up creeping up on me as I did so. She told us how much it meant to her that we were coming here, even pulling my mom aside with tears in her eyes to say “gracias.”

The lady from Honduras, who talked with my mom and I about her life, and her gratitude.

That’s when how I really focused in on how much this trip meant. Hearing and seeing such emotion and love in her for some people that she just met blew me away. It made me realize that I wanted to come back. The approximately 80 blankets we stored in the back of our SUV went just as fast as the hoodies, sweaters and jackets. The refugees were hungry for warmth.

Later in the afternoon, the Border Angels leader found a way to convince the camp guards to let us inside the camp. One group of young adults working with the brand Toms joined us in our journey, documenting the people’s lives in Tijuana by interacting and interviewing them. I was extremely lucky to be able to tag along with them. I was especially inspired by one journalist who traveled the world capturing moments like these.

A mother of two, at the second refugee camp, speaking to us about her kids.

We were told that this camp was to be closed in about a month, leaving the people to try and find jobs to support themselves. It now made sense why the men were so desperate for new jeans and sturdy shoes and hats. They needed the proper clothing to go out and work and it tore me apart knowing I never could’ve packed enough.

We also passed out 20 handmade blankets with the specific instructions of giving these blankets to kids. We brought these blankets hoping to find many kids who could take care of them. In this large camp, there were less kids than the previous, but many mothers who claimed to have children located in other areas.

The two son's of the previous woman play with strollers for entertainment as the day passes by.

After parting ways with our group and the refugees the skies quickly darkened as we drove through the beautiful scenery of Mexico. I got a chance to reflect on my adventure-filled day while listening to live mariachi bands and eating fresh churros by the border with my family.

This trip is definitely not going to be the last for us. The energy that took over my emotions as I tried to hand out clothes and blankets as fast as possible, as I tried to keep up with all of the native Spanish speakers, as I connected with the team that traveled down to Tijuana with us was a much-needed reminder of how privileged I am to have everything I do and to live a life where I know I have security.

This trip brought a reminder to myself of how small everything is in perspective for myself. The overwhelming feeling of stress from school or small problems with friends can be so miniscule and often times, unnecessary issues to stress over. The world is so big and filled with so much of the unknown, but people often never bother to look beyond their comfort zones. We focus on ourselves and what we face, forgetting to remind ourselves that there could be something bigger just a car ride away.

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