“The people you meet will be among the strongest you will ever meet in your life.” I heard these prescient words from Lucia Panichella of Jewish Family Service of Metrowest in an orientation session for a CJP Women’s Philanthropy mission to San Diego. The mission’s purpose was to learn about and volunteer in local Jewish community efforts to support newly-arrived immigrants. During the orientation, my fellow travelers and I were advised on what to expect and how best to serve these traumatized and presumably compromised people. After spending this past weekend with them, we now appreciate the truth of Lucia’s words.
Standing with immigrants at risk is not new for us. In January 2017, in response to what we regarded at the time as draconian executive orders targeting immigrants and refugees, we issued a communal joint statement signed by many Boston-area synagogues and Jewish organizations. We urged the administration to “open the gates of compassion to those seeking safety, regardless of their faith or country of origin.” And we publicly committed ourselves to the “work of protecting and advancing the dignity of all human beings and to preventing suffering….” JCRC and CJP have taken our 2017 commitments seriously, devoting time, resources and energy to develop a range of responses to the emerging crisis.
But you know how this story unfolded. The gates of compassion have remained shut tight, and suffering has been inflicted on our foreign-born neighbors in ways we never could have anticipated. Family separations. Children in cages. Detention centers with reprehensible conditions. Hate speech that strips people of their basic humanity, and this week, the largest massacre aimed at the Latino community, reportedly motivated by that rhetoric. And just yesterday—the largest immigration raid in over a decade, with 680 low-wage workers taken from food-processing plants, leaving their crying children waiting to be picked up from school.
So, we headed to the border town of San Diego to learn and to act. This mighty group of 25 women—volunteers and staff from CJP, JCRC and Jewish Family Service of Metrowest—first met with legal and social service experts in the field. What we learned from the experts confirmed recent news reports; the ever-growing numbers of children separated from their families now younger and more frequently female, the devastating impact of the so-called “Migrant Protection Program,” requiring immigrants fleeing the danger of their home countries to remain in Mexico while awaiting asylum hearings. The lawyer who spoke with our group characterized this as a violation of international treaties that the U.S. has signed, since there is no longer any viable way to apply for asylum from certain countries. The vise is tightening on immigrants seeking a pathway to safety and freedom.
Yet with all the invaluable information we learned from professionals in the field, our most profound learning came from encounters with the immigrants themselves at the Jewish Family Service Shelter of San Diego.
This Jewish community responded to the border crisis with breathtaking generosity, joining with others to open a shelter for immigrants newly released from detention and on their way to reunions with family throughout the country. Now in its sixth location (an old court house slated for demolition), the shelter has served 15,000 individuals since 2018. Staffed by a highly competent and deeply compassionate staff, this is a facility that operates in an astonishingly nimble way, never knowing how many people they will house (anywhere from 50-200), what languages they’ll speak or what unique challenges they’ll present. All who enter are greeted with love, fed hot food, given medical attention, supported in contacting their relatives and prepared for travel. The institutional setting is camouflaged by an array of colorful artwork and decorations.
We did our part—sorting donated clothes, painting walls, sanitizing toys and serving food. And in three short days, we gained a deeper understanding about who these travelers were, the challenges they face and the unimaginable resilience they exhibit throughout.
During our orientation at the shelter, we asked the staff, “What happens when someone departing here misses a connection and doesn’t make it to their destination?” The staff member paused to think before responding, “It hasn’t happened yet.” We realized that these people, with their seemingly infinite wells of courage and resourcefulness, had already endured grueling hardship and navigated their way to this shelter to provide safety for their families. Traveling hours and sometimes days, on multiple buses, in a country where they don’t speak the language, would not stop them now.
Observing these guests (how they are known at the shelter) inspired endless admiration. The ubiquitous ankle monitors on the adults were cruel reminders that our country has criminalized these people for doing what any parent would do: preserve their children’s lives. In acts of fierce and quiet resistance, they retained their dignity in the face of attempts to dehumanize them and their families.
One mother cradled her 15-day-old infant in her arms as she tended lovingly to her four older children, each expertly coiffed and groomed. Her children—as so many others we met—were sweet, friendly, joyful and exuberant. At their parents’ gentle prodding, they came up to us after every meal and smilingly thanked us (in English!) for the food.
Despite their insurmountable hardships, these determined parents were acting with agency whenever and wherever they could, not just ensuring their children’s safety, but raising them with values passed down through generations. As a result, their children, against all odds, were playful and trusting—by the end, sitting on our laps, playing games and reading books, and transcending any language barrier among us.
Lucia was so right. We left in amazement at the strength of the people we met. We were reminded that kindness and compassion do, in fact, exist, and that they are powerful antidotes to cruelty and abuse. We were filled with pride seeing a Jewish community do the impossible; taking a leap of faith to address a crisis of epic proportions, with no road map and no real plan. We saw this community change people’s lives and were privileged to be part of the story—as we are now inspired to take further action here in Boston.
There are immigrants right here in Boston fighting to stay with their families who have reached out for support. Volunteer to accompany them to court. Be part of a housing network to welcome them when they are released from detention. Advocate for passage of the Work and Family Mobility Act, allowing access to drivers’ licenses regardless of immigration status, and the Safe Communities Act, supporting the civil liberties of all people in the Commonwealth.
Heed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hanging on the walls of the shelter:
Si ayudo a una sola persona a tener esperanza, no habré vido en vano.
“If I help only one person to have hope, I won’t have lived in vain.”
Nahma Nadich is the active executive director of JCRC. This post was originally published here.
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