Maggie comes in and sits at the table. She will clean the house soon, which she does every four weeks, but first we have our coffee together and chat (she says I make the best coffee). Sometimes she takes me out to breakfast, but I prefer when she brings me “my rice,” as she refers to it, usually cooked with meat fresh that morning.
She tells me about her conversation with Pilar (not her real name). The 22-year-old mother has made quite a pilgrimage. Together with her husband and two young children, she started out of Ecuador, got across Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica, till they got to Mexico. There, at the very southern border of Mexico, they were stopped.
Mexico has an agreement with the US to stop immigrants heading here right there, in Chiapas. Pilar weeps as she recounts their five-month long stay there, with almost no money, and what it was like to see her 2-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter cry for food. “We survived it,” she told Maggie, “but the things I saw there were—” Tears flood her face; she can’t go on other than to say: “It’s hard for me to remember all these horrible things.”
They walk to the US border—an immense trip, pay coyotes, cross, and meet up with border agents. “When we got to the border we got separated. My husband stayed with my daughter, and I stayed with my son. I didn’t know if I was going to see them again.”
I believe the agents often separate a family and interview them separately to hear if they have the same story. Pilar’s family applied for entry to the US under a family reunification program. That means that the border agents call Pilar’s husband’s sister, who lives here. The rule is that if you apply under that program, they call once. If the person called doesn’t answer—if s/he’d gone out, gone to the bathroom or to pick up a child from school—the migrants are turned away. In this case the sister answered, and they were permitted to go on to Massachusetts.
They’re lucky because they both got jobs at a local restaurant. The restaurant owner himself immigrated from an Eastern European country and told them that his story is almost like their story, and therefore he’s helping them, teaching Pilar’s husband everything he knows about the restaurant business. But rentals are high here, as they are everywhere, and they need help.
“They had a hard time with the Mexicans,” Maggie tells me. “Here, people are more helpful.”
“We’re also much richer,” I muse.
Maggie agrees. She herself arrived here from Colombia many years ago, married, and raised a family. She has a lovely home nearby with a back path to the river. She has cleaned our home for almost 18 years. “I live in Paradise,” she tells me.
I live in a house I share with Lori and two dogs. The laundry hangs outside under waving maple trees while the chimes ring endlessly from the breeze. In a newspaper mailbox a phoebe sits on her four eggs, and you can see lots of stars on clear nights. I, too, live in Paradise.
There’s lots of poverty here, but the poverty I’ve seen, both rurally and in urban areas, is very different from poverty in countries like Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, where I’ve visited. We usually get some government help, not to mention lots of food pantries and soup kitchens like Stone Soup Café, which serves delicious meals. Those things don’t exist there.
It’s Maggie who started me finding support for immigrant families, especially undocumented ones. In the early days of the pandemic, she mentioned a family she knew where no one was working, and they had trouble putting food on the table. I drove to a supermarket, bought two $100 food cards, and gave them to Maggie for that family. I wrote about it, readers responded with curiosity, checks and support, and that started everything. We—readers, Maggie and I—have now done this work for more than 2 years.
Maggie also connected me with Jimena Pareja, the liaison for schools and social agencies with that community, and I started meeting Jimena every week. It was very poignant then, when everything shut down and nobody was working.
The federal government showered its citizens and municipalities with money during the pandemic. Some say it was too much and figured in the current inflation. And indeed, our town is one of many that has a surplus fund from that time that it now applies to other projects. But undocumented families received none of that, they really struggled. We raised a lot of money for food cards and help with rent, utilities, medical care, winter clothes and school supplies.
We continue giving emergency funds to people like Pilar.
One more thing. Often people tell me that they’re aware the world is suffering but they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to get involved, how to even start. This morning Maggie told me that during the pandemic, her large family in Colombia was suffering because people had no work.
“But you know, Eve, my family doesn’t have much money, either. So what I did was, since I clean the houses for so many people, many drink sodas and things like that, and they have empty bottles and cans which they either throw away or recycle. So whenever I cleaned, I would take all their empty bottles and cans and bring them home with me. My husband would ask me why I brought so many home, but what I did was, I took them to the Big Y and got 5 cents for each. I did this till I got $100, and I would send that money to my family. To us, $100 isn’t very much, but over there it feeds a family for a month! I was so happy I could do that!”
Hardly a day passes without these words by Bernie echoing in my ear: “Just start. Don’t worry about the rest of it.”
Often where you start is right in front of your face. You see something, someone mentions something to you, and you see a certain possibility for acting. You don’t have to worry about whether it’ll be a lot or a little, important or a drop in the bucket, whether or not it solves the problems of the world. Forget all that. Just start.
And please continue to support immigrant families. Thank you.
You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.