Sunday, September 1, 2019

Word of the Year 2019: Action: A Refugee Shelter

Casa Alitas in the old monastery. Tucson, Arizona. July 2019.

Casa Alitas is a shelter for refugees in Tucson. It's a beehive of hope administered by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, overseen by a handful of paid staff, but kept buzzing by a swarm of volunteer worker bees.

When I hit Tucson in the spring, Casa Alitas was in an old monastery on Campbell Street.

Casa Alitas in the old monastery. Tucson, Arizona. August 2019.


At the volunteer orientation I attended in early June, I heard these statements from the presenters (some paraphrased by me) about the women, men, and children who arrive at Casa Alitas. Assume that any factual errors are mine, due to misunderstanding on my part, and not the presenters' errors.
  • The City of Tucson opened two shelters for a few days, and stopped the sending of refugees to Casa Alitas, but after about three days, realized it was out of its depth. 
  • Border Patrol (BP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used to give Casa Alitas advance notice of numbers and a list of names of incoming refugees, but sometimes now we might only get 15 minutes advance notice of incoming guests and no idea of how many people to expect. 
  • BP/ICE make a LOT of mistakes on the paperwork they give to the refugees they process. Sometimes the year is wrong, for example.
  • We didn't used to need security guards at the shelter, but anti-immigration activists have entered the monastery campus for intimidation purposes.
  • [At the time of this early-June orientation] the shelter transfers out 50-60 refugees per day toward their destinations within the US.

"[Upon arrival], we remove the Border Patrol (BP)/Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bracelets because they are not numbers anymore; they are a person."

"We reassure them they are in the United States. Often they have been moved from one place to another by BP/ICE, without being told where they are going, so they don't know if they were taken back to Mexico or where they are."

"[Upon arrival] we give them chicken soup, because often they have had little to eat for a long time. They will get sick if we give them flour (which they are unaccustomed to) or if we give them too much to eat too soon."

"Some adults enter the US for asylum not only with their children, but nieces or nephews whose parents were killed. Often they don't have the 'right' documentation to prove their relationships. So the nieces or nephews are separated from their guardians and taken to other locations."

The overarching message I received from orientation was this: The refugees are our guests and we shall treat them as such.

Casa Alitas in the old monastery. Tucson, Arizona. July 2019.

Volunteers come from around the US

One day when I reported for a volunteer shift, I met a group of women and men who'd come down to Tucson from Colorado Springs for the sole purpose of volunteering at Casa Alitas for a week. All day, every day, they volunteered.

I also met a registered nurse from New York. She and her husband were semi-full-time RVers who, while they lingered in Tucson, volunteered at the shelter a few months earlier. They eventually returned to their New York home base, but she couldn't stop thinking about Casa Alitas. So she came back alone, this time making her temporary home in a room at the monastery. 

A herculean operation

Some days, more than a hundred refugees arrived at the shelter. 

I so admire the coordinators who somehow make it all work. And the volunteers who donate goods and time, who cook and who serve meals, and who sort clothes, and who help guests find the clothes and shoes in the right sizes, and who provide medical care, and who drive people to the bus station, and who offer a safe place for guests to fall asleep with one's family. And who honor their dignity.

The monastery closes and a new shelter home opens

At the end of August, Casa Alitas moved to a county-owned facility. More on this in another post.

By the end of its tenure in the old monastery, the shelter's security had to be tightened almost to a lock-down mode because of the threatening presence of anti-immigration activists.

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