Giving Thanks in Troubling Times

Hello friends!

It has been a while since I’ve last written anything to update you all on my YAV year thus far. This is in part because coming up with what to say has been a bit overwhelming. As much as I like to write, finding the right words has felt a daunting task. A lot has happened within the past few weeks.

The first week in November, Lukus, Jake, and I joined the Denver and Tucson YAVs in Agua Prieta, Sonora, and in Tucson for a delegation to learn more about the realities of the US/Mexico border. It was a transformative trip, and an emotional roller coaster ride. There was joy and companionship, but mingled with plenty of sadness and anger. I am personally finding it very difficult to put my thoughts on the border delegation into written words, so I will simply say that if you’re reading this and are curious and want to ask me about it, feel free. If you want to read more about what we did, you can also take a look at the blogs of my fellow Austin YAVs. Both Lukus and Jake wrote wonderful blogs about the delegation from their own perspectives:

https://lionheartlukus.wordpress.com/2016/11/09/awake-in-mexico/

https://jcrowth.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/the-border/

While I may not be sharing many words, I will share some pictures, which I think speak for themselves.

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The Border Wall

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The Sonoran Desert

 

Now, on to the part I (think?) I have the words for.

Earlier in October, I was planning to write a nice, Thanksgiving themed blog around this time and detail the many things I am grateful for so far this year. After the past few weeks, that notion seems a bit laughable. I want to make clear that I do have a lot that I am grateful for, and in some respects, now more than ever, and I will get to that. But first, I have to express that I am angry.

It has been a tough past couple of weeks after Mexico and the election. I know some of you reading this might wish I would stay apolitical on this blog, but, to be blunt, that’s not possible. This isn’t simply because I’m personally invested in the political process. While that is true, and has been true for a long time (sorry, that’s just how I was raised- thanks mom and dad!) I can’t avoid talking about the election because my placement is at an immigration law nonprofit. We serve the very people Donald Trump has degraded, demeaned, and scapegoated throughout this entire election cycle.

Most of our clients are Central American minors who fled to the US without papers, and crossed the border unaccompanied. None of them are bringing violence with them; they were merely fleeing for their lives to escape horrific gang violence and ineffective protection from their governments and from law enforcement. These are children who have been through experiences that no child should ever have to go through, and we should be welcoming them with open arms.

We already inflict many injustices on asylum-seeking Central American minors as a nation. We pay Mexico to deport them, and if they reach the US, they are detained for days, weeks, even months in a mass cell they call a hielera (icebox) because it’s so cold. There are things that are morally reprehensible as is, and the hope has been that these things would begin to get better.

Instead, almost half the country voted for someone who has threatened mass deportations, who wants to cut off federal funding for sanctuary cities, who wants to end DACA, and who hopes to build a giant wall along the border and make Mexico pay for it. His words and his actions have continuously made immigrants feel unsafe in the very country they came to for their safety, and his election has not helped matters.

November 9th was a difficult day in the office where we had to confront a lot of uncertainty about what comes next with immigration law, especially things like the future of DACA. Our two wonderful and hardworking attorneys had to console frightened clients.

This whole Donald Trump is President Elect thing is not a joke, friends. It’s awful, and real, and already is (and has been) affecting marginalized communities in intolerable ways.

It becomes harder to be fully grateful when you’re harboring a lot of anger towards the decisions of many people in this country.

Yet, even in the aftermath, there’s so much to be thankful for.

I am thankful for Austin Region JFON’s determination to keep doing the work we’re doing, even as things get tough. I am grateful for the new things I learn every day from the people I work with at JFON, and from the stories of our clients.

I am grateful to see how the immigration law community in Austin has come together to provide four emergency clinics on DACA and Know Your Rights prior to the inauguration. I am grateful to be able to direct our new volunteers to those clinics.

I was grateful to attend a peaceful protest last Sunday with several others in AYAVA House, where we were able to stand in solidarity with our undocumented brothers and sisters, listen to their stories, and march down congress street up to the Texas State capitol.

I was grateful to go to a craft fair that donated half of its proceeds to ARJFON in light of the election, and so happy that one of my housemates and her visiting friends came out to that event.

I was grateful to attend ARJFON’s annual dinner fundraiser last night and see the many people who support the work we’re doing; donors, volunteers, board members, and clergy from the churches that support us. I am thankful for the courage of the clients who stood up and told their stories for everyone in attendance to hear.

It’s been a hard two weeks, and I suspect it isn’t going to get easier. But amidst the turmoil, I’ve witnessed communities coming together and people jumping into action. In that respect, my cup is overflowing.

 

AYAVA: The First Month

Hello from Austin!

 It’s been almost exactly a month since I arrived here to begin this year of service; it’s been a fruitful month of learning and living and growing in intentional community, and it has seriously gone by fast. 

AYAVA house had our first retreat last weekend; It was lovely to get out of the city, spend some time with each other, process the past few weeks and enjoy nature. We cooked for one another, enjoyed sunrises, sunsets and stargazing, and spent a morning sharing our spiritual autobiographies. It’s always important to remember that everyone comes from different places based on their varying life experiences, and in a large community like AYAVA (YAV, Americore, and Episcopalian Serivce Corps), the time we took to put that into perspective was incredibly valuable. 

AYAVA Selfie

Texas Sunrise!


After the retreat, we were all brought back to the real world of work, fortunately rested and renewed. It also rained this week, and the hot weather has broken- It’s a Texas miracle! Rain really does symbolize new beginnings in Texas. Louis Sachar was on to something when he wrote Holes. Or he was just making use of an age old archetype… (Probably the latter) 

Work at JFON (Justice for our Neighbors) got pretty busy toward the end of this week, so Wednesday to Friday. I would explain more, but I figure it’s best not to launch into what would probably be a poor explanation into various immigration forms and what they do. After all, they were just letters and numbers to me three weeks ago. 

While, as I said, I’m not going to tell you about form numbers, I am going to talk a little more about Austin Region JFON, where I work. As I learn more, so do you all! 

Justice for Our Neighbors is a national nonprofit that provides low cost legal services to immigrants; this is the overarching concept, but each JFON site can have a different focus. 

In Austin, a large portion of cases are SIJ, which stands for Special Immigrant Juvenile. I’m going to attempt to explain it, but I’m also going to attach the USCIS page in case you want the official government explanation:

https://www.uscis.gov/green-card/special-immigrant-juveniles/special-immigrant-juveniles-sij-status

SIJ status can be granted to undocumented minors who arrive in the US if they were neglected or abandoned by a parent and it is deemed unsafe for them to return to their home country. They are often sponsored by a family member living here in the US. Through the SIJ process, it is possible to get a green card for permanent residency. 

Every day, I learn more about the minors we serve, their stories, and the lives they have and hope to have in the US. Every day, I am angered by human injustices such as violence and poverty, especially as these are things these kids have faced. Yet every day, I’m also amazed by the human capacity for love and for passion and aspiration. The SIJ kids that we serve have hopes, dreams and ambitions. They have hobbies they love and family and friends that they love. These are the generalized versions of all the things I get to process whilst filling out immigration forms. Welcome to the YAV Program y’all. 

I am also grateful for the people I work with at JFON; four intelligent and dedicated women who are passionate about the work they do. The Methodist church that houses our offices is warm and welcoming, and often bustling, as they host a variety of ministries. JFON has  recently been getting donations of backpacks from another local Methodist church; they’re slowly taking over the office floor, but the kids are always excited to get one. The generosity of the churches and volunteers that help support JFON is such a wonderful thing to witness. 

I’m excited to see what the rest of this year will bring in the AYAVA community and at JFON. This first month has brought so much, from solace, to sadness, to amazement and to gratitude. Onward into the next month. 

 

Coming from a Place of Learning

Labor Day has, as always, come and gone and Tuesday was my first day at Justice for our Neighbors! Now, come Friday, I’ve completed the first week of work. 

I’ve found myself slowly readjusting back to routine; I’m gradually settling into my work schedule, and getting used to my morning commute on the bus. By some miracle stroke of luck, I found a direct bus route nearby to work, so transport navigation has not been any trouble. The one thing I have to remember is to take the earlier of the two buses that will get me to work on time because buses in Austin during rush hour do not arrive on time. Fortunately, Lukus and I test ran my bus to work this past Friday, so by the time I went to work on Tuesday I was clued in to that. 

First bus ride success!


At YAV Orientation, one of the things we talked about is having the understanding that, as YAVs, we are not in a position of knowledge. We are in our communities and our placements to learn, and we have been graciously invited to be part of our placement organizations for a short time. 
I have definitely experienced a lot of learning at JFON this week, and believe me, in my placement, I don’t know much at all. 

JFON is a nonprofit that provides low cost immigration law services to clients, and rest assured, I hardly know the first thing about immigration law. Well, I know a fair bit more than I knew Tuesday, but I’ve still only scratched the surface. My mind is now all a jumble of form numbers and various types of visas that I’m only just beginning to know basics about.

 I am also the only person in the office who is not bilingual in English and Spanish, which has definitely been humbling. I certainly don’t regret taking French, but even so, I’m still only fluent in English. I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt for only being monolingual, and know that I’m guilty of taking my English speaking for granted, even outside of the US. I’m hoping though, that this feeling of linguistic ineptitude will motivate me to work on building some Spanish skills. 

I have always had some perfectionistic tendencies, so sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and accept myself for what I know and understand  in the present. At the same time, I’m finding that letting go of that feeling is to an extent liberating, and I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to challenge myself and learn something new every day. 

Centering Awareness and Settling In

After an exciting week of orientation in Stony Point, New York, I, along with my fellow YAVs, Lukus and Jake, have made it to our site in Austin! This past week has been a whirlwind, but orientation did bring me a sense of renewal that I will try to bring to my new community and to my work placement.

We are slowly but surely getting acclimated to our new home in Austin. We’ve been getting to know everyone living in AYAVA house, as our community is made up of YAVs, Episcopalian Service Corps, and Americorps. Yesterday morning, our site coordinator showed us around Austin Seminary, and yesterday afternoon, we were able to use some free time time to go to the Texas State Capitol!

The Texas Capitol definitely proves true to the saying, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” It’s the second largest capitol building in the US… second only to the US Capitol itself. I was impressed with how accessible it was; free to enter, and visitors can easily go in the house and senate gallery. (Though not the house gallery currently, as it’s being renovated.) I enjoyed learning about some of the many interesting women in Texas history, such as Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards, but I have to say, finding out that the gift store stocks stuffed animal versions of Rick Perry’s dog was something we all found a bit unusual. Then again, none of us are from Texas.

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At last week’s orientation at Stony Point, all the YAVs were encouraged to center our awareness, and to recognize the social privileges we carry with us. In this mindset, one of the first things I found myself noticing was that Austin has a serious lack of affordable grocery stores, at least here in the northern side of the city.

There’s an H-E-B not too far away that all of the AYAVA house residents can carpool to, so this isn’t so much of an issue for us. However, just walking around, we quickly noticed that there were not many grocery stores, and the ones that were there were organic groceries or co-ops. While I’ve nothing against such stores, per se, they’re expensive, and those living in poverty in an urban area like Austin are not likely to be able to afford to buy such food. In addition, anyone who doesn’t own a car wouldn’t have the freedom of movement we have to easily get to the H-E-B.

On observing this, I was curious about whether Austin has any food justice organizations, particularly because the YAV placements here focus predominantly on immigration and public policy. I found out later in the evening that one of the Episcopal Service Core members living in AYAVA House is working for a sustainable food center. This is one of the great things about AYAVA House; we all have a diverse set of work placements, so we’ll have a lot to learn from each other!

I am excited to start work on Tuesday; I will be working at a Methodist nonprofit called Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides legal services for immigrants. I do not know much about immigration law (they don’t teach that in music school) so this will be a completely new learning experience. You can definitely expect to hear more about JFON in future blogs!

Getting settled in Austin has so far been a positive experience, and I am excited to begin work and to spend more time with our AYAVA community!