The most emotional experience for me so far occurred last Friday night at the San Antonio downtown Greyhound bus station.
Alyssa Weinfurtner and Priscilla Avila, volunteers at the South Texas Human Rights Center, and I showed up randomly. We hoped to join other volunteers and to learn from them how to care for the mothers and children who are released on bond from the Dilley Detention Center and dropped off at the bus station in a van from Dilley each weekday night.
After a long drive, an adventurous day of learning about immigration, meeting many refugees and a detainee, and after a supper downtown, the three of us headed to the bus station. It was about 8:30 pm.
As we approached on foot from one direction, we saw a group of women and children approaching from another. As we held the door for them to enter the bus station, it suddenly dawned on me, that these were the persons whom we were meant to serve. (Only God would arrange that we would arrive at the exact same time! It was God's way of showing us right from the start who was in charge of the evening!)
How did I know that these 4 mothers and 5 children were those just released from Dilley? All the tell-tale signs: No luggage, ill-fitted clothing, all carried a similar box lunch, all looked scared.
The women and children moved toward one area of the old and small station and sat down together. We looked around to find the volunteers who were to help them. No volunteers. Just us! (We found out later that for some reason the volunteers were unable to go and did not get substitutes.)
We began by introducing ourselves in Spanish to one of the women and explaining our purpose in being there (Alyssa and Priscilla are excellent Spanish speakers). The look in the woman's eyes is still before me...that reserved for ghosts or angels! She hurried over to the others to tell them about us. We bonded instantly as a group.
It took us a while to figure out what we needed to do, but we just kept conferring with one another and moving forward one step at a time. First, each of us accompanied one mother with her child(ren) to the ticket desk while the fourth mother held our space in the station. The first woman was with Alyssa; everything was A-Okay and she received her bus tickets based on the receipt she was carrying saying that a family member had purchased the ticket. She would be taking a short trip to another Texas city with her 6 year old daughter, though her bus didn't leave until 4 in the morning!
Priscilla accompanied the second mother and her five year old daughter. Again, all was in order and they received their tickets. They, however, were taking a 3 day bus trip. As Priscilla continued to talk with her and even called a family member with her, she realized that the woman had a money order but no money. There was no way to cash the money order nearby at night. Two of us gave her our last 20 dollar bills so that she would have food along the way.
I accompanied the third mother, Eda, and her four year old son. We also received the tickets. Just as the others had done, I walked Eda through where the clock was on the wall and where she would line up when the 4:00 am bus arrived to take her to another city in Texas. Eda had not seen her mom in 7 years and her son had never met his grandmother.
By this time, Alyssa was already working with the fourth mother, Elsy, who had a 4 year old daughter and a 12 year old son with her. Elsy's paperwork seemed to be different than that of the others. When Alyssa and the family approached the ticket desk, the number was not in the system. Hmmm..... Alyssa spoke with the family member several times on her phone. An employee of the station finally helped us to realize that the ticket was good at a Tornado bus station not the Greyhound bus station! The woman and the women with her were in a panic! Of course, we would take her to the other station.
|Alyssa phones Elsy's relative to clarify travel arrangements.
Before leaving the others at the Greyhound station, we each had time to say good-bye. Each consisted of a long embrace and many tears on both sides. We told them about keeping their children with them at all times and about watching out for one another. The 'God bless you's' were in abundance. We assured them of our continued prayers. During this short time, there was already some laughter among us despite the sadness of the situation.
The 6 of us (Alyssa, Priscilla, Elsy and her two children and I) got into the truck and drove about 20 minutes to the stop for the Tornado bus. On the way, we heard more of the story of the crossing of the border. Elsy had crossed the border with 4 of her children. At some point, she realized that her 14 year old daughter was no longer with the group. Her 18 year old son went back to look for the daughter telling his mother to continue on with the two youngest. Elsy was apprehended on the US side of the border with her two children by the Border Patrol shortly afterward. They were put though the system of processing which includes being in the hierlera, the ice box or freezer, as it is known. Here persons are deliberately moved with minimal clothing to a very cold place where they will stay for hours or days. It was in the hierlera that Elsy caught the eye of her son who signaled that he had not found his sister. The son has already been deported back to El Salvador. Elsy does not know where her daughter is. We asked Elsy to call us at the STHRC for help to locate her missing daughter. Elsy also seemed to have her own plan. We have not yet heard from her.
Talk about emotional trauma! How in the world was Elsy able to hold it together??? In our good-bye at the Tornado bus station where we placed Elsy in the care of a bus station Catholic employee, Elsy sobbed quietly when I told her during my hug that she was a good mother.
All of us had a difficult time getting to sleep after our bus station experience. We could not imagine what the women would have done, especially Elsy, if no volunteers had shown up.
We trust that if God had taken such good care of the 4 families through our service, He would surely get them safely to their destinations. If you know of anyone who would wish to volunteer at the bus station, please email Kelly Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the University Presbyterian Church San Antonio Bus Station Visitation schedule coordinator.
Once again, timely miracles would not happen without the goodness and providence of God.
Thank you for your continued support and prayers!
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