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Volunteering at the Border

By Lili Shidlovski

Like you, I have been heartbroken about about our country’s immigration policies. Having grown up as a refugee child myself, doing whatever I can for today’s immigrants feels necessary and so centering for me.

Over the winter holidays, I spent 10 days volunteering at the San Diego Rapid Response Network (SDRRN) Migrant Shelter, a coalition of organizations including groups as diverse as  Jewish Family Services, Catholic Charities, ACLU,  San Diego Organizing Project, County Health Services, California State Social Services. The Southern Baptist Convention did the cooking.

It was one of the best vacations of my life.  What I most loved was that everyone who worked at the shelter was kind, generous, smart, multi-tasking, committed to the migrants and to each other. So much needed to be done. Staff from different agencies consistently supported each other.  As a new volunteer, I was given a tour of the facility, told what needed to be done at that moment and put to work.  What they needed from us volunteers was a combination of flexibility and taking initiative. My occasional stops at bakeries and Starbucks didn’t hurt either.

The shelter itself is like Platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter. It’s a transitional space between one world and another. Migrant families arrive looking haggard and tired after their long journey from Central America, maybe with uncomfortable time in Tijuana and then several days in very cold ICE detention. They have been dropped on the streets of San Diego or brought to the Shelter by ICE, with nothing except the clothes on their backs, a Notice to Appear (to report to ICE), and often an ankle monitor. The amazing staff and volunteers do medical triage, help migrants contact their families/friends to buy plane or bus tickets to destinations all over the United States, give them new/donated clothes, toiletries, showers, food, beds. Generally by the next day, the little kids are in the playroom, the boys and young men are playing soccer, the sick people have been treated on-site or at the local emergency rooms, tickets are bought and confirmed and reconfirmed.

My main job was driver/escort. I spent hours at the Emergency Room with a mother with a sick toddler. I took groups of families to the airport and to the Greyhound station. The airport was intimidating — it seemed huge and incomprehensible.  Even the escalator was frightening to the kids — the first of all the everythings that would be new in this country. I helped people get seats together, change tickets with terrible connections (18 hour layover in Denver), get through TSA security, explain airplane etiquette.  When I told one especially warm and open man that his very active toddler wouldn’t be able to run around on the plane, so maybe “he should run around now and you will need to run around with him, the man said “I can’t, my leg hurts,” and pulled up his pants leg.  As I stared at the two round black marks, he said, “Those are from the bullets.”  He pulled his sleeve up, where there was another bullet hole and also a long surgical scar.  This one had broken a bone and ripped through connective tissue.  He said, “If I stayed in El Salvador, I would be dead.  That wouldn’t be important, except that I have my family.”

Every one of the people I escorted for a few hours, between detention and their destinations as asylum-seekers, blessed me. They expect so little.  These good people will need all our support. I don’t think I could do what they are doing.  No one leaves their home, especially without the people they love, unless staying is worse than leaving.  My heart broke a hundred times this week, and also filled every time I got back to the shelter and saw the workers who couldn’t stay away on their days off.

On behalf of the Kehilla Immigration Committee, Rebecca Rice and I are coordinating a group of volunteers who want to work at the Shelter.  Please contact me at lili.shidlov@gmail.  If you want to read more about my time at the SDRRN shelter, please feel free to friend me on FaceBook or email me.

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The Weekly, Kehilla’s newsletter, is released every Thursday.