“¿Estará mi hermana allí?” I was in the car driving a mom and her daughter from another shelter to The Inn. “¡Sí! Tu hermana, y hermano, tu otra hermana y todos sus hijos” I responded looking back to see the mother propping up her sleeping toddler’s head. For the past three days, we had been trying to piece together this family of four siblings traveling with their children. This sister and her child was the last piece to the familial puzzle. We knew that the mother was set to be processed by and released from I.C.E. today, and even though the director of The Inn texted an I.C.E. agent and asked for her to be sent to us instead of the other shelter that did not have the rest of her family, that didn’t happen.
As we pulled up, the brother and a sister along with a three-year-old nephew were waiting at the top of the steps for their sister and niece. The mom’s eyes lit up as she saw familiar faces. She gently started moving as to not wake her daughter as she prepared to get out of the car. I got out of the car and opened the back seat door so the uncle and aunt could get their niece out before proceeding to open the trunk to help with bags. The little girl was still asleep as her aunt picked her up and placed her on her shoulder, but then her eyes bolted open and she noticed who was holding her and she started to give her aunt a big hug. The mom walked around the car and immediately started crying with her brother as they wrapped themselves in a hug.
We all started going downstairs where the other sister, the sister-in-law, and all the nieces and nephews in this family came up to greet their family. After many days, this family was finally all together and they could be on their way to their family further in the U.S. This had been a long journey with a lot of miscommunication and disappointment. It was wonderful and so beautiful to watch this family be reunited but this usually doesn’t happen.
Something that has been difficult for me to grasp during my time at The Inn has been how we, The United States, defines family especially when it comes to migrant families seeking asylum in the U.S. Large, extended families like this one are often separated. From what I have seen at The Inn, family units with a mom, dad, and child(ren) are often released to Non-Governmental Organizations like The Inn, but when a pregnant woman and her husband are processed, they don’t count as a family. The father/husband is sent to detention and we will only receive the pregnant woman. Extended families usually aren’t released together even if they are going to the same sponsor in the U.S. That is why it took so many days to gather together this one family, and luckily none of the families were sent to a family detention center.
It was so heartwarming to get to see these siblings and cousins reunite with each other, but I recognize that they shouldn’t have been separated from each other in the first place. With Thanksgiving coming up next week, I can’t help but think about and mourn for all the families who won’t be together, specifically migrants and migrant families who are being separated from siblings, children, parents, etc. by the U.S. government while a lot of Americans will be celebrating with and giving thanks for family. This is upsetting to think about and I am challenging myself to sit in the anger and frustration over the separation of families, while also actively voicing how this is wrong. If I don’t say anything, I am continuing the cycle of normalizing something wrong and harmful.
Do you wanna go on a field trip, my placement supervisor asked me.
I mean I can, I said. To where? Knowing full well that I actually had a full week of work that had piled up and I shouldn’t really be prioritizing this trip after missing all week in Colorado. However, we needed to get these motions for extensions to Eloy because there was no one to cover the hearings for tomorrow. All of the sudden, these papers were rather important. I grabbed eagerly at the keys to Pickle, my placement supervisors blue Prius, and hit the road for the 45 (more like hour) drive to Eloy. My first trip to the detention center. I had been rather excited for this moment most of my year thus far. I had not yet been to a detention center. When I first got to Tucson, I imagined that the facilities were like apartment complexes where people were held just so the government could “keep their eyes on them”. I had already heard that many times, people do nothing wrong to end up in these areas. When entering the US to start a new life, or sometimes even just to continue the lives they have always led, ICE would pick them up. Or, they would be stopped going to work, the grocery store, or a friends house. The term “driving while black” I have learned really just means driving while of color and anybody that is not white or does not fit the right profile therefore labeled “suspicious” and is susceptible to unauthorized harassment. As I was driving past the cotton fields and through Arizona’s countryside, I soon realized that in reality, our detention centers are prisons. I should have put it together sooner. That the term “detention” is never a pretty word. I approached the prison and walked to the tall front gate.
My placement supervisor had semi warned me of the process before I got there: walk to the gate, state yourself, walk through the doors, go through security, get escorted to the court, deliver the papers, walk out. As soon as I entered the cold, brick, and barbed wire facility, I forgot everything. I went to hit the button to be buzzed through the first of three doors to the building. The guard, clearly used to people knowing the routine, mumbles into the mic. Not understanding, I hit the button again. The guard sighs and says, “okay okay just come on through give me a minute”. I walk through the first set and realize the second set is again locked. I ring the button like a doorbell- I hit it twice, “I said hold on” the guard responded. 3 minutes, or forever later, the door opens. The main door, the last door, is unlocked and I am given passage. The guard sighs at me as we finally get to look each other in the eyes. “What are you doing here, state your business”. “I, I am from the public defender’s office, I am here dropping off court papers”. Okay, go through security- It’s just like the airport, she instructs. Luckily, I had just gone to Colorado and been traveling in the recent years, four years ago I would have been lost. As I got through the unguided security, the woman guard became busy. Hoping to alleviate pressure, I jumped up and followed the group of attorneys, thinking surely, they would know where we were going. We. Ha.
The attorneys, as it turned out, were taking a short tour of the facility and then going to speak to clients in the center. So, I toured too. And then, as we ended the tour I walked up to the guard doe eyed and apologized admitting I was lost. He calmly instructed me back to the lobby where I got stuck in, the BERMUDA triangle. Which is a corner hallway that is between two more locked doors. I was stuck and just when I was about to ring the button, the woman guard, the same one I had before, got back on the buzzer. “You’re just gonna have to wait there; I’m busy, and you didn’t follow the instructions I gave you”. Wait, she gave me instructions? I waited ten minutes, then left to the lobby where I was scolded and informed I was not to be going anywhere un-escorted. I think they were now weary of little old me being unattended. An escort came, picked me up, lead me down a long hallway with several more doors locked every so feet. Then, finally, I made it to court. A cheery office cubicle space decked out in Halloween garb. Little did they seem to realize that the cement walls, barbed wire, and cold metal locking doors were more frightening than the googly eyed bats and spiders on their door.
The ten minutes I was in that room was the most relaxed I felt. I waited, and waited, and my escort never came back despite her 6 warnings not to leave without her. Finally, the receptionist I talked to was leaving and offered to escort me. While hesitant to disturb the system, I was also ready to leave and I had my office-mates staying late waiting for me to return. As we walked I couldn’t help but ask her how long she worked here. Four and a half years, four and a half years too long, she admitted. But it gets less dreary and scary after a while. To demonstrate, she yelled back at the guard who mumbled on the intercom “COURRRRRTT”, clearly she knew the common system. She repeated the screeching through security and our three locked doors outside. Always locked, never easy to arrive or to leave.
My first trip to the Eloy detention center was not what I expected. It was a cold and sad place. It was filled with people who dreamed of being citizens but were now in orange jumpsuits awaiting the inevitable deportation or disappearance. I studied our prison systems enough in college to realize that they are unfairly made up of a large POC (people of color) population. Yet, this was just a further example of how we continue to separate families and put people in cages. And for what? In my personal opinion, these families are either A) looking for a better life(shouldn’t we be happy they think our country is so great?) or B) these families existed on the “border region” and who are we to withhold them from being on the land their families have owned for centuries? I need to know what we are doing America.
*Disclaimer: This is more political than I have ever been before but being in the desert, hearing stories, and watching things NOT get done- it’s easy to gain and feel the need to share this opinion. Please feel free to find me on social media, text me for a time to chat, or shoot me an email if you have questions or a differing opinion you feel needs heard.*
Let us go across to the other side
In the Gospel of Mark there are a lot of times when Jesus and the disciples cross from Jewish land to Gentile land and vice versa. This gospel is read by the delegation groups in preparation for their trip to Agua Prieta/Douglas, and I too read and have been discussing with each group various verses from it.
It has had me thinking a lot about who is willing to cross and who is able to cross these borders. For example, there is a passage in which Jesus and the disciples cross into Gentile land. Jesus leaves the boat and begins healing gentiles, and in this passage, the longest in Mark, none of the disciples are mentioned at all. My boss pointed this out to me, and questioned if they stayed behind in the boat and let Jesus go to do his thing alone. Where they not willing to go across to the other side?
Though I have physically crossed the border, I question, in what ways have I stayed behind in the boat? Have I been fully present in the community of Agua Prieta? Am I fully present with each of the migrants?
And then there’s the HUGE question: who is able to cross?
All of the delegation groups will testify how surprisingly easy it is to cross into Mexico- no lines, no presentation of your papers. But with over a thousand migrants on the list to stay in CAME (the shelter for migrants), it is clear that the reality is not the same when crossing the opposite direction. Beneath blankets tied to the fence-style wall that borders the US, sleeping on mats laid on top of the concrete, are migrants that could testify how surprisingly (?) hard it is to cross into the United States.
My white skin and my “passport privilege” make this a reality I am blind to. And as I ride my bike past the 2 hour long line of cars waiting at the port of entry, I greet the migrants staying in la línea, I am able to “go across to the other side” with an ease they’ll never know.
There multiple realities here, regarding “the other side”, “el otro lado”.
I am really grateful to be here to take it all in. Both by sharing in the experience of living amongst a border, and by learning from those whose realities have to be different than mine due to which side we were born on.
The first week I was on my own, I was in New York for a week doing orientation. I was excited about all the new people I was going to meet and all the curriculum I was going to learn to better myself in this year of service and how to make this year productive . Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that week of orientation would be about white supremacy and racism. The second day of orientation we dove right into the topic of white supremacy, it was weird honestly. I was uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable because this was a new topic to me, because it wasn’t as a person of color. As a person of color I have to go out into the world with my head held high on my shoulders and my ears opened but immune to the comments being shouted at me either on my body or even because the color of my skin. I was uncomfortable because being in a room that was ninety-five percent white and being one of five people of color in the room made it uncomfortable. Made it so awkward because you could see the shame and guilt on everyone’s faces. When we talked about white supremacy and racism I fell silent, I felt I could not speak, not because I didn’t have thoughts forming in my head, but because I was afraid to say how I actually felt and my own experiences with white supremacy and racism. I was afraid of being looked at with those eyes. What I mean by “those eyes” is the guilt felt and often times filled with petty eyes, that people not of color give you when they feel bad for you. But this is besides the point, I wanted to take the time to write this blog because I wanted everyone to know what a true honor it was to be apart of something so beautiful. Being in a room of people not of color trying to better themselves and make up for their ancestors past mistakes, made my heart warm. I think about that orientation a lot. That orientation gave me hope that I had been lacking because of the world we live in today. And it still does, knowing that the people in that room are trying to fight alongside me to help stop injustice action, racism, white supremacy, etc. That we won’t stop and our voices will continue to be heard, we will fight and stand up for what we believe, now in this year of service, but also for the rest of our lives. Thank you YAV orientation for giving me that hope back. For reminding me why I am here and why I continue to fight for what I believe in.
A month before I left Asheville, I made a decision to do a second YAV year. It was in no way an easy decision. As soon as spring hit, I began to think seriously about the options that laid ahead of me for the next year. I was supposed to have been using the whole year as a “gap year” focusing what came next after college and what interested me. I went into Asheville, hoping that it would possibly even lead to a future job or career path. As I got closer to the end, that dream became more and more of a reality as several options to stay came my way. Job offers, Americorps years, even options to go to my Illinois home for the year. None of them seemed right though. I was convinced that as much as I wanted to stay in Asheville, by staying, I would be taking an opportunity away from someone else. Also, I had came into Asheville knowing that the experience would only be a year and so in some ways, my subconscious was ready to move onto whatever came next. My heart may not have been ready, but every other part of me seemed to be- my muscles for instance were counting down the days as we entered June and they didn’t have to carry heavy sofas and prove themselves to old men who looked at me sideways. Going home also seemed like a step back- I had convinced myself that moving forward into the future had to mean a step forward. So, when a representative from the giving’s department of the PCUSA church came for a visit and asked us what came next in continuing this knowledge of faith in action, only one answer really made sense. In discerning my call last year, I started thinking about seminary, but am not yet ready. I need more hands-on experience and learning. There is so much of the social justice world that I am just beginning to get a flavor for. A year on the border stepping FAR out of my comfort zone, seemed like the perfect opportunity for change and growth. With a half an hour left on the clock to submit my application, I had committed to a second year.
The commitment has taken a while to sink in.
I left Asheville feeling like I was prepared and fully expecting the challenges ahead. However, writing this two weeks in, I can tell you that everyday here so far has proven me wrong. Although I am doing a second year of service through the PCUSA Missions Agency, the comparisons between my years end there. I am living with 5 women again, but they are completely different from my roommates last year. My current site supervisor may be friends with my past one, but their guidance styles are very different. Last year, I had a job where I was constantly on the move and lifting furniture; so far this year, I have had a lot of office work and sorting in the nice air conditioning. Last year, I had my car and relied on that privilege more often than I should; this year the temptation is gone, and my primary mode of transportation is a bicycle. The years are drastically different and although everybody was telling me not to compare, I did not realize how much I was doing so until I came face to face with the pre-conceived notions I carried. I am almost two weeks into the year and apart from realizing that it is different from my first, here are some other things I have discovered and learned about Tucson in particular:
It’s hot here but it’s a “dry heat”. It took me two days to realize that means dehydration becomes a problem as the heat inevitably sneaks up on you. I am living in a house in the midst of a neighborhood with a lot of U of A students. Our yard is full of “goat-heads” (or how I always knew them- sand burrs). To avoid getting flat tires on our bikes, we carry them anywhere there is not pavement. There is no grass here in Arizona, just cacti, gravel, and sand. The lady at the post office was joking with me yesterday and called Arizona the country’s largest beach without the water. My bike ride to work is about a three-mile ride through downtown Tucson. Two days into the year, we took an 8-hour intensive bike course where we had both a written and riding portion. I am certified in all biking endeavors but my “quick-stop” could use some work as the practice portion sent me flying over the handlebars. Helmets are not fashionable, but I learned in that instance they are in fact necessary. So, I am learning to adjust and live with it- my bun however is not so becoming bald may be in my future. My work placement this year is at Keep Tucson Together (KTT). It is a nonprofit organization that helps in providing legal assistance for members of the community that need representation in legal hearings, aid in filling out and filing court documents, and help understanding their current situations and figuring out options. The team is comprised of a few full-time employees but mostly it consists of retired lawyers and other volunteers (we are all volunteers as I am often reminded) who are looking to provide hands on assistance and help wherever they can. My job so far has been in going through and organizing client’s files and getting used to the “a# system”. I am quickly realizing how although it is not required, being able to speak Spanish in the workplace and community would be tremendously helpful. I start an intermediate level Spanish class on the 9th and as a house, we are reading and practicing vocab words together.
Two weeks in, I can see where my time in Asheville was an asset to my learning and how it can in some ways contribute to my year this year. However ultimately, these are two VERY different experiences and being able to live each of them has been a blessing and has helped in understanding just how diverse God has created this vast world. I am excited and obviously nervous to continue embracing each and every challenge, difference, and change that lies ahead.
I have always been a girl that loves her board games. Board games, card games, I LOVE games. I usually have a knack for winning and playing games is sometimes the only time my competitive side shows. Especially, if it’s a game I am used to winning, like Disney Scene- It or Rummikub. Then there are the games that I know I don’t win but still like to play. These are games like Stratego, Monopoly, and Risk. Risk was one of my favorites growing up, I used to love gathering around a table with my brother and all of our cousins around the holidays and spending HOURS on end prepping for world domination. I loved the intricate little soldiers, and cannons, the men on their horses. For those that haven’t played, the game is all about strategy, alliances and of course the end result and how you win is to concur the world. There are three types of militia of different point values and a map of the world colored by continent. Your job is to spread your army across every continent and take over the countries from other players on the board by rolling high numbers on dice. Playing this game enough times, I now have the perfect starting strategy: put all my troops in Australia first, then, as the game progresses, branch out from Australia into Egypt, over to south then central and north America, then spread across Asia and finish in Europe. Never EVER start in Europe. It is a tramping ground that is easily taken as there are no secure borders of protection. People can come and attack you from all sides of the map. Its best, to skirt on the sidelines, but everyone else is also trying for that strategy.
I usually last about halfway through a game. I am not the first person to be defeated, usually people leave me on the board because they know I am not a threat and they take the real competition out first. I usually make it through “alliance and treaty time” the time of the game where people build partnerships. “I ‘PROMISE’ not to go after you here if you help me take this piece of land from so- and – so over there”, or like in Monopoly, “I’ll give you this region if you can just help me or let me have this section here”. In a game where the ultimate goal is to be the last one on the map, its clear that getting there alone is hard. You don’t always have the support or militia you need. The tricky part of the game, however, is when these alliances start to break. It’s all fun in the beginning with people promising things to each other but halfway through it gets chaotic and tension arises. “HEY! You PROMISED I was safe here. What are you DOING!!!”, “SORRY, sorry, it’s a game, don’t freak out- you knew this wouldn’t last forever- You should have built up your militia and been ready!” Playing with my cousins, this is usually where I stop. We have a lot of competitive people in the family who despite this being “just a game” feelings get hurt and tension gets the best of us. The game quickly turns into- how fast can Katie destroy herself and exit the game and avoid the conflicts. All the girls are usually dominated at this point and are ready to play Barbies or House, something less violent. Its funny how a board game meant for children, can influence so much of life and enforce societies stereotypes and “values”.
You may be wondering why I have spent most of one of my first blogs on Tucson, discussing a children’s game. It’s a valid question; I was curious as well when this game was on my mind the whole plane ride here. See, I was reading some of the pre-required readings on the plane (that I failed to read over the summer) and this game, kept coming back to my memories. For the next year, I have committed to being a Tucson Borderlands YAV. I knew coming in that a lot of the learning that I would have to do with life and culture along America’s “border”. A lot of the articles we were supposed to be reading, dealt with history of the border and how colonization happened very quickly and all at once. One article in particular, “Tohono O’odham Nation- History and Culture”, did a very good job in summarizing how abruptly a people can become displaced from their land and culture without so much as a warning or conversation. Like when you are sneaking your troops around the borders in Risk, instead of facing the conflict in Europe head on and in the open. The article tells a quick recap of how the indigenous people (Tohono O’odham) have lived on the land we Americans now consider the boarder for years before it was such. As colonization started happening, the people were promised not to have to worry, they wouldn’t have to change, they would be given special rights and license to maintain their “rights” as citizens. However, as time passed, the line was drawn and the promises made became blurred. Much like in the children’s game, it is hard to keep hold of promises when things are constantly developing. The world around us is always changing and more structure needed to be in place, the special identifications for the Tohono O’odham people eventually no longer mattered. Due to national security, our boarders had to be enforced so “outsiders” didn’t become a problem. The “middleman” had to be cut to assure the “enemy” didn’t stand a chance. If it helps to think of things outside of a “game” perspective for those that didn’t spend their holidays plotting domination, reading the article I also starting thinking of the well known and taught Native American peoples history and the struggles there with colonization. Here I was again, reading examples of other peoples being pushed out of their home, their heritage ripped away by newcomers who pushed for the “betterment of society”.
Why do we find it necessary to teach our children about war? Why do we feel the need to establish competitive behavior, violence, mistrust, and strategic sneakery in our youth? Does learning how to “build and maintain an army” have to start so young? Let’s also note but not get into right now the gender roles displayed on who has the power and patience to maintain their armies. Reading these articles, I started to wonder why I saw the game as fun. I always lose interest and know what’s coming in the middle. Why do I play in the first place? The game continues to teach me that developing a strategy, maintaining borders, building alliances, and communication are important. It’s the key to winning the game. However, the untold and unnoticed lesson that we are also instilling is that it’s okay to break those alliances, hurt feelings, and break the trust, for the well being that this is just a game. The innocent bystanders aren’t your friends, neighbors, or innocent people. They are pieces of plastic, alien- like figurines, not human beings. In order to “win” and be the best you can be, you must be able to step on other people’s shoulders and make your way. I find it eerie how my brain can link an article to a children’s game and my brain can draw so many comparisons. I find it scary that I can see where so many life lessons and social structures get formed, without ever taking a second to realize what’s happening. I find it horrifying how fast we can turn on people and focus on the “betterment” of the game, of the country, of the world. Pushing people’s feelings to the side and getting wrapped up in “end goals”.
Flash blogs are short posts written to a shared prompt during community discussion time -- with a ten minute time limit. This practice helps us get used to blogging, stay in communication with our followers, and challenge ourselves to not overthink how we share with the world. See each YAV's response to this shared prompt below!
The topic of this blog will focus on opposites. More directly, it will focus on the ideas behind wanting and needing. Often in our culture today it seems that wanting and needing something are portrayed as having synonymous meanings. But what does it actually mean to want vs. need? In my personal experience in Tucson we have been greatly challenged to live simply and to directly confront what it means to “need” something. What is it that we need? Usually this can be summed up as a need for food, water, and shelter. But what about anything more? I have heard the calls of many people here and at home complain about wanting to fix homelessness, immigration, and climate change but how many of us actually go about wanting to do something tangible about it? This is not to say you should go out and start a nonprofit or do some other world changing venture.
What I believe is meant by this is we, in our personal lives (myself included) need to take more time out of our daily lives to address what we really need. What do we place value upon from our own personal experiences? Once we can identify what those things are and only once we can name them can we go about trying to do something about them. So what is one simple thing you feel passionate or feel a need to address and what is one simple thing you can change about yourself to address this? It doesn’t have to be something big or world changing because at the end of the day you can only ever really change yourself.
For this flash blog prompt, Alison asked us to consider a set of opposites we have experienced during our YAV year (hot/cold, tall/short, big/small). After some consideration, the set that stood out to me was documented/undocumented. These words are most often associated with citizenship or legal resident documentation status. And having or not having citizenship or legal residence defines the lives of many people who live in Tucson. But where I have most experienced the concept of documented/undocumented is through my work at Community Home Repair (CHRPA).
CHRPA receives money from a wide variety of federal and local government agencies. In order for us to help a client with this money, we have to collect documentation from them. The documentation requirement varies from grant to grant, but usually we need to collect items such as a deed to the home or drivers license or a social security award letter. There are some clients who have these documents readily available. Then, there are others who do not. The reason for not having the right documents vary. Maybe the have had their house for decades and lost the deed along time ago. Maybe the are not US citizens so they do not have a social security card. Or maybe they simply missed place them. This seems like a small difference. These two groups are only separated by the fact that one group has a few more pieces of paper than they other group. But this difference can determine if we can repair that person’s home or not.
Working at CHRPA has made me realize how much of our lives come down to having the right documents. These small pieces of paper dictate how we live. Just yesterday I needed to go the dentist, and because I had the right document (insurance) I paid a lot less for that service. You forget the privileges that are afforded to you because of the documents you have, until you meet people, many very similar to you, who just so happen to fall into the undocumented group.
I am not sure if this qualifies as traditional opposites (like hot and cold), but when assigned this prompt, the first set of opposites that came to mind were calm and stressed. The word stressed could also be substituted for busy, anxious, or overwhelmed.
I have experienced a sense of stress, anxiety, and busyness a lot during my YAV year. I would say that the majority of my days at work at the Florence Project entail a high level of stress. I have to make very difficult decisions almost everyday, and I know that my actions, or lack thereof, have a direct impact on the lives of individuals. I have also felt stressed when we have speaking engagements as YAVs. We have presented at numerous worship services and church meetings. In the lead up to those presentations, I feel worried about what to say, what the audience will think of me and of the YAV Program. Many of the systemic issues that we discuss and explore via readings, community events, or travel also leave me with a deep-seeded anxiety.
On the flip side, I have also felt very calm during my YAV year. The line between work and home is more defined now than it was in my life before. Yes, I often take work home emotionally (something I’ve worked on a lot this year), but I do not have “homework.” I do not have to stress in the evening about deadlines and assignments. Usually during the weekends, I can attain a certain level of relaxation, whether that be on a hike, playing board games with my housemates, or sleeping in. Sometimes just walking into our house gives me a sense of tranquility. It is a refuge where I can breathe and relax with my community. Perhaps confronting huge issues (yes, the same ones that make me feel anxious) has also taught me that so much is out of my control and that sometimes the best thing I can do for myself and the world is to enjoy a moment of calm.
Solitude can be hard to find as a Young Adult Volunteer. I spend most of my time in community, whether it be my house community, work community, or church community. I have come to appreciate all of these communities, but from time to time, I do crave solitude. My craving was answered this past week in the form of a desert sojourn retreat. On Monday, my housemates and I travelled to the small community of Cascabel, Arizona. We camped together for a night, then each headed out to a solo camping site in the desert. There, I spent three days by myself. Well, myself and flies, roadrunners, birds, saguaros, and wildflowers.
I had been very excited for my time in the desert. It had been a busy month, and time by myself sounded like a great way to recharge my batteries. Part of me was also hoping that time to write and think would lend me powerful new insights about the world and myself. What I found on my first day was boredom and discomfort. I tried to write, but the words would not come. I tried to sit with my thoughts, but all I could think about were tasks I would have to complete the next week. And I was uncomfortable. The temperatures rose past the 90’s and the sun was beating down on my camp site. The inside of my tent felt like a sauna. So I moved from rock to rock, chasing the bit of shade provided by the small trees as the sun moved across the sky. As day one came to a close, I was not feeling any closer to myself or the world around me.
The second day not only brought cooler temperatures, but also a greater sense of internal peace. I found myself lost in the book I had brought, which had not happened in a while. (FYI, the book was Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. I highly recommend it!) I also found it easier to write and think. While my mind would still drift back to deadlines and commitments, I also thought a lot about myself, the nature around me, and how I was feeling. By the morning of the third day, I felt truly happy and peaceful. I remember waking up and making some coffee. As I drank my coffee, I watched the sun rise over the cliffs. The world felt simple in that moment. Just me, my coffee, and creation. It hadn’t felt that simple in a long time.
While I do cherish the moments of serenity I had during the retreat, being alone was a complicated experience. I had some moments of utter boredom and some moments of total peace. There were times when I was thinking about how dirty I was or how uncomfortable the rock I was sitting on felt. But then other times I would completely forget how I physically felt and focus completely on the world around me.
Now that I am back in Tucson, I am grateful for the time alone, not in spite of being bored and uncomfortable at times, but partially because of those feelings. Those are two sensations that can be hard to tap into living in a modern world of connivence and technology. But they are a part of the human experience. Ultimately, I didn’t have any new, grand insights or revelations from my time in the desert, and it wasn’t three days of total peace and bliss. But it was three days to simply exist and be the person called Tanner, with all the emotional highs and lows that being a person on this Earth entails.
“Quiero ser chef.” “I want to be a chef.” Braulio’s face lit up as he told me this during his legal screening. His cheeks rounded and his eyes brightened as a big smile formed. This was his response to my question, “Why did you leave your country?” In the hundreds of legal screenings I have done, I had not received such a precise, illustrative answer. I felt inspired by his enthusiasm, and I also smiled. The inspiration was replaced by dread fifteen minutes later when I had to mark Braulio’s intake with a “U.” U means unknown relief. U means that according to the information the child has disclosed during the screening, it is not clear that they are eligible for a visa. U means that Braulio’s intake will be put in a pile with others that we do not refer to an attorney once they are released and living in another part of the U.S. while in court proceedings. U means that Braulio will likely be deported. As I write the “U” on the upper corner of his intake, I feel a sinking in my stomach.
Wanting to be a chef, wanting to study or work, wanting to live with a parent or sibling who is already in the U.S., or wanting to escape extreme poverty and hunger is not enough. On intakes like that, I have to write a “U.” And don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of children I meet who are fleeing gang violence, who have been abused by their parents, who have suffered injuries because of working as small children in dangerous conditions. But there are others, like Braulio, who either do not disclose to me, or just honestly haven’t experienced such horrendous traumas. And without that compelling trauma, they are not eligible for any legal relief or any path to potentially stay in the U.S.
This reality makes me feel frustrated, sad, hopeless.
I am frustrated by a legal system that cannot serve Braulio. It is not that legal assistants like me and attorneys do not want to help kids like Braulio; of course we do! But there are so few attorneys and legal teams who are already working tirelessly to help children who DO have a strong case, who have experienced substantial trauma, and, therefore, might have a chance at obtaining a visa. In an overburdened legal system, strong cases must be prioritized. If a child is to receive legal assistance, the sadder, more traumatic the life story, the better!
I am frustrated by policies that do not provide any options for people who are starving, who can no longer make a living due to global environmental and economic factors, or who want to be with family members who are already working in the United States to support their hungry, struggling loved ones back home. It is one thing to understand on paper that economic migration is not authorized, but it is another to look into a smiling child’s eyes when he says, “Quiero ser chef,” and know that he doesn’t stand a chance in this system.
With these immigration policies and these inadequate legal systems, we as a nation are telling Braulio that he is unworthy. He is unworthy to share in what we have and enjoy everyday in this country. He is undeserving of the time and attention of attorneys. Braulio is marked with a U. He is unknown.
When exploring various options for a service year, one of the reasons I ultimately decided to apply for YAV over other programs, was its size and support system. It seemed that YAV was big enough to offer great opportunities but small enough to receive personal attention. I did not want to participate in a program where I would be a number among thousands of volunteers. Well, my inclination was accurate! As a YAV I have felt very supported on multiple levels by many people.
The Young Adult Volunteer program has a small national staff, made up of five people. I first met a member of the national staff when I had my initial interview, back in January. Rev. Richard Williams, the YAV coordinator (head honcho), spoke with me over the phone for probably an hour describing the program but also getting to know me and addressing my questions. It seemed that he really cared about my experience, that he wanted me to go to a site that would be a good fit, and that he would be available to me all throughout the process. The majority of my interaction with the national staff occurred during Orientation. The staff made up of five unique and quirky personalities offered training and support. We saw their serious side while explaining policy, and their silly side while performing in the talent show. Now, in my YAV year, I don’t communicate with the national staff too often, but I know that I could contact them at any time, and they would respond, knowing my name, and be happy to help. I was reminded by their presence and support when Richard sent me an email after I was hit by a car while biking to work in October. He told me that I was in the thoughts and prayers of the national staff, asked how I was recovering, and offered encouragement as a fellow biker.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ve seen me reference our local Site Coordinator, Alison Wood, on several occasions. During a one-on-one meeting with her during my first week in Tucson, I told her that I wasn’t quite sure of the role of a site coordinator. She responded, “I’m not your friend. I’m not your boss.” Don’t tell Alison, but I think that she is actually both.
I understand the sentiment of her words, though. She is not my boss in the sense that she does not oversee my work at my site placement. She does, though, offer support related to my site placement and can serve as an intermediary between me and my placement supervisor if needed. She facilitates our community discussions each Friday, with a focus on developing vocational discernment tools and living into the value of intentional community. She holds office hours twice a week, which is an open invitation to chat one-on-one. She also offers not-so-optional opportunities to chat during monthly one-on-one check-ins. During retreats, we have played board games together and joked around. I like her sense of humor. After my bike accident, she drove me to the emergency room, and sat with me for hours, blowing up rubber gloves and telling me silly stories. When our 1998 Saturn, that serves as our program vehicle, does not start, she takes it to the shop. Really, she does a lot, so there is no way that I can include it all. The bottom line is: I can call her anytime, with an emergency, or with an existential question, and know that she will respond, not with answers but with challenging questions that allow me to grow.
Local Board of Directors
Each national YAV site has a board of directors. They function as the site coordinator’s bosses and an additional support system for us. Our board is made up of members of local churches, former YAVs, and community members. It is odd to refer to them as board members because they feel more like what I would usually call “family friends.” We see them at churches sometimes. Some have invited us over for dinner. Others have taken us to community events. I especially like when board members with young families invite us to do stuff with them and their kids! We typically do not interact with board members on a regular basis, but I know we can always reach out to them if we need assistance, and they will be happy to help and support us.
I do not know if other YAV sites have discernment partners or if it was Alison’s idea, but regardless, it was one aspect of the Tucson site that caught my attention during my initial interview. After getting to know us for about a month, Alison matched each of us YAVs with a discernment partner who she thought was similar in temperament, interests, etc. I prefer to call them “mentor buddies.” Our discernment partners support us human beings. They are not our Site Coordinator, nor on the Board of Directors, nor associated with our site placements, so they won’t heckle us about fund raising or specific assignments. They are just people we can talk who will support us. The idea is that we meet about once per month. My discernment partner and I usually meet for coffee in the evenings and chat for an hour. Others have gone on hikes, shared meals, or participated in other activities with their partners. Per the title, I think they are supposed to guide and offer support especially as it relates to vocational discernment. My experience is that my mentor buddy likes to get to know me, see how I’m doing, and hear my reflections on various aspects of life. It’s nice to have a neutral person with whom I can just chat.
This is not an exhaustive list of my sources of support. I also feel support from my supervisor and co-workers at my site placement, my family, church members, and friends of the YAV program. However, I wanted to take the time to describe the levels of support that are inherent in the YAV model. Yes, I moved to a new city in August, but I did not feel stranded or estranged. I was immediately enveloped in a caring community, and for that I am very grateful.