When it comes to refugees, it’s easy to say the “r” word, it’s hard to help.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been visiting various refugee camps in Tijuana. I began doing so after I volunteered along with hundreds of other Ukrainians, Russians, Belorussians, Americans, Europeans and Mexicans to help avert a humanitarian disaster when thousands of Ukrainians arrived. Now I’m not a relief worker, or a social worker; I’m an engineer. But I was routinely called a racist because I was helping my compatriots and did not help the Haitians or Central Americans when they arrived years ago. For some reason, various people felt that I can be non-Racist only if help Ukrainians today and I also help non-Ukrainians.
I don’t understand this logic. It would apply if I was a humanitarian worker. But I’m not. The hundreds of volunteers who came to Tijuana and Mexico City to help Ukrainians were teachers and lawyers, translators and engineers and farmers and everything in between have never volunteered. They came because they felt a need their compatriots. Something that I was surprised to see a complete absence of at other refugee camps.
After seeing the way that most refugees are treated in Mexico I realized that the people who called me racist felt that I was a racist because I felt that Ukrainians should be treated humanely, wrongly assuming that by that it would mean that I felt that all others should be treated inhumanely. In reality, I helped Ukrainians because I felt that no one should be treated inhumanely. This is why after two months of helping Ukrainians, and having developed some skills and knowledge in the area, I felt that I could use to help others.
Since the “Stay in Mexico” and Title 42 policies came into effect, thousands of refugees have been stuck in refugee camps across the Southern border including Haitians, Hondurans and Guatemalans. I felt that the work we did helping Ukrainians (which was commended by the government officials of US and Mexico) should not go to waste. As such I joined the refugee camp workers on tours to learn what we can do to help these refugees.
What I saw shocked me. The refugee camps that the Central Americans and Haitians live in are atrocious. They are overpacked with unsanitary bathrooms and showers. They are dark and dingy. They cook food with wood fires and lack basic hygiene products.
What is worse, they are not safe. The refugee as well as the workers are hunted down by cartels and routinely kidnapped and killed because what they do cuts into the bottom line of coyotes and human traffickers. The shelters are living on donations and money that the shelter owners make working side gigs. This is actually novel because the current President Manuel Lopez Obrador has completely cut what little funding they used to get just as the population at these camps swelled as a result of Trump policies. This is why President MLO is suspected to be deeply corrupt and in cahoots with cartels which explains the issues that the struggling shelter owners face.
However, what’s worse, is that unlike the Ukrainian make-shift shelters, these shelters have no steady or large US based funding or volunteers. The funding that Ukrainians got was from fellow Ukrainians, the volunteers were for the most part Ukrainians. However even though the Ukrainian diaspora is only 1 million in US, there were hundreds of volunteers in Mexico who came from all across the US. At the same time, I saw no Haitian or Central American volunteers even though US is home to over two million Haitians and seven million Central Americans.
Of course I intend to work and help the Haitians and Central Americans. I am willing to help even if I am branded as a “white savior”, and not because I will be branded as a “racist” if I don’t help. I will help because I have knowledge and skills that can be of help and it is the right thing to do at a time when few seem to be concerned about the situation who are actively helping.
Now at the same time, there are still hundreds of Ukrainians and Russian speakers at the border. I don’t expect Haitians or Central Americans to help them. We were lucky to have many non-Ukrainians help us but I was grateful to them and never would expect or demand anyone to help especially who wasn’t a Ukrainian. I believe that helping is hard work which is why it iss up to every individual who they choose to help.
But at the very least I hope that Haitian and Central Americans join me and come to help their people who are living in terrible conditions. I hope that like they will drive down with supplies and stay for days the way we did. I hope they come and help for days and even weeks cleaning toilets and cooking the way we did. I hope that the ones who have college degrees will come and stay 24/7 at the camps to translate paperwork, play with kids and calm down those who have experienced the unspeakable the way we did.
I hope they come and help because it is easy to call Ukrainian volunteers racist for helping their own people. Whether it is your own people or not, it is hard to go down to Mexico and help, but it’s the right thing to do. Because no refugee should be treated the way these refugees are treated. The Ukrainian volunteers made sure to prevent this treatment of Ukrainians. I honestly think that if more Americans of Haitian and Central American background came to help and made the story known in US, the Mexican and US governments would respond, diasporas would come to the aid, and Haitians and Central Americans would be in a very different position.