Yesterday when I started drafting this blog post, I ended up spending two hours writing about the December 11th killing of Barnard Freshman Tess Majors in Morningside Park and the subsequent NYPD Security Theater outside my kitchen window. I realized there was nothing edifying, informative, or helpful in what I had written, although it was cathartic for me, and so I put it in the failed drafts folder.
We made it through a turbulent 2019,
and we’re now into a new year that started with an illegal and provocative
assassination of an Iranian General and, if anxiety and incertitude are a
measure of length, this very long year will continue with the longest Presidential
election cycle in human history. So herewith is my “listicle” of ways to
maintain sanity and equilibrium in 2020, which was composed in part in the
middle of the night as I turned in my bed like a rotisserie chicken.
1. ORGANIZE: Housing is a Human Right
Read about #Moms4Housing
in Oakland, and how community organizing turned a violent eviction into a
big win. This is an inspiring story, and something to build upon.
2. ORGANIZE AGAIN: Why We Need A Green New Deal
Listen to The Dig Podcast Episode “Planet
to Win,” a detailed and hopeful discussion about how the Green New Deal
might change America for the better.
3. WATCH A GOOD FILM
Go see Kitty Green’s The
Assistant, a brilliant and dark film about one day in the life of the
junior assistant of an abusive boss. It’s not just about predation—it’s also
gimlet-eyed view on capitalist exploitation of young people. The film is poised
to become part of a
movement to change the culture of Hollywood. Watch the trailer here. Opening in NYC and
LA on January 31, theaters and show times may be found here.
4. MAKE COMFORT FOOD
Order a copy of Lavash: The Bread
That Launched 1,000 Meals, Plus Salads, Stews, and Other Recipes From Armenia,
and cook an Armenian meal for your loved ones. You can read more about the book
and try sample recipes here
Last week I went to the Whitney Museum to see Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019. There were a lot of great pieces in the show, but I was absolutely bowled over by Liza Lou’s KITCHEN, a life-sized beaded room filled with furniture, appliances, pots, pans, cereal boxes, and more that took the artist five years to produce. The show is up through January 2021, and a new show of Mexican muralists will be opening at the Whitney in February so you could take in both.
11. GO FOR A WALK IN THE WOODS
I’ve been reading out-of-print books by naturalist and writer Alan Devoe, who lived down the road from our house in the country from the 1930’s to the mid-50’s. In the middle of World War II, which was a time of destruction, violence, and despair on a global scale, Devoe wrote, “It is good, for instance, just to shut off the radio for a while, throw away the newspaper, and go out into the warm darkness of a country night and listen to the frogs.” He also recommended listening to the wrens singing, and said, “They are singing directly into our aboriginal ears, an information that all the pessimists and pedants are mistaken, and the life adventure is a greater and gladder thing than mere learnedness might ever surmise.”
When I was in college, I studied for one semester with a poet who dispensed counsel the way my grandmother handed out hard candies. This poet told me that if my boyfriend didn’t make me feel like I was the most beautiful woman in the world, he wasn’t doing his job and I should fire him. Another memorable bit of advice was about writing, and left her lisping voice echoing in my head with this mantra, “Respect your process.”
During my student days, I was
prolific. I wrote a poem a day in long hand on narrow ruled yellow notepads,
and often they sprang fully formed from my head like Athena. I rarely revised, and
often didn’t even type them. I would bring them to my professor on the yellow
notepads, he would make a few comments, and say, “Just keep writing.” And so I
wrote and wrote and wrote. In graduate school I learned about revision, and
often took a poem through ten or more drafts before I was satisfied with it and
moved on to the next one. This was in the old days when it was possible to keep
track of drafts because I typed each one on a sheet of paper using an IBM
By the time I started working on my
first novel, Zabelle,
I was writing on a computer. Gone were the yellow lined note pads for the first
draft, and gone also was the stuttering and humming electric typewriter. The
only way I could think of attempting something so long and unwieldy as a novel
was by breaking the task into story chapters. I had the stamina to write one
ten-page chapter, and after that was done, I started the next. Once I had a
stack of these chapters, I figured out how they fit together and then rewrote
them so they made a coherent, if episodic, narrative. Revising a text that was
two hundred and seventy pages long was a much more daunting prospect than
rewriting a one- or two-page poem. By the time I got through the last chapter, I
went back to the beginning and noticed more things that needed fixing, and went
over the whole thing once again. Working on a computer, there was a lot of
continuous fiddling with bits here and there, so it was harder to keep track of
how many drafts I did, but it was probably upwards of three before I even sent it
to my agent. With her suggestions, I did another draft before she showed it to
the editor. There was another pass with the editor’s notes before the
production process started. The copy editor did a thorough once over, and then
it was done. This was pretty much how it went with my two subsequent novels, Dreams
of Bread and Fire and All
the Light There Was.
You would think that the fourth time
I approached this kind of project, I’d march ahead with assurance. But no, when
I started writing my latest novel, I felt as though I were at the bottom of an
enormous mountain peering up at a peak that was enshrouded in clouds. How would
I ever manage to get to the top? I’m a slow writer—in part because I do a
massive amount of research before I start writing, and because other aspects of
my life (my family’s needs and challenges, my geriatric dogs, my work as an
organizer, as well as the distractions of our calamitous political moment)
often crowd out my writing. I can’t write for more than two hours a day. I used
to be able to produce two pages in two hours, but now I eke out one page a day.
At one point over a year ago, I said
to my spouse in despair, “How am I ever going to get this thing done?” He
answered, “If you write one page a day, you’ll eventually finish it.” In other
words, “Respect your process.” And much to my surprise, at the end of October I
printed out a completed rough draft of this novel about an Armenian family in
Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. It opens with this same family in New
York on 9/11, and ends with a folk tale about a girl who talks with birds. It’s
rough, and it needs a lot of work. But it’s done, and my first and most trusted
reader, the aforementioned spouse, confirmed that the structure is sound—this
was my biggest worry.
I took a hiatus from the novel so that I could come back to it with fresh eyes. While on this break, I wrote a talk that I delivered on a panel at Columbia on November 20, which was published last week by the Armenian Weekly. Also in November, Egg & Spoon Theatre Collective staged an off-off-Broadway adaptation of Zabelle. My novel All the Light There Was recently appeared in Turkish translation from Aras in Istanbul, which had previously published Dreams of Bread and Fire. And three weeks ago I saw the cover of the Arabic translation of Zabelle, which will be published in February 2020 by Fawasel Books in Syria.
This week the U.S. House of
Representatives, in a rare moment of bipartisanship and in a rebuke to the
Turkish government, overwhelmingly passed a resolution
acknowledging the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923. The lead sponsor of the bill,
California Democrat Adam Schiff, said,
that the Turks are once again involved in ethnic cleansing—this time the Kurds
who live along the Turkish-Syrian border—it seemed all the more appropriate to
bring up a resolution about Ottoman efforts to annihilate an entire people in
the Armenian genocide.”
day before the vote, in an op-ed
in the Washington Post, my friend Khatchig Mouradian, lecturer at Columbia
University, called on Congress to take a principled stand on the issue, saying,
“The bipartisan sport of
killing Armenian genocide bills and weaponizing the suffering of its victims
must end. By passing this resolution, the House can help ensure that the
Armenian genocide is acknowledged and commemorated, but no longer exploited.”
The final tally on H. Res.
296 was 405 yeas, 11 nays, and 3 presents. One of the most perplexing and disappointing
votes was that of Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, who released a statement
explaining her present
vote that included a sentence echoing Turkish government propaganda on the
accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a
political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push
and pull of geopolitics.” As Turkish President Erdogan phrased it in December 2018, “On the question of genocide, please let’s leave the discussions
to the Historians and let’s listen to what the Historians have to say.” Despite
a century of Turkish denial,
both Omar and Erdogan should know that there is extensive historical documentation
and overall consensus on the issue. And, as Armenians, Kurds, and Palestinians
well know, how could a political gesture happen outside the push and pull of
Predictably enough, the
day after the vote, as part of a televised speech to members of his party,
Erdogan denounced the U.S. House of Representatives, saying,
countries who have stains of genocide, slavery, colonialism in their history
have no right to give lessons to Turkey.” Part of the problem with these
demagogues, such as Erdogan and Trump, is that there is always some twisted truth
in their outrageous statements. Yes, the U.S. has its own shameful history of
genocide, slavery, and colonialism, and yes, the timing of this vote had to do
with Congress’s fury over Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds and Turkey’s incursion
into Syria, and yet, this Congressional resolution was long overdue.
of Armenian-Americans have been working for decades to prod the U.S. government
to take a stand on this issue. In 1984, Congress passed
a resolution designating April 24, 1985 as “National Day of Remembrance of
Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” stipulating it should be “a day
of remembrance for all the victims of genocide, especially the one and one-half
million people of Armenian ancestry who were the victims of the genocide
perpetrated in Turkey between 1915 and 1923, and in whose memory this date is
commemorated by all Armenians and their friends throughout the world.” A
companion bill was introduced but never passed in the Senate. It is unlikely
that a companion version of this week’s House Resolution 296 will make it
through the Senate. But this vote in the House, which was due in large part to grassroots
organizing, has again put Armenian history on the front pages of newspapers
around the world.
One hundred years of denial makes this tragic history an open wound for Armenians, and for Armenians the images of Kurds being driven from their lands are dismally familiar and even traumatizing. This gesture by the U.S. Congress doesn’t undo any of that, but it does mean that for a brief moment we aren’t being “gaslighted.” Our history has been described, discussed, and acknowledged. This isn’t justice, but it is meaningful and important.
interview with France
24, Khatchig offered this sage analysis:
decades of denial, it has become very difficult to come to terms with the past.
Turkey is also worried about what would follow an acknowledgment: Reparations
for the utter dispossession and destruction of an entire nation…But it’s also
important to note that in recent years, in Turkish civil society, there have
been many intellectuals, scholars, writers who HAVE spoken out on the
importance of confronting the past and delivering some measure of justice to
the victims of genocide.
Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian Minister of Parliament in Turkey from the pro-minority leftist HDP party, wrote on Twitter: “US Congress has recognized the Armenian Genocide. Because my own country has been denying this for 105 years, our tragedy is discussed in other world parliaments. The real healing for Armenians will come when we can talk about the Armenian Genocide in Turkey’s own parliament.”
The past few days I’ve been saddened and appalled by the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish region of northeastern Syria. When I see in the news the name Ras al-Ain, a place that was bombed by Turkey yesterday, my heart clenches. Ras al-Ain was where my grandmother ended up in a tent camp, along with eight thousand other Armenian orphans, after the death marches of 1915. This most recent U.S. betrayal of the Kurds is seemingly the result of an impetuous decision by Trump on a phone call with Turkey’s president. I thought of the Kurdish proverb, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” The Turkish assault will likely bring an end to the Rojava experiment in democracy, and could well result in the resurgence of the Islamic State in the area. When I read that Armenian-inhabited areas of Syria had come under attack, I thought of the Armenian proverb, “Land of Armenians, land of sorrows.” By the end of Thursday, it was reported that most of the Armenian families had relocated from the conflict areas.
In response to widespread denunciation, Turkish President
Erdogan lashed out at his EU critics, threatening to allow millions of Syrian
refugees to “flood
Europe.” As Ronan Burtenshaw, editor of The Tribune in the UK, pointed out
“The EU has no moral high ground on this issue—it did a grubby refugee deal
with Erdogan, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in his camps. Now he can
use them to threaten us, and deliver talking points for the Far-Right in the
process. Reap what you sow.”
The whole thing is gutting and infuriating, and with the
garbage mountain of cruelty piling up around us on all sides and with regard to
so many issues and causes, it’s hard to know what to do but sputter with
helplessness and rage. But there are things to do—demonstrations to organize and attend, electoral
campaigns to work on, and ways to help those in our communities targeted for harm.
There’s another Armenian proverb I like to remember: “The voice of the people
is louder than the roar of the cannon.”
Each day there is some new racist anti-immigrant policy
announced by Trump and the cartoon villains who are running our country. As is
by now apparent, with the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and
is the point. Their theater
of cruelty is meant to rally their so-called base and to send a message to
immigrants and would-be immigrants that they aren’t wanted in this country,
unless they can, as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Citizenship
Services Ken Cuccinelli put it, “stand
on their own two feet,” by which he means unless they are wealthy,
able-bodied, and preferably white.
Last week when ICE
raided workplaces in Mississippi, arresting 680 people, the videos,
photographs, and news reports about distraught children whose parents had been
detained, leaving many kids without family care, were terrible. One little
girl, who sobbed
on camera begging for the release of her father, was particularly heartbreaking.
That night, I had nightmares about the three little
Albanian girls whose family I have worked with through the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) for
18 months and two little Honduran girls whose mother I had helped fill out an
asylum application in early June at the NSC Pro Se Legal Clinic. In my dreams,
the little girls were crying for their parents the way the kids in the
Mississippi videos had done. But I actually know these kids. I have heard in
great detail about the violence their parents had fled, and I have learned about
the dire conditions in the countries from which they come. I also know about
how fearful their parents are about the possibility of being detained and
As part of her asylum application, J., the Honduran mom,
wrote about the domestic violence she had suffered, and her reluctance to go to
the police to report the abuse, which meant she didn’t have documentary
evidence to support her claim. She said, “In
countries like ours the only record of these violent events is in our memory.
Unfortunately in my family there was a lot of domestic violence. I saw that my
aunts were often beaten by their partners, and if they called the police, the
abusers would go to jail for maybe one night. Unfortunately, in my country the
police only believe you once you are put into a box and buried in a hole.”
Last Monday, as part of a NSC accompaniment, I went to
immigration court with J. and her two girls, aged eight and six. The girls were
hungry and bored because of the long wait outside the courtroom. People with
attorneys are seen first, and those without lawyers can wait several hours or
more for their turn. No food is allowed in the waiting area or in the
courtroom, so I offered to take the girls to the cafeteria in the federal
building while their mother awaited her turn before the immigration judge. The so-called
cafeteria sold only chips, candy bars, cookies, and soft drinks, so they
selected chocolate and chips. As we sat at the table eating and talking, the
older girl said, “Would you be our grandma?” The little one said, “Can you also
be our auntie?” I laughed. They laughed. But we were now friends.
The only way I can keep from descending into despair is by taking action, whether it is by helping people fill out asylum applications, by accompanying friends to immigration court, or by working with groups organizing against the cruelty. In New York City on August 10, over 100 people, among them members of the NYC DSA Immigrant Justice Working Group (to which I belong) were arrested in a #CloseTheCamps action that shut down the West Side Highway near an ICE field office on 26th Street. The next day, a coalition of #JewsAgainstICE protestors, including Never Again is Now and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, occupied an Amazon store in Manhattan to demand that Amazon cancel its contracts with ICE. In upstate New York, the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement has a rapid response network that sends out texts when ICE agents are spotted in town so people can drive to the location, offering support to their targeted neighbors, and often preventing detentions. This is the time to mobilize radical kindness and militant refusal in the face of their relentless cruelty.
Spring is really here in New York City—my neighbors’ garden beds are full of bright and blowsy tulips, and the cherry trees in the parks and on the Columbia campus are blossoming and showering pink petals on the ground. Yesterday I went on the first in a series of Spring Migration Bird walks led by the NYC Audubon Society’s Gabriel Willow in Central Park. In addition to the birds—among them an Indigo Bunting, a Black and White Warbler, a Downy Woodpecker, and a Blue Winged Warbler—the park’s paths are lined with wildflowers such as Virginia Bluebells, Columbines, Trilliums, and an assortment of Viburnums. Each week there will be different flowers and different birds.
The solace and hope that we find in the natural world, and in our friends, and in the activities we love (walking, yoga, biking, cooking, knitting, gardening, what have you) are essential in this turbulent time. Also necessary is the work that we do to push back against the cruelty and hatred being manufactured on an industrial scale by the leaders in our country and around the world.
James and I went to Oaxaca City for two weeks this month
to take Spanish language immersion classes four hours a day and to vacation. We
had never been Oaxaca before, and we loved it. The food was fantastic, the old
city was beautiful, and the place was full of street art, street music,
museums, radical printmaking workshops, and markets with abundant fruit and
vegetables alongside Zapotec handicrafts. The Ambulante film festival was in
town while we were there, so we went to a few screenings and had dinner with
filmmakers and curators affiliated with the festival.
We went to learn some Spanish because James is working on
a limited TV series for Netflix that is set in Mexico and will be shot there,
probably in Durango, in Spanish later this year. And I wanted to pick up some
Spanish to enhance my work in the New Sanctuary Pro Se Legal Clinic with
Central American asylum seekers. The interpreters at the clinic are by
necessity fully fluent, a minimum requirement when collecting grim stories for asylum
applications, but I can now say a few polite phrases and compose and read text
messages from my friends.
At the Oaxaca Spanish Language Immersion School, I had two weeks of individual lessons with two excellent teachers—two hours with Yesenia in the morning, and two hours with Jacobo in the afternoon. It was difficult at first, as words in French and Armenian would swim up in my head when I was looking for a word in Spanish. But it turns out that I love learning ABOUT languages—how they operate, how they relate to other languages—which is a good first step to actually learning to read, write, and speak a new language. My attempt to learn Arabic three summers ago was pretty much a failure, but I have been making good headway with Armenian, and I feel I now I have a solid base to continue with the Spanish.
I had hoped to work on my novel when we were in Mexico, but I found it impossible to make the necessary mental transition from the compelling sights and sounds and languages of Oaxaca to wartime Beirut. But now that I’m back home, I am able to return to the familiar world of Vera Serinossian and the neighborhood of Nor Hadjin. And so it goes.
My daughter Djuna Schamus, her friend Hannah Wilton, and I went to volunteer with the Sanctuary Caravan in Tijuana at the beginning of January. This is her report.
I recently arrived back in New York City after spending a week in Tijuana/San Diego with my mom, Nancy, and my friend, Hannah. After receiving training from members of the Sanctuary Caravan (SC), we began volunteering in Tijuana, where SC is standing in solidarity with members of the Central American Exodus waiting at the border by supporting them throughout each stage of this inherently unjust immigration process. The humanitarian crisis in Tijuana, created by the current administration’s prohibiting asylum-seekers from presenting themselves at the U.S. border promptly and directly, is immense and in urgent need of redress. During our week at the border, we witnessed a fraction of the injustices our migrant friends are facing on a daily basis.They, our migrant friends, are leading the fight for their own freedom, and, in doing so, are at the forefront of the fight for a more just world: a world without exclusionary borders, where the dignity and safety of all, rather than racism, U.S. imperialism, and the violent structure of nation-states, guide policy and our futures more broadly.
Today, there are thousands of asylum-seekers living in temporary encampments and shelters across the city, many of whom made this thousands-of-miles-long journey on foot. They are exerting their right to migrate and their right, as enshrined by U.S. and international law, to seek asylum. According to these laws, the first step that an asylum-seeker must take is to cross the border and present themselves to immigration officials. Until recently, those seeking protections could just walk into the U.S. and promptly present their claims for asylum; currently, however, those pursuing asylum are forced to wait in a state of uncertainty and neglect on the Mexican side of the border.
A new, unofficial system of entry has emerged in Tijuana, known as “metering,” whereby groups of ten asylum-seekers are each given a unique number and told to return to a public plaza next to the San Ysidro border crossing the day that their number is called. They will not be allowed to cross until their numbers are called. This list, and the ten names corresponding to each number, are managed by fellow migrants in conjunction with Mexican immigration officials.
Not only is this system of metering illegal, but it also places individuals in a difficult and vulnerable position, as they do not know exactly when their number is going to be reached or how many numbers are going to be called on a given day (this number ranges from 0 – 80 peopleper day). Furthermore, El Barretal, which is the largest shelter in Tijuana and currently houses around 1,000 individuals, is a 15-mile trip to the San Ysidro border crossing, compounding the obstacles created by this system of entry.
When someone’s number is announced by coordinators at the plaza, they must arrive at the border, with all of their belongings, prepared to cross. People wait in a line along one side of the plaza before being driven by Mexican immigration officers across the U.S. border, where they will likely be placed in detention centers and potentially separated from family members.
While always following the lead of our migrant friends, members of the Sanctuary Caravan assist people through this process at every step. The aim of this work is to empower our friends as much as possible under this inherently unjust immigration system.
This effort includes explaining, to the best of our ability, what one should expect going forward, giving rides to those whose numbers have been called, providing a welcoming resting place for people scheduled to present themselves at the border, helping individuals fill out immigration paperwork, and prep for the “Credible Fear Interview” that they will request from a U.S. immigration official shortly after arriving in the States.; this re-traumatizing interview, which aims to assess whether people seeking protection can demonstrate a “credible fear” of harm if they return to their home countries, will determine whether or not they can continue with the asylum application process.
During our time in Tijuana, while we continued to make the Sanctuary Caravan our principal organizing hub, because neither Hannah nor I speak Spanish, we ended up being additionally useful as volunteers with World Central Kitchen, an organization of chefs responding to hunger and poverty. At a closed-down restaurant in Tijuana, with the radio continuously blasting dance music, a group of chefs, volunteers, and local workers cook two fresh meals for 1,500 people daily, delivering the food to shelters scattered throughout the city. After our first day of washing dishes and chopping vegetables, Hannah and I, accompanying a longer-term volunteer, travelled 15 miles to the dinner service at El Barretal encampment.
The over 1,000 people in Barrtetal live in densely situated tents, mostly set under the open sky. We were immediately welcomed by residents, who have come to anticipate the meals’ arrivals each day. With assistance from El Barretal residents, we distributed penne bolognese and salad to over 800 people (many of whom were women and small children, for whom men in the front of the line always gave up their spots). After dinner, we walked through the camp—through tents, groups of playing children, and friends congregating around a small television playing Alice in Wonderland—finding ourselves at a Three King’s Day ceremony, where residents prayed and sang alongside a visiting pastor.
While many of people’s basic needs are being met at El Barretal—with food from World Central Kitchen, medical care from Doctors Without Borders, and aid from UNICEF— life in a de facto refugee camp is precarious and untenable. And, of course, there is something deeply problematic with having the “answer” to an issue, largely created and exacerbated by U.S. foreign policy and immigration policy being an influx of nonprofits and aid-based relief.
In addition to visiting El Barretal, and along with other members of the Sanctuary Caravan, we spent time at the second-largest shelter housing members of the Central American exodus, located in a warehouse beside the Benito Juarez sports complex close to the border. Immediately following our arrival in in San Diego/Tijuana, Mexican authorities issued an eviction notice to the roughly 100 residents of Benito Juarez, dispatching dozens of Mexican federal police to the shelter and commencing a drawn out struggle over the residents’ right to remain. There was a days-long standoff between residents and organizers working in solidarity with them, on the one side, and the Mexican government and police, on the other. Answering the call of migrant friends living at Benito Juarez, volunteers with the Sanctuary Caravan and other organizers on the ground camped out on the street in front of the shelter when the threat of immediate eviction was at its height: at one point the police, dressed in riot gear, were no longer allowing water into the shelter or permitting residents to use the port-o-potties, leaving those inside without sanitary toilet options. In the middle of the night, organizers, harnessing their privilege as U.S. passport holders, acted as witnesses to the Benito Juarez residents’ struggle to remain in place. Although an unfortunate reality, it is likely that having American citizens present on the scene prevented a forceful removal of those living in the Benito Juarez shelter. A few days after we left, the final residents agreed to leave the location, many of them transferred to El Barretal.
In addition to working in solidarity with those in Tijuana, volunteers with the Sanctuary Caravan are working to expand their support for people being released from detention in San Diego and leaving for other parts of the country, as, in many ways the arduous asylum process just begins after they have finally made it onto U.S. soil. It is important to note that every person going through this process will be promptly be put into deportation proceedings; their asylum application is their defense against deportation, but the threat of deportation is ever-present.
The convoluted and dehumanizing system of ICE check-ins, immigration hearing dates, and the reality of living with uncertain and precarious status can continue for years, and it is imperative that people feel welcomed, supported, and empowered throughout the entirety of this process. Undergirding this work are the convictions that the freedom of movement/migration is a human right, that no one should be deported, that ICE be abolished (and not merely replaced by an analogous entity), and that we should strive for a future without exclusionary borders.
In the last few weeks, and thanks to your contributions, we were able to raise $4,175 for the Sanctuary Caravan movement. Thank you again for supporting this work, and for standing in solidarity with those leading this fight for a more just world.
Each morning at El Chaparral Plaza in Tijuana, some men set up a small red pop-up canopy tent, and other members of the Central American Exodus and other asylum seekers gather around. There is a table, a megaphone, and a battered notebook that contains numbers associated with the names of people who are on a list of those waiting for a chance to present themselves at the U.S. border to request asylum. Each number represents ten people. By law—both U.S. and international—people should be able to go to any port of entry to request asylum, but the current administration has enacted a “metering” systemwhere only a specified number of people is allowed to cross each port on any given day. Since there is a huge backlog of people waiting—at this point the wait can be up to two months—the asylum seekers have self-organized, and a family or a group of men who have been on the list for a while take charge of the notebook. In addition to calling out two batches of names—one in the early morning and one an hour or so later—they give out new numbers every day until noon. When it is their turn to cross, they pass the notebook along to people who are lower down on the list.
Each morning a member of Grupos Beta, a service of the Mexican National Institute of Migration, relays from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to the notebook keepers the total number of asylum seekers who will be allowed to cross that day. The total might be 80, or it might be none. It is important to understand that this entire system is illegal, and has arisen out of desperation. A member of the notebook team will use a megaphone to read out the names of people whose numbers have come up. People must keep track of their numbers and when they are likely to be called. Many of them are living in shelters and encampments far from Chaparral, and have to get themselves to the plaza or risk losing their chance to cross. There is an informal grace period of two days, so if your number is called and you miss it, if you can get there within two days, you might still go across. The mornings that I was at Chaparral I saw lots of young mothers with small kids, toddlers, and even infants. In addition to members of the Central American Exodus, many of them from Honduras, there were single men from Haiti and West Africa.
After the names are called—and they often have to call two hundred names to assemble a desired 20 people—people line up along one side of the plaza to wait for the shuttle vans driven by Grupos Beta. The vans take people to the other San Ysidro checkpoint where they cross the border to face the bureaucratic nightmare created by the CPB—detention in the Ice Box, separation of fathers from their wives and children, the “credible fear interview,” and so on. The San Diego detention facilities are over capacity, and before we arrived people were being released from detention in the middle of the night, just dropped off at a bus stationor in a public park. The San Diego Rapid Response Network organized shuttle buses to drive around after midnight looking for people who had been dumped, and taking them to shelters. Because of bad publicity, this practice of “dumping” has apparently been suspended.
The Sanctuary Caravan has two programs running concurrently. One is the Pro Se Clinic where volunteers fill out intake forms with people who are scheduled to cross the border and help them prep for their credible fear interviews, which is the first step in the asylum process. The Pro Se Clinic’s borrowed storefront has turned into a de facto community center where families hang out and volunteers play with the kids while their parents are interviewed. Volunteers also go to the El Barretal refugee camp, twenty minutes out of Tijuana, to let people know about available services and to do intake.
The Accompaniment Program in Tijuana is in some ways more extensive than its counterpart in New York City. In addition to waiting with friends at Chaparral until they board the Grupos Beta shuttles, Sanctuary Caravan also keeps track of friends’ numbers, and has a van that picks people up from El Barretal each morning to take them to the plaza where the names are called.
Because Djuna, Hannah, and I don’t speak Spanish, we had a hard time in the beginning figuring out how to plug into the work that was going on. We were cursing ourselves for having chosen French as our second language. Our first afternoon I was called to the clinic to translate for some Haitians, but when I got there it turned out they were Creole speakers and my French was still useless.
Djuna and Hannah ended up working with the World Central Kitchen, an organization of chefs addressing hunger and poverty, where they didn’t need Spanish to scrub pots and chop vegetables. I joined them a couple of afternoons and was wildly impressed by the work that was going on. In Tijuana, the World Central Kitchen prepares and delivers three thousand meals a day—feeding 1,500 people at lunch and dinner. The food is fresh, inventive, and made with love. One evening Djuna and Hannah went to deliver dinner to El Barretal, where they saw a thousand people living in tents. Hannah said, “They get meals, UNICEF is there, and Doctors Without Borders, but it’s still no way to live.” If it rains, they get wet. If it’s cold, they are cold. Djuna reported that women and children are fed first, and that everyone pitches in to help out with serving the meals.
Meanwhile, back at the volunteer hub, I was assigned to work as a “Story Steward,” which was a data entry and clerical gig supporting the Pro Se Clinic. One afternoon I spent a few hours prepping a large stack of intake files with all the needed forms and materials.
On Sunday afternoon, we went to Faro Playas de Tijuana, a beachfront recreation area, for a religious service that usually occurs on both sides of the hideous and immoralborder wall, which traverses the land, travels down across the sand, and continues into the ocean. Only the gulls could move freely from one side to the other. Of late, because of ‘security concerns,’ CBP has closed access to the International Friendship Parkthat connects both sides of the border and has created a no-go zone on the U.S. side of the fence, so the service occurred only on the Mexican side that day. Through the steel slats, razor wire, and cyclone fencing on the U.S. side, we saw at a distance CBP agents blocking access to the border, and beyond them we made out some of our Sanctuary Caravan colleagues, including NSC Executive Director Ravi Ragbir, who was visiting from NYC. On the Mexican side, there were cafes, restaurants and benches. Couples strolled, families picnicked, and children played in the surf under the shadow of the wall.
When we landed in New York City, Djuna and I discussed how it would take a while for us to process all that we had seen and experienced. We had been moved by the dignity and perseverance of the members of the Exodus. We had admired the dedication, humor, and intelligence of the Sanctuary Caravan’s volunteer coordinators. We had been disgusted by the violence, both physical and bureaucratic, of our government’s policies and agents.
Two days after we got back from the border, I picked up my work here in New York with NSC, and found out that my local Congressman, who had requested deferred action of removal for my Albanian friends (basically asking that they not be deported), had heard back from U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). The request was denied, and USCIS told the parents that they have thirty-three days to leave the country that they have called home for fourteen years. Brooklyn is the only home their three young daughters, two of them U.S. citizens and one with DACA, have known. I sat in a cafe with my Albanian friend and the Congressman’s caseworker as we fought back tears and plotted our next moves. The struggle continues.
The beautiful celebrity duck of Central Park, a solo male Mandarin Duck, was first sighted at the pond near 5th Avenue and 59th Street in early October. Mandarin Ducks are not native to North America, and it has been speculated that the duck was an escaped or released pet. In October, I was more interested in the birds flying through the city during the fall migration. The hordes of people lining up to take a look at the Mandarin Duck also kept me away. Standing in a long line waiting for a turn to take a photo of an exotic pet was not appealing.
As the weeks went by, the duck kept attracting crowds, its comings and goings were assiduously tracked, and it drew lots of media coverage in The Gothamist, The Cut, The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, and other outlets. In early December the New York Times ran a new article entitled, “The Hot Duck That Won’t Go Away.” The Times piece quoted a disgruntled birder who was annoyed by all the publicity, and the hysteria, surrounding the bird. He said that the Mandarin was essentially “the Kim Kardashian of ducks.”
I will admit that this reference to Kim K. piqued my interest, and when a few days later my friend Marie Lee proposed a joint foray into the park to find the superstar waterfowl, I agreed. As we entered the park at 59th Street, we could tell by the small crowd assembled on the north side of the pond where we would locate the duck. As the weather has grown colder, the crowds have thinned so we were able to go immediately to the edge of the pond. And there he was, splendid and colorful, and really so photogenic. The Mandarin Duck, unfazed by its fans, paddled around among the pairs of Mallards, along with a pretty male Wood Duck, and an American Coot. When I pointed out the Coot—and its prehistoric looking lobed toes—Marie asked, “Is that where the expression ‘old coot’ comes from?” Yes indeed.
The Mandarin Duck was definitely worth the trip, although the hype—Mandarin Duck manicures, Mandarin Duck dog jackets—is a bit much. I felt a little sad that I’m not a winter birder as I read about the Saw-Whet Owls and other raptors that people have been sighting in the park. Gabriel Willow, who runs birding classes for NYC Audubon, told me, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” But I hate the cold, and I don’t have the proper gear, so I’m on birding hiatus until the Spring Migration, except for watching the Dark-eyed Juncos, Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, and other birds I can see from my kitchen window in the country.
My heart has been heavy this past week, pained by the violence and cruelty unleashed by the vile rhetoric of the people who are running our country. But just yesterday afternoon I had some good news. I heard that the regional director of USCIS has agreed to consider a Congressman’s request for deferred action on behalf of two of his constituents, my Albanian friends, whom I will call Rovena and Altin.
In August, an ICE officer told Rovena and Altin that they had 90 days to leave the country. Their stay of removal had been turned down, and they would have to take their three young daughters back to Albania. The girls speak no Albanian, and have known no other home than Brooklyn, where the family has lived for thirteen years. The threat of imminent deportation was terrifying and heartbreaking for the parents, the kids, and for everyone who loves them, including me.
I first met my Albanian friends through the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) Accompaniment Program in March, and had been at their monthly ICE check-ins during the spring and summer. I had also worked with them at the NSC Pro Se Immigration Legal Clinic through the summer, consulting with volunteer attorneys and with NSC staff about their options.
Rovena and I met with a dedicated and passionate immigration caseworker in a Congressman’s office, and we three put together an appeal to the regional director of ICE and his counterpart at USCIS. The request was that, in consideration of the possibly irreparable harm deportation would cause the three girls, their parents be granted discretionary deferred action. The Congressman wrote a letter, and we assembled binders including a family psychological evaluation, a declaration of country conditions from an expert on Albania, along with photos of and school reports for each of the girls, plus dozens of letters from the family’s employers, teachers, neighbors, and relatives attesting to their importance in the community.
Yesterday’s news does not mean that they are safe—but it’s a small victory. It means that the dossiers will be read, the ICE deportation clock is stopped, and that there is a chance that they will be allowed to stay.
With all the anti-immigrant rhetoric and racist policies being generated daily, so many families and individuals are at risk. There are eleven million undocumented immigrants in this country. There are thousands of Central American asylum seekers making an exodus through Mexico hoping to find safety in our communities, and in response the current administration is sending thousands of U.S. troops to the border and whipping up white supremacist terror in the hopes of swaying the mid-term elections.
As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it in a recent public FB post: “Instead of parroting the calculated fear mongering of this administration, our side needs sobriety, an analysis, and a strategy centered on building solidarity with the most targeted communities while placing an urgent emphasis on direct action and movement building and mobilization.”
To that end, I invite you all to support the SANCTUARY CARAVAN: “We are resolved to form a U.S. Caravan of supporters who will meet the Central American Caravan in Mexico, witness their movement, and accompany them into the U.S. At the border, we will assist those seeking entry with their demands to enter the US without losing their liberty.”
If the Democrats don’t manage to take control of the House next week, it will be grim. But even if they do, we can’t count on the politicians to save us. Choose your lane, find your people, and let’s start building the world we want to see.