Volunteering with Haitian Refugees in Tijuana, Mexico

Update: Our friend Hugo, who lead us to visit the shelters in Tijuana went missing a few weeks ago in Mexico.  Thankfully he was found, but he was seriously injured in what appears to be a beating and is currently hospitalised in Mexico City.  His family are desperately trying to raise money to get him back to the United States and pay for his hospital bills.  Please donate to the GoFundMe below:

I first started noticing something different on my trips to Tijuana in May last year.  I started to hear something that wasn’t Spanish, but instead sounded like accented French.  I started to see more people of African descent (which is unusual in TJ), and then while out celebrating for my birthday, I saw something that really hit me emotionally, refugee children camped out with their parents waiting to apply for Asylum on the US/Mexico Border.  I’d been aware that something was going on, but I wasn’t really aware of the scale of the crisis until months later.

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The Port of Entry at the US Border with Mexico

I started to see posts from a friend of mine, Hugo Castro who also volunteered for Border Angels on the plight of Haitian and other refugees who were affected by an Obama era change in policy making it much, much harder for them to apply for Asylum in the United States. Gradually more and more articles started to pop up on my Facebook newsfeed showing the thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who were overcrowding the limited space in shelters in Tijuana.

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This small kitchen feeds 400+ migrants daily, with no running water and limited power

So, it was Christmas Eve in 2016, and everyone else was with their family.  All of my family are in New Zealand, while we are not particularly close to Sarah’s side of the family in the United States. Neither of us are religious, so we don’t really celebrate the Christmas holiday and were looking for something positive to do.  Our idea, to go down to Tijuana for a few beers, and maybe buy some toys or blankets for some children in the shelters.  Little did we know how much things had changed over the last few months and how the situation had turned into a full blown crisis.

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Migrant children in the shelter

So we rang our friends Valeria, Hugo and Gaba, who had been looking after a Japanese journalist – Hide who was putting together a documentary on the issue and asked if we could meet up and perhaps go to the shelters that were in the most need.  Hugo told us of a few, and said that there was one in particular that was in the most need of basic necessities – especially bottled water, this shelter was not an official shelter, but instead a converted church in the hills above Tijuana that was now home to approximately 400+ refugees including 50 children.  It was completely dependent on charity and had no running water for drinking, let alone water for washing and bathing.

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Tents outside Juventad 2000 in Tijuana

Before we went there we went to some other shelters that were in need, Juventad 2000 which was overflowing into the courtyard and had many migrants sleeping in tents, and a smaller shelter that had a family of 20 who had fled violence in southern Mexico and were awaiting a decision on their asylum application.  We dropped off food and drinks that had been donated by other supporters via San Diego NGO Border Angels before heading to Costco to get some supplies – this would be Sarah’s and my Christmas present to each other.

We had initially thought of purchasing Toys or something for children, but after learning the severity of the situation, we settled on the basics, filling a shopping trolley up with necessities like cooking oil, bleach, toothbrushes and toothpaste, nappies, water, sanitary pads etc.  We then drove to the shelter.  The drive took us on the road towards the Playas in Tijuana before veering off and up the hills into the Barrios that had been constructed on the hillside. This township wasn’t exactly “official” meaning that once we eventually got to the shelter – a church that was built on an old landfill, that many of the houses and structures here had been built without permission and did not have government provided infrastructure such as running water.

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Carrying supplies to the shelter by hand after the road washed out

To make matters worse, the heavy rain had washed out the dirt and gravel road, creating a fast flowing river that we had to cross on a bridge made out of pallets before we could get to the shelter.  When we arrived I saw something that I wasn’t prepared for and left me emotionally drained and completely shocked.  These people were just the tip of the iceberg and represented a huge movement of refugees who were in a desperate situation.  400 of them were essentially without the basic necessities of life.  Their christmas dinner would have consisted of coffee, and they couldn’t even flush the toilet or take a shower. The supplies that we dropped off wouldn’t be enough for an hour, let alone a day or a week.

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400+ Migrants were living in this converted church hall

I made a heartfelt plea for help on instagram, which was picked up by groups such as Undocumedia and we worked with Border Angels to start up a campaign for donations, and to urge volunteers to drive down to TJ and drop off supplies directly to not only this shelter, but other shelters in need. We spent the rest of the day talking to people and doing what we can to raise money. Almost straight away we raised a few thousand dollars from some of the awesome supporters out there and started getting to work.

 

The day after Christmas and we were back in TJ, we’d got the first check released from the donations and had converted it into Pesos. We met with some local activists in a cafe before heading once again to Costco to pick up supplies to take to the shelters. This time we were able to get boxes of water, cooking oil, nappies, coffee and other necessities  while we waited for our driver from a Mexican government department that helps migrants.  When we got there we found heavy machinery had already made the road accessible to vehicles again and after speaking to the pastor we found out that the water that was desperately needed could be purchased with some of the money we had, so we ordered a tanker of water to fill up the underground reservoir for the church come shelter. We also learnt that while they had bulk water tanks for the drinking water, they couldn’t afford the fixtures and fittings such as taps to actually use them and fill them – so off we went to the hardware store to purchase these – our goal – to ensure that they had water to clean and wash with as well as safe drinking water before Sarah and I left for our holiday. Thankfully the pastor, Hugo and I were able to find the required hardware and within a few hours we had everything built.

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Hugo Castro taking a water tank to the hardware store so we can get the necessary fittings

Sarah and Valeria delivered more nappies to the pastors wife, and spoke to some of the mothers where they learned some shocking news – that nappies and sanitary items were in such a shortage that they were being reused, resulting in infection.  There were also pregnant mothers with infections who desperately needed doctors examinations or they could lose their unborn children.

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Sarah and Valeria with Supplies

Thankfully at this stage awareness was increasing thanks to the work of Undocumedia and Border Angels, and more volunteers were on their way with food, money and supplies.  Meaning that we could rest and get on with our planned holiday for a few days in San Felipe.

I’ve had to take a step back from helping out since we got back due to work commitments, but hard working activists like Hugo Castro, Gaba Cortes and our friends Valeria and Osvaldo have been leading regular groups and supply drops to the shelters.   Organisations such as Border Angels and Undocumedia have been leading the way in fundraising as well.  This situation is going to get worse before it gets better, especially with the current political climate, and there is a very real risk of people getting seriously ill in overcrowded shelters without supplies – they need your help.

 

To donate or volunteer, please visit Border Angels and give generously or consider joining one of the supply drops to shelters to help first hand.

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