I read Jon Katz’s blog yesterday, in which he quoted the philosopher Hannah Arendt about the experience of being a refugee:
“Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are helpful in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, and the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos, and our best friends were killed in concentration camps, which meant the rupture of our private lives.”
Many immigrant families obtain refugee status in this country, not as a gimmick for staying here but because they really are refugees, in Arendt’s meaning of the word. Instantly, people lose everything.
I began writing yesterday about Mateo and Sofia (you can read that here) and how, in one brief evening, being told that they won’t live to see the coming day, they picked up their two small children, Lucia and Ernesto, and left their home. They had to carry their small kids, no car, their motorcycle destroyed, just walked; they couldn’t take much with them.
Even as Mateo described their last day at home while we’re sitting at their small dining table in the kitchen, his pregnant wife, Sofia, sitting further back, began to weep. She is very close to her mother and misses her especially now, when she’s pregnant.
“How were the children in the long bus ride to Chiapas?” I asked.
“They were very excited,” said Mateo. “For them it was the beginning of a big adventure. I told them we were going to visit their aunt who lives in America, where they will have everything, and they were happy.”
They stayed in Chiapas for 4 months, sleeping on the floor of an empty apartment. They had no money to continue the trip, so he found a mechanics job while Sofia began to cook. She’d be up making coffee before dawn, cooking breakfast foods and feeding the men working there. He wasn’t happy about this—they were in a strange country, after all—but soon realized that he could make more money by helping her than doing his other job, so he stayed home and became the shopper and waiter for some 20 people at a time, while she cooked in the kitchen.
Given the work he’s doing now in Massachusetts, I teased him that this is where he got his restaurant experience.
They managed to save $1,500 over 4 months and took the bus to Monterrey, south of Texas. There they found a coyote who promised to get them over the border safely walking for 5 days and nights.
“What did you have to eat and drink?”
“We brought water, but not enough,” Mateo said, “and we ate crackers.” Each carried a little child as well.
The days were immensely hot daytime and cold at night. They were constantly mauled by the various cactuses and each time they stopped they had to remove many thorns from both children which had penetrated their clothes and stuck in their bodies and hair.
They slept on the ground and 5-year-old Lucia, with slanted eyes and a gorgeous smile, once looked up at her father and asked: “Are we ever going to sleep on a bed again?” He would brush away sand to make room for them to lie down and promise them that they were walking to a place that had everything they wanted, lots of food, not just crackers, and yes, beds, too. Their faces became crusted with sand and welts from the sun.
After 5 days and nights, they got across the border and were walking in Texas when immigration agents caught them. Without saying a word, without even giving them water (by then they’d run out), they hauled them back and left them in Mexico.
Mateo broke down and cried while telling me this, recounting the long, thirsty trek in the desert, the children needing water and food, skin pierced by cactus thorns all across their body. The husband and wife looked at each other for solace even as their children watched television in the next room. Later I would hear about the nightmares all four continue to have to this very day.
The refugee center they stayed in was a continuation of their nightmare. They only got one spoonful of rice and one spoonful of beans every day, often spoiled. No vegetables. Nothing extra for the children. They were also told that coyotes often made sure to take them on treks where they would be caught by immigration agents and returned across the border, ensuring that they pay more to try a second time.
But they had no money left. They were stuck there with two small children, no plan how to move forward. They certainly couldn’t go back home.
Eventually, he borrowed some money from a brother-in-law to make one more attempt. This time, they would cross the river on kayaks. Sofia boarded with 4-year-old Ernesto on the first kayak, but when Mateo tried to board with Lucia, he was told there was no more room, there were already 10 in the kayak. The kayak left to cross a river that was not very wide but had a strong current. Mateo and Lucia boarded the second kayak, but as it pulled off, they heard gunshots coming from the other shore and their kayak turned back.
They had dreaded this most of all, being separated. Worse, he had no idea what had happened to the first kayak or if his wife and son were even alive.
I will finish this story tomorrow. But this is no fiction, it’s a narrative of how one family—just one family—managed to get here. They are not illegal, they are in the midst of a long legal process of getting refugee status. More about that tomorrow.
Writing out this tale is my effort to raise money to send 9 immigrant children to camp this summer whose parents are working in the fields all day, morning to night. At a little over $40. per day per child for transportation and a full day of activity, including lunch, we are trying to get at least 3 weeks’ worth of camp for these children, who can’t get the benefit of school-sponsored summer activities. For 9 children, that totals $5,625; for 6 weeks, if we can do it, $11,125. We will use whatever we can get.
Yesterday evening I spent some time with a few of those families. My heart just opens when little boys start reading English-language children’s books, including the famous Good Night Moon, well ahead of their mothers who sit next to them, beaming. For those of you who have already donated, may your lives be blessed always. Those of you who haven’t, please consider using the button below, Donate to Immigrant Families, to send these children to camp while their parents work in the local farms.
Thank you very, very much.
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.