August 20, 2019

IKAR Brings Supplies to Migrant Shelter in Mexico

IKAR representatives pass out clothing to migrants at shelter.

“Be the first to greet every person.” — Rabbi Matya, the son of Charash

Mention the word “immigrant” and most people agree we have been subjected to an endless stream of facts, statistics and even falsehoods. 

Sometimes the only way to understand the truth is to witness it.

After reading and listening to the countless news stories — “There’s a crisis at the border” — on Jan. 12-13, my husband and I decided to follow our religious tradition and directive: help the stranger, and even go toward them, sharing what we had, just as our forefather Abraham did outside his tent.  

We drove our truck from our home in Los Angeles to Tijuana last weekend, towing a trailer stuffed with humanitarian supplies for a needy migrant shelter. 

Our plan was to share what our IKAR community had donated: diapers, toilet paper, towels, blankets, new socks and underwear, bags of rice and beans, detergent, personal care items and art supplies, and because our community is so generous, we had enough money for a new, heavy-duty washing machine.

We arranged to meet Pedro Rios, the program director for the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego. Rios is a quiet and kind man. As director of migrant programs for the San Diego Quaker community, he volunteered to serve as our guide and translator.   

Crossing the border was easy. The Mexican customs agents were curious about our items and X-rayed our entire truck as we watched from the sidelines. We rendezvoused with Rios at the Costco in Tijuana and loaded up the shiny new Samsung washing machine.  

It was a 15-minute drive to the Benito Juarez “Colonia,” a gritty, working-class neighborhood about a mile south of the border. We had barely put the truck in park before we were welcomed by the radiant smile of Leticia Herrera, the founder of Una Luz de Esperanza. Her shelter, a Light of Hope, is populated by migrants who made the long trek from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and southern Mexico, all of them hoping to gain asylum in the United States.  

That morning, there were 69 residents in the small shelter, the vast majority women, young children, toddlers and babies. A handful of men eagerly pitched in to unload the washing machine. 

The children hovering around our truck immediately touched our hearts, everyone keen to carry all our supplies to waiting tables. Herrera asked me to help hand out the socks, underwear and diapers to a growing line of patient residents. In less than an hour, everything had found a new owner.  All the women were smiling and laughing, embracing their colorful new socks and underwear. The children were busy drawing pictures with chalk and crayons or piecing together puzzles. Others waited patiently for their turn with a noisy toy car. 

Herrera instructed an older boy, whose job it was to ensure no child had a toy car for more than five minutes before passing it on to the next child. A group of children shared the art supplies without squabbling. Whatever tension, anxiety or fear these folks were carrying, they were enjoying a respite from their worries.

“We decided to follow our religious tradition and directive: help the stranger, and drove our truck to Tijuana, towing a trailer stuffed with humanitarian supplies for a needy migrant shelter.”

Herrera showed us where families were staying, opening a door to a large, unfurnished room. Mattresses lay on the floor — one per family. All migrants can stay as long as they need a place to stay.  

Every day, the shelter receives a phone call from the Mexican government informing it how many people seeking asylum have been processed. The government asks Herrera how many people she can shelter until United States immigration officials call their number for an interview. That afternoon alone, Herrera said she could accommodate an additional 15 migrants. It was hard to comprehend how 15 more souls could fit under her roof. “I love my people,” Hererra said, so she finds a way.  

As we prepared to leave, my husband and I vowed to return. The need is great and the situation precarious. We each must ask ourselves the question: Is this who our country is fearful of? If that’s the case, then we have a much bigger problem than we realize.  

Leaving Tijuana, looking at my photos of all the people we had helped make it through another day, I reflected on the emotional experience. I watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean and felt calm.

But then a politician declared over the radio, “We are not a nation of immigrants. This is America!” He was referring to a recent change on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services webpage. An edit to the mission statement eliminated a phrase that has always defined our country as a nation of immigrants. 

I suppose politicians and revisionists can change words, but they cannot change history. I feel as if I exist in an Orwellian era. I prefer the truth I find every week at IKAR, the truth in our Torah.

And I will continue to run toward the stranger. 

Just like Abraham.

Cipra Nemeth is on the board of the National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles. She has been honored by the L.A. City Council, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, the city of West Hollywood and the Obama White House for her volunteer work.