by Michelle Rumbaut#### Starfish
I arrive at the station at 1 p.m., fresh from the sanctuary house on Mission Street to fill my trunk with backpacks and sack lunches, and the administrative bag with my name badge identifying me as a volunteer, the intake clipboards, and extra stashes of over-the-counter meds and diapers to dispense as needed.
This is my third shift, and I’m starting to feel like this is my new “office.” I’m getting to know the Greyhound staff, who are all nice and helpful.
I sit down in “my spot,” to the side and away from the main hub. I settle in, organize my stuff, sit down, wonder who might show up today… I look around and holy cow, there is a mass of women and children refugees sitting right there in plain sight, somehow I missed them walking in!
I walk over, introduce myself and what I am doing, and begin the now familiar process of “triaging” to figure out which ones have busses leaving soon, then working through the individual intakes and conversations. Just as I finished that group, I look up to see a whole new group of refugees who have been recently released from detention. And just as I finished that group, my new buddy Robert, the station man, gives me a heads up — there are about 30 more who just landed. Non stop for hours.
Several didn’t have departure times until 8:45 p.m., so I called the Mission House to see if they could come pick up that group so that they could rest for a few hours there, take a shower, and get a home cooked meal by the one refugee woman who has stayed on there as a cook. Most of these folks would be embarking on a multi-day bus trip, so this little respite means a great deal.
Here are some of the memories I took home with me from the dozens that I interviewed that day:
So many adorable, curious, eager, beautiful children. The boy with the huge gorgeous brown eyes. The ten year old girl with no front teeth and big grin. The teenagers, the babies. None seem to complain, just accept.
The 30 year old Guatemalan woman who was going to see her mother. Wonderful, I said, when is the last time you saw her? Twenty seven years ago; she had to leave when I was three.
The stories of the Hielera (“ICE box”), confirming the frigid temperatures and no blankets. The stories of having been on the road since early December. The stories of crossing the Rio Grande with little ones in tow. The ashamed looks each time I ask if they were issued a grillette.
The young mother with the grinning ten year old girl told me that she had to leave her home in Honduras; the man who had been trying to kill her had been let out of jail and she knew her only chance to survive was to leave. The stateside friend who offered to sponsor her told her she could bring only one child, so she decided to bring the 10-year-old and leave behind her 7-month-old (!) with her 15-year-old. Sophie’s Choice, in real life. It was either that, or certain death for her and probably all her kids — this was her best option.
The lady whose grillette (ankle monitor) was so tight that it was causing great pain and possibly obstructing blood flow. A potentially serious medical problem, but not a damn thing I could do about it other than to give her a supply of Advil. Only the ICE people can adjust that monitor, and she had to catch the bus. She was heading to a place near Seattle that would take days to get there with her young baby. I thought about how I would be flying to Seattle comfortably the next day, arriving that night.
The mother heading out on a multi-day trip to Charleston with zero dollars. I handed her a $20 from my wallet, hoping she could stretch it.
At around 5 p.m., most had already departed and only three families were left. I took them to eat at the bus station cafeteria, friend chicken and hot dogs. At least they will have something in their stomachs heading out on their long journeys. Just then, a new family arrives, and I am out of backpacks, out of medicine, and exhausted. I try to give them the best advice possible, and then I leave.
I feel like a kid trying to save starfish on the beach — you can only do so much, and hope that you can at least make a tiny difference to someone.
#### Three Mothers
The number of refugees keeps decreasing, allowing more time to spend with the ones who do arrive.
This morning there were only three mothers. I heard a few more came this afternoon.
A first for me — a mother from Romania! She looked forlorn and beaten, like that famous depression-era photo of the dust bowl mom. She could speak English reasonably well, but was very difficult to communicate with. Her darling 10-year-old daughter was bright and bright-smiled, despite her mom’s gloom. She was terrified of having to change busses along the route to Oakland.
Another first for me — a mother and her 12-year-old boy from Honduras, dropped off at the bus station, despite her telling the driver that she had an airline ticket, not a bus. Had I not been there, she would have been out of luck. There would have been no chance of her finding the airport. I took her to a nearby Walgreens to get cash from Western Union from a family member — otherwise she would have had no money. Then I took her to the airport, parked, and walked them inside to help navigate things like the kiosks, security, and how to find their gate. She blessed me a hundred times.
She left Honduras because tax-collecting thugs were asking for more and more money she couldn’t produce. They finally left her the dreaded note on her door, saying that if there was no money tomorrow, her son would be killed. She left immediately. Another Sophie’s Choice decision — she chose to leave her 16-year-old daughter with parents because otherwise she knew the girl would be raped repeatedly on the path to the US.
Upon their arrival at the border in Texas, the Border Patrol tried to separate her and her son, and gave her the choice to either go back to Mexico or be separated. She refused, over and over, until they relented.
The third mother was from El Salvador. An absolutely beautiful young mom, with four gorgeous little girls aged one to ten. She had been traveling with her husband, but at the Tijuana border the Border Patrol sequestered him, and she hasn’t seen or heard from him since.
They transferred her and the girls to Texas, where they put them all in the Hielera (ice box) for FIVE days, with very little food and of course no blankets. She is terrified, on her way to Boston. I gave her $40, the only cash she will have for a three-day journey. I also bought everyone breakfast tacos and fried chicken, which they devoured.
I try to give them hope, the sense that the worst is over, and that people are kind here.
We all hug at the end, even the Romanian woman with PTSD.