By JIM McKEEVER
What must it be like to give up everything you have, especially if you are forced to flee your home and travel thousands of miles, protecting yourself and your children from harm?
Each day asylum seekers from various countries, as well as detainees released from a Texas immigration detention center, are dropped off at the bus terminal in Brownsville, Texas. Bus stations aren’t always cheerful or safe places, but Brownsville’s is clean, well-maintained and welcoming.
Through a cooperative agreement with the city and not-for-profit organizations, the new arrivals receive help with basic necessities and bus transportation to cities throughout the U.S. where family members or sponsors live.
I spent a week in mid-May volunteering with Team Brownsville, a not-for-profit founded three years ago by special education teachers to help asylum seekers, first at a makeshift camp in Matamoros and now in Texas as two or three dozen people per day are allowed to cross into the U.S.
Every day, Team Brownsville volunteers staff several tables and distribute donated and purchased items to the arrivals after they are given a hot meal and have secured their bus tickets.
My interactions with these men, women and children were both practical and profound. How best to explain that? Perhaps through a partial list of the things we gave them — and what we were given in return.
We gave men new underwear and T-shirts; we gave women feminine hygiene products and socks; we gave children stuffed animals and Hot Wheels cars.
We gave snacks, face masks, deodorant, toothpaste, shoelaces; we gave Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle caps that grown men were not ashamed to wear.
We gave bottles of water, essential in the Texas heat; we gave blankets for the air-conditioned bus rides to places like Virginia, Florida, Nebraska.
We gave a dwindling number of shoes, trying as best we could to find the right sizes for men, women and toddlers.
We gave pens and notepads, coloring books and crayons.
We gave backpacks to the liberated detainees to replace the demeaning, tattered mesh sacks they were given in detention.
Most important, however, were the intangible things we gave when these folks first arrived at the terminal. We gave of our time and talents, kneeling on the hard cement floor to play with a brother and sister, speaking our best Spanish, braiding the hair of a 5-year-old girl so her pregnant mother could rest.
From our tables or from the parking lot, as each group arrived, we stood and waved and smiled and called out one word.
Here is what they gave in return.
Immeasurable, silent expressions of gratitude and hope as their eyes met ours, spoken words of “Gracias” and “Dios te Bendigo” (thank you and God bless you), the gift of allowing us to share in their relief, their safety, their freedom from whatever horrors they had endured in Central and South America or the months or years they had spent in detention centers in the U.S.
We did not ask where they had come from, or anything that might remind them of why they had fled — gang violence, threats, rape, extortion, abject poverty, recent hurricanes, corrupt governments and police.
We didn’t need to know any of that. All we needed was to look at the children the moment we handed them one of the teddy bears that had been donated that week. They hugged the bears tightly and smiled at us and whatever fear they had disappeared, at least for a moment.
There are images from that week that I hold onto now, images of hope amid ample evidence of the cruelty of man and governments:
A child not much older than my granddaughter, comforted by a stuffed animal, ecstatic to see a bin filled with hair ties she could choose from … adult female detainees hugging each other after they emerged from a detention van and were freed from waist chains, handcuffs and ankle restraints by guards who glared at us… a 69-year-old Venezuelan man’s smile as he rather generously complimented me on my Spanish … a young detainee approaching me the morning after he spent the night in the station, asking for a sweater for the air-conditioned bus that would take him, eventually, to Florida.
I found one that fit. It was my last shift with Team Brownsville and as he thanked me and rushed off to catch the bus, I said for the last time that week, “Buena suerte.”
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline comes from 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”