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Supporting Asylum-Seekers at the San Diego Migrant Shelter – Consider Going Yourself?

By Penny Rosenwasser and Miriam Abrams

Inspired by Kehilla’s immigration and sanctuary work – and increasingly horrified by 45’s policies — we each volunteered at the San Diego Rapid Response Network Shelter in late March/early April. Miriam’s daughter Esther accompanied Miriam as well. We were also inspired by Lili Shidlovski’s moving account of her volunteering there in December.
We wanted to share some of our experiences here, in hopes of encouraging you to consider doing the same! The Kehilla Immigration Committee is helping organize members to volunteer at the shelter; please contact Lili directly if you’re interested:

This shelter is run by Jewish Family Services, in conjunction with the San Diego Rapid Response Network and the ACLU; it’s the only Jewish-run shelter in the country. ICE drops off busloads of exhausted and traumatized asylum-seekers throughout the day and night; the shelter staff and volunteers provide medical care, showers, clean clothes, meals and a place to sleep. Most folks are there about 48 hours before they travel to meet those who are sponsoring them while they go through the asylum process.

Penny’s account is below, followed by Miriam’s:
Just home from volunteering for a week at the shelter, I’m so glad I went. I sorted clothes donations, prepped and served meals, mopped floors, played with children, connected with folks, slightly improved my Spanish — over and over. It was tiring, but incredibly meaningful. The shelter is well-organized and the staff are phenomenal: dedicated, generous and loving, mostly young-ish folks of color.

Especially I’m carrying the children in my heart. Watching them play, and playing with them, you wouldn’t know the trauma they’ve been through, the miles they’ve walked, the hardships, the mistreatment by ICE. I’m remembering one afternoon with some 2 and 3-year-olds, coloring with chalk. Two of them made pictures of “Pappy” (daddy), men who were not with them, who knows why.

Of the guests, so many were women alone — some with three young children, including a baby. After each meal, many of them insisted on helping clean up, then they’d smile and thank us. Being with them, the word that kept coming up for me was Resilience. Watching some of them leave for the plane or bus station, clutching a small plastic bag with their belongings, waving goodbye, it tore at my heart.

Volunteers who escorted these folks to the airport told me how terrific many of the airport workers were. Some TSA employees gave these families $20 bills out of their own pockets, for their journeys. (To escort folks to the bus station or airport, you need to have a car. It helps if you know some Spanish, but there is plenty to do if you don’t speak Spanish).

As you know, these are all folks fleeing horrific violence and poverty in their home countries, seeking asylum here. I could only imagine what their journeys here have been like, including being held in freezing ICE detention centers and fed rotting food. ICE has already attached bracelets to their ankles, to track them. The most heart-breaking part is knowing that (from what I was told) one-third of them could be granted asylum; the rest will be sent back. It’s truly inconceivable, just so difficult to hold. The U.S. is the richest country in the world…

Witnessing the shelter guests reminded me of being in the former Yugoslavia in 1994, working with refugee women who we knew had been sexually violated. It reminded me of being in Palestine numerous times, with families whose children had been killed by Israeli soldiers, whose homes had been demolished by Israeli (US-made) bulldozers…

I’m so proud that Jewish Family Services runs this shelter! I got to meet the CEO who had just returned from a conference with our own Avi Rose, ED of JFS here. I was proud to say I was there from Kehilla.

And they need volunteers, and clothing donations, and children’s books in Spanish, and calling cards. Huge thanks to all of you who sent donations with me; when I arrived, they were out of calling cards and were thrilled that I brought a fistful with me that you all had sent.

If you go, wear comfortable shoes and bring your own food, there is also food to purchase nearby. You can work as much or as little as you like. Email me if you have questions: — and please contact Lili (see above) if you’re interested in volunteering.

Miriam’s Story:
My 23-year-old daughter Esther and I volunteered for a few days at the shelter. As usually happens when I volunteer, I received so much more than I gave. We escorted many families to the bus station or the airport, helping get their tickets, escorting them through TSA procedures (very invasive pat downs), to their gates, securing help from airline personnel on the plane and negotiating change of airplanes. To a person, the families were kind, patient and grateful for everything they received. It pulled on my heart to see them begin their new life with usually just one small bag filled with diapers, a little food from the shelter, and a jacket for their child.

One moment stands out, among many: As we were helping a family at the bus station, they asked if they needed to change buses. Esther opened the ticket to find another ticket attached. . . and another. . . . and another. . . discovering six tickets: six different buses over three days to the East Coast, with their children! Esther showed them everything on their tickets, but we weren’t sure they fully understood as they nodded and smiled.

We walked away, wondering if this family would get to their destination through the many bus changes; we felt terrible for their long journey ahead. Then we stopped, realizing that these families had already traveled thousands of miles, walking and by bus, through untold dangers. They had the resilience, resourcefulness and courage to make it this far –- we knew they would make it. We had been viewing their situation through our own experience, not theirs: how terrible we would feel to change buses so much and travel by bus over three days. These experiences put the minor irritations we face into perspective.

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