How We Got 20,000 Ukrainians Across the Border and the Questions We Were Never Asked.
When I arrived at the border into a makeshift camp at a bus stop, the official numbers from the San Diego Rapid Response Shelter had Cubans as the number one group of immigrants to be crossing. After that were Russians and then Ukrainians. What was on the border was a managed chaos careening towards disaster. Pregnant women were sitting on blankets inside the glass walled bus-stop while young people laid around on the grass and children played with legos on top of suitcases. Old grandmothers sat on small camping chairs with a look of exhaustion and despair. Volunteers would drop off apples and snacks which would be promptly taken to a table inside the bus stop. A table stood at the end of the camp where volunteers, most of them young refugees themselves, jotted down new arrivals from the airport on a list and called out the numbers every time a Mexican Border Patrol came to call a group. He would take the group of 10–15 with their suitcases to the barb wire entrance next to the long line of pedestrian entry, and there they sat in a small sectioned off area, sometimes for hours with a look of simultaneous hope, anxiety and exhaustion. They sat there with a constant carousel of cameras staring at them asking two questions: did anyone you know die and why do you get to get in and others don’t.
Ukrainians sat perplexed. They did have people die, they did lose everything, and why is it their concern that United States has a racist immigration policy? The Ukrainians have lived for thousands of years with genocide and repression. And the minute they get independence, they are attacked by one racist super power and every major racist superpower backtracks their commitment. The main story for weeks was not the soon to come famine to the world as a result of the war in a country that feeds the world, but the unfair treatment of black students by a country at war who had been told to leave the country for weeks.
Ukrainians were born with white skin and they were about to get the wrath of the world for every crime ever committed by anyone with white skin. But on that day, all I saw was refugees sleeping on rat infested ground in the capital of narco and human trafficking.
Within days the 1 million man strong diaspora came to life. We wrote letters and called the representatives. We arrived into Tijuana with car-loads of tents, chairs, yoga mats and food, for which we had to pay off the Mexican Border Patrol dearly. We organized car pools and people started to arrive from around United States. People with engineering and Master’s degrees, quit their jobs and their families to organize. Within days, a full running kitchen and medical tent were run by dedicated volunteers. Telegram chats and sign up sheets filled up with people driving day and night to and from airports on both sides of the border. An online registration system replaced the pieces of paper enabling those with means to go and stay at hotels but more importantly it created way to report numbers to the US and Mexico authorities. Numbers like how many children arrived, how many elderly people, how many of them had severe medical issues as well as how many crossed into the US.
The numbers and desperate situation got the Mexican government to act. They opened up a gym that was also used for the central American caravans in 2018. US government opened the Pad West entry for the first time in six years to allow a faster processing of refugees. After days of build up from 150 to 1500 people at the border, the wait reduced to mere hours instead of a week or more. But with the bus loads of Ukrainians coming to US, the backlash grew. The immigration groups that Ukrainians were happy to work with saw this as an affront. Instead of using this opportunity as an opening in new relations with Border Patrol and a new standard of treatment for all refugees, they demanded that instead, the status quo should be the inhumane treatment that was there before. Instead of joining the Ukrainian activists to treatment of Haitians and Salvadorans as Ukrainians were treated, they demanded that Ukrainians are treated just as poorly.
And so the opportunity for decent treatment closed. On April 25th the last bus of refugees was moved to Chaparral. Hundreds of Ukrainians who spent their last dollar to arrive to Tijuana were turned back to Europe or to Mexico City where they were forced to live sleeping on the ground, in tents in rain and heat. A new program was created that brought the procession of tens of thousands of refugees with badly needed skills to less than 1500 over the course of two months. We started to get agressive treatment for one group after another. We started to see slander spread in media and stories told about the programs by people who claimed to be fighting for human rights. Attempts to correct the record was met with anger and derision. We started to feel a shift not just in how we were treated but in what law makers were saying. The lobbying against Ukrainian fleeing Russia for US started to reach the halls of Washington. The “human rights” groups got their wish, Ukrainians would now sit in camps with heat strokes and food poisonings for weeks and months on end just like all other refugees in Mexico.
On May 4th I was in the Benito Juarez sport center. There were barely 50 Ukrainians. Families with a few young people playing basketball on a sunny court. There was a gaggle of journalists walking around. None of them with any concrete plans to go and look at the camp in Mexico City. The interviewed people with the same two questions: do you know anyone who died, why do you get to come across. I talked to a few, none seemed to interested in talking to me except a couple from Washington Post. Arelis Hernandez decided to interview me when I mentioned that most of these people here are Evangelical Christians who comprise a tiny minority of a country that is over 95% Orthodox Christian. I spent 20 minutes explaining how through our efforts of organization and advocacy we managed to get the 20,000 Ukrainians across the border. I mentioned how by US Consulate and Mexican government, we were helped because of our unprecedented diaspora efforts to provide for the Ukrainians with thousands of dollars of our donations and hundreds of volunteers helping in a way that usually other NGO’s or governments help. I explained how Ukrainian diaspora is half the Haitian diaspora and a tiny fraction of the Latin American diaspora, a diaspora that is no where to be seen in the Haitian or Honduran or Colombian refugee camps.
Of course the main question that Washington Post wanted to ask was asked: “but isn’t this all racist”. I answered what we did different and if there was racism, then here is the opportunity to end it, to demand equality instead of sending Ukrainians to wallow in the heat and rain of Mexico City. They thanked me for my time, and aired a tiny snippet of the interview. Most of the article and video focused on promoting well known conman who took money from donors and left Ukrainians hanging.
Why? I don’t know, maybe because in the age of fighting racism and opposing attacks on women’s rights, diaspora finding success in helping diaspora and changing government treatment of refugees isn’t a story worth sharing.\
On May 25th I arrived back at the Benito Juarez camp. There was a calm compared to the hustle and bustle of little Ukraine. A large white tent stood in the basketball court with a table with three volunteers who registered a hand-full of Haitian and Central Americans. Inside the tent there was a small table with some snacks and a bunch of cots as these refugees would enter US the next day, seventy a day, through the very door that we opened. I talked to the white legal aids who assured me that everything done for Ukrainians, was on basis of race, and yet here we were, watching the legacy of our actions: 70 people, coming into America, every day, thanks to Ukrainians and our efforts, even as Ukrainians continued to sleep on the grounds of a Mexico City Park.