by Sue Ann Rybak
A humanitarian crisis is happening just yards away from the United States’ doorstep – in Matamoros, Tamaulipas State, Mexico. Over 2,000 migrant asylum seekers live in horrid conditions in a makeshift tent encampment along the Rio Grande River, waiting to be processed and hoping that their asylum application will be granted.
Mt. Airy resident Judith Elson, 77, said the situation is the result of President Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MMP), “Remain in Mexico.” Under the MPP, individuals that arrive at the Southern border and ask for asylum are issued a day to appear in immigration court (a tent just yards from the camp).
Elson, a member of the Greater Philadelphia Branch of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), traveled to Matamoros with four other members of WILPF: Tina Shelton, of Delaware County, coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Branch of WILPF, Petra Bauer, 56, and Megan Do Nascimento, 52, both of Mt. Airy, and Barbara West, of Maine, in February to volunteer with the nonprofit organization Team Brownsville, www.teambrownsville.org, which makes and delivers free meals to the asylum seekers and provides schooling and school supplies in the camp.
Bauer, who is also an immigrant from Germany, said it is a dire situation. She called the tent courts, where the fate of asylum seekers is determined, embarrassing.
Before COVID-19, asylum seekers had to wait four to six months for a court date. According to Bauer, hundreds of people, many of whom are women and young children, are denied entry because they don’t have the proper documentation.
“None of the asylum seekers had the right paperwork, often leaving their homes in a hurry to avoid persecution,” Bauer said. “A lot of them have families in the United States who can sponsor them.”
Two asylum seekers, Ada and Carmen, say the camps are not safe. In fact, the State Department issued a “Do not Travel Alert” to the state of Tamaulipas because of the rampant violence. Many children and adults are kidnapped by cartels in the area and held for ransom or trafficked.
According to an article earlier this year in The Guardian, 80 percent of asylum seekers reported being victims of violence while waiting for their U.S. court date at the border.
Many parents are sending their children out of desperation, and unsafe living conditions—some as young as three — to cross the Gateway International Bridge alone because border control has to accept them.
However, since March 20, due to COVID-19, the southwest border has been closed to travel, and all immigration hearings are temporarily halted until further notice.
While the women were there, they volunteered with WORLD Central Kitchen (WCK), a nonprofit founded by Chef Josѐ Garces that provides meals during a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.
In the late afternoon after helping to prepare and cook food for dinner, Elson said they would load the meals into wagons and cross the border. Helping hand out the food allowed them to connect with asylum seekers and listen to their stories. By simply listening and bearing witness, she said, they made a difference.
Do Nascimento, who speaks Spanish and Portuguese, taught a few yoga classes while she was there, including one for kids.
“It was a little wild,” she said. “We had so much fun; we did cat-cow. The kids were meowing and mooing. There were a couple of moments when I did yoga that was pretty powerful. Judy and Petra both experienced this with me. We were looking at these kids,, and started to cry.”
Do Nascimento said one of the little girls at the camp “latched onto her” and they formed a friendship.
“She never asked if I could give her money or take her to the United States or help her family,” said Do Nascimento. “She just wanted to hug me and be with me.
“I thought it was going to be hard to say goodbye to her. We had bonded. I taught her some English, and she came to some of my yoga classes.”
On the last day, Do Nascimento was walking to the tent to help serve food when the little girl came up to her.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Bye’ and ran off," she said.
Besides preparing and serving food for asylum seekers, the women also volunteered at the Brownsville bus station and the Sidewalk School. Every Sunday morning, teachers from Brownsville cart wagons full of books, school supplies, and goodie bags for the children.
Do Nascimento said the asylum seekers are not a threat.
“They want the same things we all want: a safe place to live, to feel loved, secure, and where their children are out of danger.”
For more information about Team Brownsville or to donate, go to https://www.teambrownsville.org/.