Steve Crofter Looks Back
Brattleboro, February 1980: Taking cookies to a new neighbor
When my family and I moved to Brattleboro, we hadn’t known that several refugees from Laos had been resettled there. But we soon saw that the family in the apartment above us didn’t speak English and never went out to play in the snow. We baked cookies, walked upstairs, and knocked on their door. With smiles and nods and bows, we gave them the cookies.
Years later, the mom told us that she had flushed our gift down the toilet. After evading the soldiers, after swimming the Mekong River with baby in arms, after years in a refugee camp – she was wary. Were we being friendly, or trying to poison them?
Some 35 years later, the daughter of one of those Laotian families is our son’s wife. That’s the American dream: a melting pot, land of opportunity, with liberty and justice for all.
Texas, February 2015: Volunteering with Central American asylum seekers at the border
Put yourself in their shoes. You have left your home, probably forever, to flee the violence there. You came north to a strange land to seek asylum.
If you were one of the 69,000 children who crossed the border last year without an adult, you’re still held in detention, though it’s been months. If you are an adult with no relative already in the United States, you’re also held until your immigration hearing, perhaps two years later.
But say you are among the lucky ones. You have a relative here – someone who can send you money for a bus ticket, promise to get you to your immigration hearing six months or a year from now, commit to supporting you until then (because you won’t be allowed to work). You hold fast to the hope of being granted asylum.
Homeland Security takes you and a few dozen others to the McAllen, Texas, bus station. You stand in line for the Greyhound ticket to that faraway place where your relative lives. Then you are escorted three blocks south to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
I’m among the volunteers in the parish hall there. When you enter, we stop whatever we’re doing and applaud. We cry “Bienvenidos!” to let you know that here, now, you are truly welcome.
One of us begins the intake process:
Welcome. Please sit down. We’ll bring cups of water for the adults, Pedialyte for the children. We know you’re hungry and you’ll eat in a few minutes, but please let us talk with each of you first.
Let us look at your bus ticket. Some of you must catch a bus very soon. We’ll help
you first. If your bus is later this evening, please let the others go ahead in line.
On your journey you’ll have to change buses, some of you several times. As you travel away from the border, fewer people will speak Spanish. We’ll put a note in the envelope with your bus ticket: “Please help me. I don’t speak English. Please show me which bus I need to take.”
Before you leave, you can use our phone to call your relatives. We have a simple medical clinic for you if you have health concerns, and there’s a place where your children can play while you’re resting. But now it’s time to eat, so please wash your hands and sit down at the table.
Here’s a bowl of chicken soup and some tortillas. ¡Buen provecho! Enjoy your meal. Would you like another serving? There’s plenty, but don’t eat too much or you might be sick. We know how little you were fed in detention – one sandwich per person, three times a day.
The experience of living in the detention prison is fresh in your memory – no beds to sleep in, only a concrete floor to sit on in your wet or sweat-dampened clothes that took several days to dry in the unheated room. Now, the church has cots and blankets and pillows to offer if you must stay overnight.
You receive a little bag of toiletries – a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo. You can save the soap for later, because there’s some you can use in the shower here. If you have a baby, you receive diapers, formula and a clean bottle.
While you’re eating, volunteers look for new clothes for you. Well, not really new, they’re second-hand donations, but clean, and the shoes have laces – Homeland Security takes shoelaces away, afraid that someone might use them as a noose to commit suicide.
You miss your home. You are bone-tired. Perhaps you had to walk for a month before crossing that river. Perhaps you rode in the trunk of the coyote’s car while exhaust fumes made your 10-year-old son vomit again and again. If the car slowed down, you held your hand over your little daughter’s mouth so she wouldn’t cry out. She learned. When you were in detention and other children were running around, she timidly asked, “Is it okay to speak now?”
You take comfort when a volunteer calls your child mi hijita, “my little daughter.” In your culture, the idea that it takes a village to raise a child is not just a slogan. And it is your expectation still, despite the violence that has threatened children like her – forced conscription into drug cartel paramilitary gangs, human trafficking, kidnapping, rape, and other horrors.
You choose a basket of new clothes to replace your own. And after your shower, wearing the new clothes that don’t really fit, you are asked to discard the old ones, the clothes you wore when you left your home, leaving all your other worldly possessions behind. You search every pocket to be sure you don’t leave anything of value – money, papers, phone numbers, photographs. If you sewed money into a seam to hide it from thieves, you pull it out and put it in the envelope with your bus ticket.
When I served as a volunteer at Sacred Heart Church, my favorite place to help was at the showers. Sometimes my face was wet with moisture from the showers, but often it was tears running down my cheeks. I couldn’t do this work without weeping, and I was not the only one.
I was so very aware of the humanity and the individuality of the people who came through this rest stop. These were people reported as statistics – each one, just one. Just one of 140,000 asylum seekers who came to the United States last year. Just one of 100,000 coffee workers in Guatemala and Honduras who lost their livelihoods when a fungus, thriving due to climate change, decimated the crop. Just collateral damage from the US war on drugs that’s spilled over into Central America, even while the demand for drugs in our country makes narcotics so lucrative that those in the way of drug running are terrorized or killed.
I met a father willing to leave the cornfield that had been his father’s and grandfather’s before him, leaving with his son who would never inherit it – walking for a month, sleeping out in other people’s cornfields along the way.
I met a mother who gave her beloved 12-year-old daughter birth control pills before their journey, assuming that she would be raped before they arrived.
I will not forget a 15-year-old who vaguely remembers a daddy who left home when the boy was four, before the killing began, for the place called “The Angels” – Los Angeles. He and his mom are heading there to rejoin him, in just three more long tense days.
These are not the European immigrants celebrated at Ellis Island, but they are our continent’s immigrants, here, now. They are tired and poor and yearning to breathe free, and they need our friendship and attention. I don’t have a lamp, and there is no golden door, but I lift my eyes to meet them, to see them, and to say, “Welcome.”