“Let us dream as one humanity, as walkers of the same human flesh, as children of this same earth that shelters us all, each one with the richness of his faith or his convictions, each one with his own voice, all brothers.”
(Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti – 2020)
I served as a full-time volunteer at the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana for 13 months during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The Casa is a shelter located in the State of Baja California Norte and the city of Tijuana. Tijuana is one of the most populated cities in the state, with 1,300,983 inhabitants. Approximately three hundred thousand people cross the border between San Diego and Tijuana each day — making it a strategic point for international migration, asylum-seeking, and employment.
The northern border of Mexico is a space of reception and containment for migrant families and individuals, who find themselves in conditions of great precariousness and practically null resources. Few migrants have material resources or social connections in Tijuana. The Casa del Migrante offers support to those waiting to cross the border. This wait can be prolonged indefinitely due to asylum and border control policies, a reality exacerbated by COVID-19 and related policies.
At the Casa, people are united and related around a common experience: migration. “I was a foreigner and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). This creed welcomes everybody at the entrance of the Casa. In the 33 years since its foundation, the Casa has given people — who arrive in precarious conditions needing shelter — a place to share their narratives of deportation, expulsion, discrimination, forced displacement, and search for better conditions.
Migrants perceive this shelter as a safe place because the name, La Casa del Migrante, tells them they belong and are welcome. Despite having different life stories, migrants have a common experience that has led each one of them to meet in a house where nationality does not matter. Everyone arriving at this door has the need to be welcomed in a community that will help and encourage them. As Pope Francis wrote in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, “No one can fight life in isolation, we need a community that sustains us, that helps us, and in which we help each other to look ahead.”
At the shelter, the flow of migrant families has remained constant for years, even during the initial months of COVID-19 restrictions. Our notions of safety and unconditional welcome were challenged as we tried to protect everyone from the virus.
Stay at home! was the first call by the media in the face of the spread of COVID-19 worldwide. This phrase excluded migrants, for whom this call did not apply, as they had no home, and their home in Tijuana, the Casa, had to close its doors temporarily. Today, the Casa is open, providing services to migrant families housed inside and outside the institution. However, the temporary closure and need to social distance created a border within the Casa.
The pandemic generated a feeling of vulnerability and exposure. Social actions that once created comfort – such as a greeting, holding someone’s hand, sitting together to talk in the dining room, or playing dominoes or soccer in the courtyard of the house – now produced fear.
Masks, a necessity for communal living, also became a border within the Casa. Through a mask, it is impossible to visualize another’s face in its entirety. You cannot see his smile or her expressions. Masks also interfere with the projection of sound and make it difficult hear well. People in our family speak Mixtec, French, English, Italian, Vietnamese, and other languages. Understanding another language, especially through a mask, is a real challenge.
The challenges of mask-wearing and the shelter closure also presented new opportunities for connection: to create a shared commitment to keeping each other safe and to serve those who could not enter the shelter.
For the protection of those in the Casa, we had to keep the shelter door closed, which created a chilling effect on the safe, familial space of the Casa. On one occasion at around 9:30pm at the end of the kitchen shift, a pregnant woman arrived at the Casa’s door with her husband. With much pain and after talking about it as a team, we had to say no. At that time, we did not have the necessary measures to accept this family, offer them a safe place, and protect our staff and the families who were already living in the shelter. We gave the couple food and supplies for the night and referred them to a possible shelter that could receive them.
To say, “No, you cannot pass through that huge door and experience the better conditions inside the shelter,” left me full of fear. I worried something would happen to those on the other side of the door. I believe many of the undocumented migrant families separated by borders feel this fear. Both returning and remaining present a risk. Their families are on the other side and no matter how much they try to get them, even by paying thousands of dollars for their crossing, sometimes their attempt is frustrated. The fear of something happening to their loved ones on the other side of the border is constant.
During the COVID-19 period, the Casa planned for the future, as well as looked for ways to help those who continue to arrive seeking help and those who previously resided in the Casa, settled in Tijuana, and continue to require support with food, legal and psychological counseling, childcare, and other needs. Many became unemployed due to the COVID-19 situation.
The border created by COVID-19 within the Casa was an obstacle that instilled fear, but it also created an opportunity and a common challenge. Within the Casa, music, food, customs, stories, legends, spirituality, and knowledge were shared among staff, volunteers, and guests. We supported each other, by proposing and participating in various activities to break the monotony and improve the conditions of the Casa.
The Casa remained a space of encounter. Migrants who were inside began to breakdown borders of misunderstanding or nationality. They collaborated to support of migrants who could not enter, by making meals in the kitchen to feed them. Inside there is no longer a “foreigner.” On the contrary, there is one family: the human family. In helping to paint, organize, clean, decorate, take care of the plants, learn or teach English with classmates, share religious beliefs, and acquire strategies to improve parenting styles – we found a new way to belong to one another.
Fear and separation allowed for opportunities to bridge the divide and make room for empathy and resilience. During the COVID-19 confinement, the Casa was also a spiritual space to connect through songs and stories from different countries and religions, creating a sense of communion beyond borders.
Living together in a pandemic brought countless lessons and the creation of a place that continues to be perceived by migrants as their home, a home destined to cross borders. The lasting bonds of many people who have passed and continue to pass through this home will endure. A place can become charged with meaning, but what prevails are human beings, their feelings, dreams and their stories of struggle and resilience. As Pope Francis said: “How important it is to dream together! Alone we run the risk of having mirages, in which you see what is not there; dreams are built together.”
March 29, 2021
Jennifer Rossana López Triana
(Acknowledgement for review and comments: Dr. Marlene Solis and Quynh C.S.)