Report from the Border: Volunteering with Team Brownsville

by Susan Abrams, LWCF board member

Editors note: This is the first report back from Brownsville & Matamoros by our amazingly dedicated board member Susan Abrams, who is currently spending one week volunteering with Team Brownsville. More updates will follow. Faces are blurred in all photos to protect the privacy of those living and volunteering in the border camps.

Phew….I had a new teaching experience this morning!  Street School happens every Sunday morning and it is a little like herding cats! At 8:15 about 20 people gathered at the bus station in Brownsville. We loaded 10 canvas wagons with donations of book bags, craft supplies, games, goodie bags, books and assorted other stuff to bring to about 100 kids waiting in the tent camp in Matamoros, Mexico. The generosity of people to provide these things Sunday after Sunday really reminds you that, despite the people who made the decisions that created this disgraceful situation, there are still many other caring, giving people in this country. The volunteers who dragged the wagons through the bus station and across the International Bridge came from Kansas, Washington state, Boston.

 At the bridge we put in 4 quarters (there are machines to make change-just in case you didn’t bring your 4 quarters!) and walked across the bridge to the Mexican side. Nobody checks your passport in that direction-I thought they’d stamp it but, nope, nobody really cared about who went that direction. Coming back you go through US customs check.

It’s a real gut punch when you approach the tent camp. Wall to wall tents…they aren’t kidding when they say a tent camp. Picture a family outing with a simple, small tent, and then think about spending 6 or 8 months (or more) with all your kids in that 20 square foot space. And the tent next door is less than an inch from yours.  Privacy is obviously in short supply (okay, no supply) here. There is a row of Porta-Potties and a few showers and sinks that have been set up in a central location. And the dust is pervasive.  It was windy when we got there and everything was covered in dust, including us. I can’t imagine what it’s like when it rains….or when it gets hot.

The kids excitedly anticipated our arrival and when I claimed my piece of tarp (there is a covered area where they do the Sunday Street School and they put down the tarps so everyone isn’t sitting in the dirt) I immediately had 5 or 6 kids. Have you ever tried to explain how to play a dice game (or any game) to little kids when the only words in their language you know are things like, good luck, or good morning? The good news was the kids could all count the dots on the dice game we were playing. The not so good news is some of them can’t write the numbers. And trying to explain that player number 1 puts the sum of the dice in this column and player 2 puts the sum of their dice in this column…definitely beyond my Spanish. And telling them to share the dice and take turns….that definitely wasn’t in my phrase book!  We had 4 sessions of 15 minutes each and there were different kids for each session. I think it’s fair to say that a full day of teaching second grade was not as tiring as the hour I spent this morning! And knowing that so many of those kids have missed so much of their education makes me a little crazy. There is a reading incentive (and a growing library) and one of the boys read 100 books! And he played the dice game even after we were cleaning up. What incredible invention or discovery might he make if he only has a chance.

The camp has it’s own sort of social order-people tend to live in enclaves with other asylum seekers from their country. Each country has its own leader and committees are set up to do clean up, keep order and generally do the best they can to make the circumstances less awful. The resilience of the adults (and the children) is pretty amazing. And it makes you realize the incredible privilege we enjoy-our homes, regular meals, safe communities (at least for some of us.) You walk back across the bridge, past an hours long line of Mexican residents going across the bridge to shop, visit family and friends, and feel guilty when you go to the local taco place to sit down and eat whatever you want there. Then you get in your car and go back to the AirB&B where you have your own bathroom, a hot shower, soft towels, a real bed.

So you do what you can-tomorrow we go back to prepare the dinner that gets brought across the bridge every night, in the same red and blue canvas wagons, to feed the hundreds and hundreds of families who depend on this charity for their survival. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our quarterly e-newsletter to receive updates directly in your inbox!