The look. I am beginning to recognize it after only one week of volunteering with Team TLC/NYC helping refugees. I am calling them refugees, not only because they are fleeing war zones, but also because migrant is a loaded word with political affiliations. This battle over immigration means we can not see what is right in front of us. It’s not until I was in the middle of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, surrounded by young families, that I thought how far we were from “give us your poor, your tired, your hungry,” and how one mile away my grandparents were received at Ellis Island.
I’m standing with families whose desperation I am only beginning to know. It starts with the look. Skinny. Sunken eyes. Shivering. Stress carved into the faces of four-year-olds who cling to their mothers for warmth and safety. When anyone in uniform raises their voices, they immediately startle. (The Army and National Guard who monitor this area are 90% Spanish speaking and are wonderful.) They’re used to being treated like garbage.
Most coming off the buses have walked miles through the Darien Gap, a perilous trek through the wettest place on earth; many losing whatever few belongings they had. One mother told me they spent eight days in the mud, and she showed me mosquito bites up and down her legs. Her husband had the tip of his finger bit off by a piranha. They went without food for three days. They drank water from “The River of Death,” and many got sick. While I played with their children, using stuffed animals and Google translate, the boy told me how he saw so many crocodiles. They all chimed in, crocodillios! And how they saw a dead body by El Rio Muerte. “Many dead,” a mother said.
There was silence. I kept playing and being silly with the kids, because what else can I do? I love making them laugh. Their smile is the best paycheck I have ever gotten.
I bring up crayons and paper to entertain the kids while they wait. I see a sign someone made. “Hispanic. Hard worker.” Even before the men get new socks, they are pleading for work. Anything. I wish I could hire them. TTLC helps them navigate the process. I just smile and dash back downstairs.
Asking for Shoes
A tiny mother wearing open toed shoes pointed to her feet, they were in so much pain, and as she tied her baby across her back with a baby blanket, she asked for shoes. How I wished I could help her. But I knew, in the storage room downstairs, that we had none. Families fill out a paper requesting what they need and TTLC/NYC tries to fulfill that order. There is also an Amazon wish list, but at this point it’s mostly donations.
The news keeps reporting on this with alarming headlines about the millions wasted. But you know what I could do with $100? I can buy families clean undies. That is my dream! Can you imagine a young girl getting her period and not having sanitary napkins or clean underwear? Well, I met that girl and her mother.
They’re from Ecuador, and passed through the Darien Gap. She told me about men carrying parcels of cocaine on their backs, and how women were raped. She looked down and away. I understood what was not being said. I couldn’t cry. She wasn’t crying. Her daughter was tightly holding one of the stuffed animals I gave her.
And there are whispers that women were raped on the bus.
I couldn’t understand this, but asked no questions. Later I wondered if mothers were raped in the seats next to their children. But what can I do other than offer her warmth and clean underwear. We have no clean underwear.
We have used, worn-out bras in our underwear box. I lose my temper and rant about how I am not here to virtue-wash people’s garbage. I hope I don’t piss off too many of my amazing fellow volunteers. Why couldn’t I leave the P.A. and buy her undies at CVS? Where is my brain? I’m not rich, but I recognize my wealth; clean water, food in a fridge, warmth. This is what has always driven me.
Even when I have “nothing,” I have everything.
I frantically search for pants for the young girl. I knew I had just sorted some and was ecstatic when I found them. Pants! Pants! Pants! (Thanks Steve Carell!) When you can fulfill one of those orders, it is a triumph. How dare Silicon Valley billionaires waste millions “making the world a better place” and pat each other on the back. They only line their own pockets. We are high fiving over used pants!
We operate on the kindness of strangers, all of whom mean well, but sorting through bags piled to the ceiling with “donations,” is maddening. Whatever can’t be used haunts the volunteers. People dropped their guilt off in garbage bags and walked away feeling virtuous, and we stand in their landfill, forlorn, frantically searching for pants.
I am not here to solve capitalism.
We serve these refugees in one of the richest cities in the world, and I can’t even give a bleeding pre-teen girl, who has witnessed death, starvation and sexual assault, clean underwear. They are so grateful and I hug the girl each time I dash in and out of the storage room. I am sweating, and wearing a silly hat to make the kids smile, and we are all laughing at this point.
The next day I do a last-minute coat drive using Nextdoor, and my Park Slope neighbors understand the assignment! I get bags of winter coats and shoes within hours. I jump around my room, so excited to get these to TTLC. When I limp off the A train at 42nd Street, I see a family in T-shirts and sandals. I recognize the look.
In my (slowly improving) Spanish, I say “buenos dias” with a smile and ask where they are from. Ecuador. I ask if they need chaquetas y zapatos. They nod eagerly. I open the bag and step back. So, not all the coats made it to TTLC, but that’s ok.
The huddled masses are freezing.
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