“Houston” is a hotline volunteer for Freedom for Immigrants. Here, she talks with Cynthia Galaz about her experience on the hotline and the bond she formed with a Colombian man, Fernando. Sadly, Fernando  was deported in late May. According to “Houston,” Fernando is currently hiding in the forest in Colombia, only coming into town for internet access and food. “Houston” crowdfunded a flight for him to Europe, scheduled to leave in less than two weeks. Fernando plans to ask for asylum once the plane touches down. It's the only hope he has left.

Cynthia Galaz: What’s one time you really connected with someone you spoke to on the hotline? Why?

“Houston”: That would be a Colombian man named Fernando. He randomly called a few weeks ago and mostly just wanted to talk to someone. Usually calls are stressful. People are really suffering, and despite constant understanding and even gratitude, they are still looking for solutions that I almost always can't provide or guarantee. However, for whatever reason, I genuinely enjoyed my conversation with him as just a conversation - despite all of the circumstances around it.

After it ended, I didn't expect any more than the usual encounter via the hotline (the case would be looked at by someone in California, and I likely wouldn't hear from him again directly). However, he started calling desperately trying to talk to me specifically again. Apparently, I can be a good listener, lol. Anyways, once I heard that, my heart smiled, and I was instantly attached to this one specific guy. We let him know when my shift was, and he'd call my whole shift (calls cut every 15 minutes and he'd call back again and again for 2 hours straight). He did this for weeks, and I got to know him very well. The man who taught me Spanish, Anulfo, was also Colombian. He was basically a father to me, and I was separated from him tragically years ago. I'm currently still looking for him, especially now. Fernando also has a kind of sensitive nature that is anxious, fighting off depression, writing poetry, and making art. Those things click with me, it's true. But beyond getting to know him more deeply over weeks, connecting as people and personalities, there's something ineffably awe-inspiring in this bond we’ve formed.


CG: What was one way you were able to help someone you spoke to? (contacting a family member, maybe, or even just empathizing with their situation). How did it impact you and the person you were speaking with?

Houston: It's Fernando again! So, he's having issues receiving and sending mail. It seems that he's being given an A Number that is either incorrect or not in ICE's systems for some reason (which interferes with mail). Anyways, his son in Colombia turned 16 on 6 May. He was telling me all about it, about his son, about how he can't send him a letter for his birthday. Then later in the week, I get an email from Google Local Guides. I've been a part of the program for years and have contributed a lot, so every once in a while, I get random prizes (last time it was a pair of socks - no joke). Anyways, this time I got a free postcard to send anywhere in the world via an app called MyPostcard. I don't have family or anything, especially abroad, and I immediately thought of Fernando. I got a picture of him off of his Facebook, then his son's address, then sent the son a birthday message:

Soy una voluntaria en Houston con el grupo Freedom for Immigrants. Tu padre esta teniendo problemas con correo. Entonces, estoy escribiendote para decirte, "Feliz Cumpleanos!" Tu padre no te olvidio nunca. Me dijo escribirte que eres su unico hijo. "Le estrano mucho.Es inteligente y sabe ingles perfectamente. Muy pronto vamos a estar juntos como padre y hijo. Ten cuidado y recuerde mis consejos." Es obvio que te ama y que eres su vida, su orgullo. Creemos que tiene el virus Covid-19. Pero probadamente va a ser mejor con rapidez. Aqui, estamos haciendo todo que podamos para ayudarlo. Lo siento, te amo tambien. Tu padre te ama.

English translation: I’m a volunteer in Houston with the group Freedom for Immigrants. Your father is having trouble with mail. Therefore, I’m writing to tell you, “Happy Birthday!” Your father never forgot you! He told me to write that you're his only son. “I miss him so much. He’s intelligent and knows English perfectly. Very soon we’ll be together as father and son. Be careful and remember my advice.” It’s obvious that he loves you and that you’re his life, his pride. We think he has Covid-19. But he’ll probably get better quickly. Here, we’re doing all that we can to help him. I’m sorry. I love you, too. Your father loves you.

Unfortunately, because of flight problems due to COVID-19, he never received the physical card.

CG: Can you speak to a moment where you were struck by the resilience and strength of spirit of someone you spoken to?

Houston: Any time (and it happens all of the time) that someone in a situation this extreme - in a camp or not knowing where a loved one is - actually considers me and thanks me or reassures me. I'm always being thanked for doing this work and being kept in someone's prayers - even though I haven't necessarily accomplished much besides keeping a record of what's happening. And since I write notes in our system in English, but calls are often in Spanish, I can sometimes get a bit turned around in conversations. And I've had people in a camp stop and reassure me that my Spanish is fine, that I can take my time writing things. Remember that that's the kind of people that Conservatives are putting into camps... the kind of people who are in a camp and still stop to be concerned about me and thankful to me while I'm sitting more or less comfortably in my living room.

And I won't lie although people reading this might be happier if I did... these moments usually fill me with sadness. I appreciate kindness as all sentient beings do. It's good for both of us that people in these situations still practice thoughtfulness and compassion. But I don't deserve such gratitude per se, I didn't usually do anything substantive for these victims. And I'm not the one who needs comfort in these situations - those beautiful people do. So I reflect their love right back... but it has a tinge of "bittersweet" to it.