The Facebook message from Julie at Minority Humanitarian Foundation arrived on a Wednesday afternoon.
“Hi Jim and Nina would you be available/interested in driving to Calexico tomorrow to pick up an asylum seeker? His wife just called us and he is being released today. … we were wondering if you could pick him up from the hotel tomorrow … and then take him straight to the airport and walk him through TSA.”
Nina Wickett and I had spent the day in Tijuana helping to prepare and serve a meal outside a health clinic with the wonderful people of Contra Viento y Marea community kitchen.
It didn’t take long for us to say yes to the 220-mile round trip from San Diego.
The coordinated effort to reunite this man with his wife, whom he hadn’t seen in 2 1/2 years, was remarkable.
The not-for-profit organization Border Angels paid the man’s bond to release him from Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico. Minority Humanitarian Foundation put him up in a motel and bought his plane ticket (it does this regularly through Miles 4 Migrants.)
This work goes on behind the scenes day after day, night after night.
While Nina and I drove across the California desert to El Centro, Julie messaged us with detailed instructions about the man’s paperwork and the process of navigating airport security.
We found him at his motel, his eyes smiling above his mask, and began navigating our language situation. He speaks some English, I can get by with mediocre Spanish and Nina speaks French. The laughter started pretty quickly.
A generous friend of ours, Amelia Nigro, had given us $100 toward our trip. We spent some of it on our new friend’s breakfast at McDonald’s, and then started the drive back to San Diego. We were on a fairly tight schedule.
The anxiety we felt about making sure we got him to the airport no doubt paled in comparison to the emotions of our friend as he sat smiling in the back seat of our rental car. He was ecstatic about his release and the reality that a four-hour flight would reunite him with his wife.
We made it to the airport two hours before his departure.
It took some negotiating with the airline, which allowed only one of us to accompany our friend through TSA. That was me, as I could more easily communicate with him in Spanish.
Going through TSA was the only negative part of the day — people released from immigration detention centers are given extra scrutiny, including an invasive “pat-down” — in public — of basically every part of the clothed body.
I grimaced as our friend endured that indignity, but he did his best to grin his way through it. (As another volunteer told me later, the pat-down is probably nothing compared to what refugees may have experienced “on their journey”).
We finally made it to the departure gate, and it was time to follow another request from Julie at MHF — to buy our friend more food for the flight.
He decided on barbecued chicken and iced tea, and as we sat there waiting for his order, he said something directly into his phone.
He then turned the phone toward me and showed me what was on his Google Translate screen. It read something like, “I am very grateful that you brought me to the airport and bought me food. Thank you.”
I didn’t know what to say, either in English or my halting Spanish.
So I just tapped my heart with my hand.
After the food arrived, we went back to the gate so I could tell the employee at the counter that our friend didn’t speak much English and might need help during the flight. The employee looked up his name and said the airline already knew he was Spanish-speaking (thank you, Julie!) — and that he could join the first group allowed to board (thank you, Delta!)
As we waited, I asked him, “¿Este es tu primer vuelo?” (“Is this your first flight?”)
Indeed it was, at age 48.
The announcement came to board, we hugged and I took more photos as he walked through the door to the gateway.
As good-byes go, this was a beautiful one.
This is one person, one husband, one human being. All over the world there are millions like him — men, women and children in desperate situations.
Asylum seekers and refugees leave their homes, their lives, their families, not because they want to. They do it because they have to.
Care to walk a mile in their shoes?
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline, ‘Humanity Knows No Borders,’ is the phrase Minority Humanitarian Foundation uses to sign off on social media posts. They pick up asylum seekers at all hours of the day and night and send them on their way, we hope, to new lives and new freedom.