In my travels to Tijuana, Mexico, three times in the last four months, I met many asylum seekers. Each morning I arrived at El Chaparral, the local square, before 7 am to find the plaza already full — people arriving to get a number and people showing up, eager for their number to be called that day so they could finally enter the U.S., their hearts uniformly full of hope and promise for a better future.
Many walked 2,000 to 3,000 miles in search of a safe place, having suffered violence and trauma most of us would have difficulty even conceptualizing. Imagine making such an arduous journey with young children. They came every day I was there, and they continue to come.
Each day, with other volunteers, I answered questions and gave directions to Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit direct legal services organization serving indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees in Tijuana. Al Otro Lado conducts daily information sessions for asylum seekers about what to expect when they are detained in Tijuana before entering the United States. Migrants can also talk with a volunteer immigration lawyer at no charge.
Many migrants need warm clothes, shoes, medical attention, food and, most challenging, shelter during their months of waiting. It’s dangerous for women traveling alone with children as well as for young men to be on the streets of Tijuana at night.
Asylum seekers come from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as from Haiti, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Russia and other countries. These weary travelers arrive only to hear that they cannot cross the border and ask for asylum, which is legal.
Instead, they are stopped before crossing, given a four-digit number written on a piece of paper the size of a thumbnail, and must wait two to three months or more before their number is called. Finding shelter becomes increasingly challenging with every passing day and no help is provided by the Mexican or U.S. government.
June 20 is World Refugee Day. This year, the Refugee Resettlement Coalition of Lane County (RRCLC), in coordination with Catholic Community Services of Lane County, will commemorate World Refugee Day with a focus on “Seeking Asylum — Here and at Our Southern Borders.” Since 2016, the RRCLC has assisted more than 50 refugees and asylum seekers in Lane County.
World Refugee Day 2019, a free public event, will take place 5 to 9 pm Thursday, June 20, at First United Methodist Church, 1376 Olive Street, Eugene. Our featured main speaker is Jill Zwiers, a dynamic activist and powerful force for change. She has been crossing the border three days a week since November from her home in San Diego to help asylum seekers and has many stories to tell. Her talk will be followed by a panel discussion featuring people with legislative, legal, and health-related knowledge of asylum seekers locally and at the border.
The event will also feature three food carts, as well as opportunities to compile refugee relief kits, listen to the stories of refugees and asylum seekers in Oregon, see a photo essay of local immigrants, get a small henna tattoo, and sample traditional desserts from a local Syrian chef and a Latino bakery. Participants can also hear mariachi music, purchase multicultural books, identify where their ancestors came from on a world map, peruse more than 30 information tables, and sign up to volunteer with or donate to the RRCLC.
And this year, attendees can see and experience for just a brief moment the conditions of a hielera, the concrete ice boxes operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials that are kept at around 40 degrees that men, women and children seeking asylum must endure for 3 to 11 days after crossing into the United States.
A second free event to commemorate World Refugee Day 2019 will feature Anne Bridgman speaking on “Witnessing at Homestead — The Largest For-Profit U.S. Detention Center for Migrant Children” 7 pm Saturday, June 22, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene, 1685 West 13th Avenue. Bridgman will talk about her visit to this child prison in Florida.
Sharon Franklin chairs the RRCLC’s World Refugee Day. To learn more about the RRCLC, please visit RRCLC.org and Facebook.com/rrclc.