As much as I love autumn, there is something melancholy about the end of summer. The zinnias in the garden are still blooming and we’re eating heirloom cherry tomatoes like bonbons, but the squirrels are frantically caching acorns for the cold months looming ahead. James’s semester at Columbia has started, which means we’ll be in the city at least half of the week, exchanging daily walks in the woods and sunsets by the pond for restaurant dining and museum visits.
Since my mishap on a flight of stairs resulting in a broken ankle in March and my mother’s fall in the garden store parking lot landing her in the hospital for five days in May, I’ve been thinking a lot about human vulnerability. Some years ago, when I was cataloguing the friends who had been diagnosed with serious illnesses and those whose marriages were falling apart, James said to me, “They’re culling the herd, Nancy. Keep running!”
The great Barbara Ehrenreich died on September 1st, and the next day her son Ben posted the announcement to Twitter. He said, in part, “She was never much for thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving each other and fighting like hell.” In a time when calamity is all around, from personal struggles to the ravages of climate catastrophe and political turmoil that have been dominating the headlines, I can’t think of a better injunction.
My mother Irene Gelinas Kricorian was one of the youngest in a French-Canadian family with seventeen children living on a farm in Hooksett, New Hampshire. Her mother died when my mother was four years old, and when my mother was eight, her father was declared unfit by the state and she and her sisters Priscilla and Eleanor were removed from the family farm and sent to the Dover Children’s Home where they spent the next six years.
My mother has talked about the orphanage in Dover since I can remember. Her stories were sometimes comical and sometimes terrifying, and I grew up fascinated by the whole idea of orphans and orphanages. Intermittently since the late 1970’s she has been writing about that time, as well as interviewing family members, and collecting related documents. There are still many unanswered questions about her childhood experience and her family’s history.
On March first, my mother and I drove from Watertown to Durham to see the Dover Children’s Home Papers at the University of New Hampshire Library. In the special collections room, we opened the Gelinas Family file hoping for details about the court hearing that had resulted in the children’s removal. But the file was slim—there were five letters relating to the sisters’ arrival in November 1944 and later medical treatments for childhood ailments. We also looked over dining room menus, clothing requisition forms, and other administrative documents. There was a hand-written logbook with the names and photographs of each child and their date of arrival, but these entries ended a year before my mother and her sisters were brought to Dover.
After we finished at the library, we drove from Durham to Dover, parking the car outside the Children’s Home. It is no longer an orphanage, but functions as a non-residential treatment program for at-risk youth. We were told that therapy sessions were in progress so we couldn’t go inside. We walked around the yard, and my mother described the games they used to play as children and pointed at the windows of the dormitory rooms where she and her sisters had slept.
We then headed to our Airbnb rental, where I carried my mother’s suitcase up a steep flight of stairs to the bedroom. As I started down the steps holding onto the baluster I thought, “These stairs are going to be hard for my mother.” Just then my right foot slipped on a tread, and I landed with all my weight on my foot two treads below. The pain was searing, and I later found out that I had badly fractured my ankle in three places.
The continuing misadventure involved an ambulance trip to the emergency room, an overnight stay at a Portsmouth hotel, and a team effort by my devoted and capable spouse and two grown kids to get my mother back to Watertown, me back to New York City, and the car I could no longer drive from Dover to Manhattan. Once back in the city, I saw an orthopedist, who operated on my ankle the following Thursday. I’m currently getting around on crutches and a snazzy red knee scooter. The recovery is expected to take at least another two months.
Given my current mobility issues, we decided to hire a local genealogist to locate the court records for the 1944 hearing that resulted in my mother and her sisters’ years in Dover. This is information that my mother has wanted for at least thirty-five years.
A few weeks ago I received a request from a friend at Agos
Armenian Weekly in Istanbul. They were soliciting responses from Armenian
artists to the following questions: How
has being quarantined/isolated influenced your creative process? How do you foresee the future of your art
and creativity once the current situation of isolation fades away?
This was my
the first several weeks of our confinement I was unable to focus on reading or
writing. My spouse was sick with the virus, and we were quarantined from the
world and from each other in our home. We slept in separate rooms, washed our
hands dozens of times a day, wiped down doorknobs, handles, and counters, and
sat twelve feet apart at the kitchen table and in the living room. We were
lucky: his case was “mild” and I didn’t get sick. It took four weeks for his
energy, as well as his sense of taste and smell, to return. Once he was better,
wearing masks, we were able to go outside for short walks. The trees were
flowering and the birds were building their nests.
the past few weeks, finally able to concentrate for an hour or two a day, I
have returned to work on my latest novel. The book has three sections: the
story opens in New York City on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, the second
part is set is in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, and the final section
is a folk tale set in Hadjin on the eve of the Armenian Genocide. The novel is
about generations of trauma and resiliency in one Armenian family, and the fear
and stress of the present moment are permeating the descriptions I’m writing
about those other difficult times.
is so much suffering around us as people continue to be sickened by this
illness that has taken so many lives in New York, and around the world.
Prisoners are in crowded cells without soap to wash their hands. Millions have
lost their jobs; so many are worried about how they will pay the rent, and how
they will feed themselves and their children. Immigrant families without papers
are not eligible for the meager assistance the government is providing.
as we are isolated in our homes, we are finding ways to support each other
through mutual aid projects in our neighborhoods, through car protests outside
detention centers, and through online organizing to create collective power. My
creative life has always been entwined with my activist work, and as I continue
writing, I will join friends and comrades in our struggle for a kinder, more
equitable, and greener future.
You may read the other artists’ statements on the Agos site.
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.
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.
My father, who had been suffering with congestive heart failure and related complications for two years, passed away in his sleep at home on Friday, July 13. It has been a sad time for our family, and particularly hard on my mother, who is now learning to live alone after a sixty-year marriage. My father’s obituary ran in the Armenian and local newspapers in Watertown, and I wrote a eulogy that is now posted on my author site. He was a beloved member of his community so the church pews were filled and people were in the balcony and standing at the back during his funeral service, and at the post-funeral luncheon, many people told sweet stories of his kindness, generosity, and humor.
It was a strange experience to read on his official death certificate that my father’s parents’ place of birth was specified as Turkey (I would have put Cilicia or possibly Ottoman Empire), but even more disorienting was to see that his “Expanded Race” was listed as WHITE and his ethnicity was AMERICAN. There were a number of legal decisions in the early part of the 20th Century that admitted Armenians to the coveted category of “white,” so I won’t argue that point, but I would argue that my father’s ethnicity, as he or anyone else would have described it, was Armenian.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about race and ethnicity in America. I just finished listening to the audio book version of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the book, Kendi argues that there are three main channels of thinking about race: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. Only the last one challenges racism and white supremacy, and there is no such thing as “non-racist” thinking in America. I’m currently listening to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism. DiAngelo argues that “racism is a structure, not an event,” and suggests that “the full weight of responsibility rests with those who control the institutions.” Katy Waldman, in a review of the book in the New Yorker, says, “DiAngelo sets aside a whole chapter for the self-indulgent tears of white women, so distraught at the country’s legacy of racist terrorism that they force people of color to drink from the firehose of their feelings about it.”
And here, I will pull back from personal sadness and political distress to leave you with an anecdote and an image.
A few days after my father died, my mother and I were walking near my parent’s condominium on Bigelow Avenue in Watertown when we heard a cardinal loudly singing. According to my mother, my father, who was adept at birdcalls and whistles, used to imitate the cardinal perfectly, and he and the bird often called back and forth to each other. I looked up and saw that on the top of the Armenian Memorial Church steeple there was a cross and on top of the cross was the bright red cardinal belting out his song. I said to my mother, “If you believed in reincarnation, you might think that was Dad.” She laughed.
The weekend after my father’s funeral, James and I were at our house in Columbia County with our younger daughter Djuna and her friend Hannah. While we were eating supper on the porch, we watched storm clouds approach from the south. The storm rolled in, dumping down rain on the garden and lawn, and then rolled out leaving behind a rainbow. Djuna and Hannah ran out into the yard and did a joyous dance under the spectacular double rainbow.