Written by Gabriela Ríos, ETW volunteer, McAllen, TX
It started with a simple email, “Let’s help the Central American refugees.” For months, I had been reading the heartbreaking news headlines about men, women, and children fleeing to the United States from their homes in Central America, where brutal gang violence is on the rise. Inspired by Amma’s philosophy of service, Embracing the World volunteers in Austin Texas, including myself, wanted to do something.
Although there were only a few of us, we decided we could provide service on three levels: 1. Raise funds for direct support; 2. Collect in-kind donations; and 3. Volunteer in person. We were inspired by Amma’s quote: “Everyone in the world should be able to sleep without fear, at least for one night. Everyone should be able to eat to his fill, at least for one day. There should be at least one day when hospitals see no one admitted due to violence. By doing selfless service for at least one day, everyone should help the poor and needy. It is Amma’s prayer that at least this small dream be realized.”
“Thousands of children have even made the dangerous trip alone, often after receiving ultimatums to join local gangs or be killed.”
Immigrants arrive in the U.S. from all over Latin America, often traveling for weeks on foot, in buses, and on the tops of trains. They are at risk of robbery, assault, and even kidnapping by armed gangs. Thousands of children have even made the dangerous trip alone, often after receiving ultimatums to join local gangs or be killed. By the time they make it across the border into the United States, they may not have eaten, bathed, or slept in days or weeks. When undocumented immigrants are picked up by U.S. Border Patrol, processing can take more than 72 hours. Once they have a bus ticket in hand and have established contact with their families in the U.S., they are released to travel until their immigration hearings. Immigration officers deliver them to the bus station in McAllen, Texas.
Until a few months ago, they would have waited for hours or days until their departure time. With nowhere to go, hungry and exhausted, the immigrants used to sleep on the bus station floors. It is during this transition that the Refugee Relief Center now provides support. On Friday, August 29th eight ETW volunteers from Austin and San Antonio, Texas traveled to McAllen, Texas. Told we would be “sponsors” for the day, we assumed we’d be sorting donations, folding clothes, and pointing clients — the newly arrived immigrants — to food and showers. Instead, we each ended up providing very detailed, very personal, and very direct support. As families arrived, volunteers gathered and welcomed them with applause and greetings of ¡Bienvenidos! (Welcome!).
Told we would be “sponsors” for the day, we assumed we’d be sorting donations, folding clothes, and pointing clients — the newly arrived immigrants — to food and showers. Instead, we each ended up providing very detailed, very personal, and very direct support.”
As sponsors, we were matched with families and were responsible for guiding them through the available services. We selected new sets of clothes to replace those they wore. We held their children while they showered, then assisted them while they bathed their children. Sometimes we worked in pairs, “shopping” for clothes for 2 or 3 family members at a time, translating for each other, and offering smiles and hugs. Once their immediate needs were met, we guided them to tents or the playground where they could rest or play until their bus departed.
Though compelled north by similar circumstances, people arrived with very different needs. A woman arrived in labor and was taken immediately for medical assistance. A 9-year old boy walked doubled-over in pain due to an infection. A man and his teenage son had traveled all the way from Brazil. A sobbing woman had witnessed her father being shot in the head. There were also smiles, and hugs, and laughter. A small child toddled to a crying baby and offered a kiss on the cheek. A young father gingerly pulled his little girl’s hair into a ponytail, smiling at her. We all hugged each other, and sometimes cried on each other’s shoulders.
Amma says that “having a selfless attitude will uplift us.” Volunteering to serve those in such desperate need fostered an attitude of selflessness, and it strengthened the bonds between us. Additionally, we successfully raised over $1,300, which we donated on behalf of Embracing the World, to help support the refugee center. We are currently determining the best way to collect and transport clothes directly to the shelter and many of us wish to return, or to volunteer locally with the same population. Together, inspired by Amma, we worked together to help a few people sleep without fear and eat to their fill, at least for one day.
In total there were eight volunteers: