They say there are experiences that change your life forever. Maybe it’s the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Maybe it’s signing the contract on your first home or having your heart broken by a longtime love.
For me, that experience happened just two months ago. In a country not my own, with colleagues who became family.
On August 5, 2019, five of us set out for Tijuana, Mexico to provide support to migrants seeking asylum in the United States. As Tahirih staff, we were as prepared as we could have been.
We knew firsthand the fierce and ongoing attempts to deny asylum seekers access to safety and justice. We knew the stories of individuals and families who were fleeing unthinkable violence, only to arrive at the U.S. border and be turned away, detained, or separated from their children. And we knew that we had to do something – anything – to help.
With the support of Tahirih’s leadership, we were connected to an organization providing on-the-ground legal advice and counsel to asylum seekers in distress, and although only a few of us carried legal expertise, we were told there were ways we could each play a part in preparing migrants for their journey to safety.
That first day, I felt every emotion possible – exhilaration, anxiety, uncertainty, fear. With our passports in hand, we walked slowly and quietly, but with purpose, through the tunnel that would take us from the U.S. to Mexico.
I know now that we were each preparing ourselves for what we would see on the other side. Would it be as bad as we imagined? Would we find our way? We held with us the hope that we could be of service – in any capacity – and the fear that we would not be able to do enough.
As soon as we crossed over, we saw refugees waiting at the gates. People of all ages and nationalities. Families with children, suitcases, and papers in tow. In their eyes we saw sadness, defeat, desperation, and confusion … but also eagerness, optimism, and courage. They were waiting for their assigned numbers to be called – four digits giving these families a pathway to justice.
For the next three days, we helped run workshops for asylum seekers. First, individuals and families would hear a Know Your Rights presentation, detailing the process of seeking asylum and their rights under the law. Then, they shared their stories with an intake volunteer, met with an immigration attorney, and had the opportunity to upload documentation to an online system. Finally, they were offered a warm meal and the option to be seen by a medical professional.
I chose to work at the documentation station, which I believed would be good use of my organization and computer skills. After the first woman walked up and handed me her intake form, her birth certificate, a note from her doctor, and a form stating she did not give permission to be separated from her child, it hit me. I wasn’t just creating accounts with uploaded documentation. I was creating safety nets, a way for those who have nothing to “keep hold” of something. I was being given all proof of existence and, in many cases, proof of harm.
Can you imagine handing a stranger all evidence of your identity and an account of the experience that drove you to seek asylum? What must you be fleeing to put yourself in that space of vulnerability?
When each asylum seeker’s documentation was scanned in, without fail, they looked me in the eyes and said, “thank you.” Thank you. It may seem silly, as that is a phrase many of us use daily, but every single time I heard it, my heart skipped a beat.
I knew that this “thank you” wasn’t merely for uploading documentation and creating accounts. It was because it was the first bit of kindness they’d felt on their journey across the border.
At the end of each day, my four colleagues and I sat together to reflect before going to sleep. We felt it was essential to name the reality of secondhand trauma and discuss anything we had seen, heard, or felt that may cause us pause.
What I found most interesting during these conversations was that each one of us was having a parallel life-changing experience, but the nature of our personal and professional histories made it impact us differently.
What we all remembered, though, was the strength of the storytellers, the laughter and smiles of the children, the power of service, the value of each human life … and the real impact of ongoing attempts to deny asylum seekers access to safety and justice.
For me specifically, as a communications professional and someone inexperienced with providing services directly, I was grateful to feel Tahirih’s mission with my own hands.
To look into the eyes of women, men, children, couples, siblings, grandparents … people who could be my own family members … I was humbled to give what little I could if it would reassure them just for a moment that they were seen and heard and fought for.
Now that we are home, we are processing what we experienced. Some of us are struggling with the reality of being back at our desks, reading emails, and accomplishing tasks in the predictable cadence of each day. Some of us have sought outside support to break down our conscious and subconscious thoughts. Many of us are already planning a return trip to the border to serve the many survivors of violence waiting for protection.
Together, we are eager to illustrate to Tahirih friends and supporters a world through new eyes, a reality that cannot be unseen, a truth we have now lived ourselves.
We are ready to take our increased understanding of what “safe space” can look like for asylum seekers and recreate it at Tahirih. And we are charged up with newfound gusto to serve current and future Tahirih clients with all that we have.
So now we look to you – our champions, our advocates – for support, for community, for solidarity.
We hope you will continue to listen with open hearts and open minds when we share stories of individuals and families who seek your compassion and partnership in their journey to safety.
We hope you will continue to answer the call when the realities of our nation’s current climate of fear and eroding of protections for immigrant survivors of violence seek to threaten our American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And we hope that you will remember how strong asylum seekers must be, how children can laugh and smile in the midst of such an arduous journey, how powerful it is to be able to help, and how we must value each and every human life.
Because the truth is, we are all connected. Our success and prosperity – as a human race – can only be genuinely attained if we care about and help each other.
My colleagues and I are more determined than ever to advocate on behalf of our sisters fleeing violence, and we are so grateful to you for supporting our journey, as Tahirih staff, in building bridges to safety and freedom for those who need it most. Your generosity makes all the difference.
Thank you for listening to my story. Thank you for standing together with us to build a world where asylum seekers can tell their stories and receive protection from harm.
Communications and Marketing Manager
Tahirih Justice Center