Have you ever walked into the bathroom after church, locked the stall behind you, started to unzip your pants, and found yourself staring at a rather large Cuban Tree Frog who was hiding inside of the toilet? Have you ever had to give yourself the following pep talk: “You walk through an exhibit filled with alligators, no problem. Get yourself together! It’s just a little frog.” And have you ever found yourself getting a little bit emotional because it’s Mother’s Day and maybe this frog’s mother abandoned him and left him to die alone in a toilet? That’s pretty low.
Until today, I could honestly answer, “No” to each of those questions. My life as a Missionary has been full of firsts and new adventures, and even if my life does not look quite like I thought it would when I was walking across a stage in my cap and gown last year (twice), I’m grateful for this new (and sometimes odd) experience.
Here is an update on some of my other adventures during the past two weeks:
On April 24, South Florida JFON had another UAC clinic at First UMC Homestead. I spent most of my time there assisting a father whose son, an unaccompanied minor from Guatemala, came to the United States to live with him. The child could not attend the appointment because he had to work. Think about that. This man and I both make ~$300 a month, yet my housing, food, healthcare, and transportation are also covered, so I have extra spending money for clothes, other medicine, entertainment, etc.; his son has to work so they can meet their very basic needs.
I did not feel my best that Sunday, but I was the liturgist at Redland Community UMC in the morning, and we had a JFON clinic that afternoon, so I brushed it off. I woke up the next day with a fever, and I stayed home sick on Monday and Tuesday. I hate sick days. In theory they would be awesome. But theory doesn’t account for how tired and gross sickness can be. I finished reading and highlighting relevant country and gang information for the asylum application we had to turn in during our client’s asylum interview on Wednesday, April 27. But beyond that, I mostly slept.
On Wednesday, I still felt sick and was really dizzy, but I no longer had a fever. We drove to the USCIS asylum office in Miami, and there I found out that I would be interpreting for our client during his interview. (I thought I would just be interpreting for the JFON attorneys/the client before and after his interview, like I do when we have immigration and family court hearings.) I am not a certified interpreter or translator, and I do not consider myself fluent in Spanish. (Fortunately, fluency is a bit subjective, so I had no problem swearing under oath that morning that I was fluent and able to provide a word-for-word interpretation for the asylum officer.)
Our client is 21 years old, and he came to the United States after a family member was killed by a gang in El Salvador and after he was personally threatened. (His 13-year-old friend was also killed). I’ve heard his story many times, but I can’t say I felt prepared to interpret for a government official during a ~1 hour asylum interview (even with help from a trained/certified interpreter who monitored our conversation over the phone). I was really nervous, but I asked God to give me the right words, and then I did my best for our client. I really hope he is approved and receives asylum, although based on the precedent, it does not seem likely.
In order to receive asylum, a victim has to belong to a specific group that is being persecuted; because virtually everyone in El Salvador is harmed by either the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) or the Barrio 18 gangs or both, it is hard to make a case that someone is being persecuted by that gang because he pertains to a particular social group (family, race, religious group, group with a particular political opinion, etc.) and not just because the gangs are power-hungry and need to extort and kill indiscriminately in order to control the country. You can read the UNHCR guidelines here.
My biggest reflection is how strange it is that the client and I are so similar in age, yet he has witnessed violence so terrible and poverty so immense that he had no real choice but to flee to another country and culture completely unknown to him. I know that there are many injustices here, too, but I can’t help but think about how sheltered I am as a citizen of the United States. How awful our man-made borders must look from Heaven.
On April 28, two of our Spanish-speaking clients from Guatemala had master calendar hearings at immigration court, one at 9 AM and one at 1 PM, so I spent most of the day in a pro bono room. In the middle of those two hearings, I met with a teenage client from Honduras and worked with him on his asylum case. He uses a lot of slang and shortens many of his words, so I mostly just smile at him and ask him to repeat himself until I understand. He always smiles back and is very easy going. His easy nature was in stark contrast to the events he recalled for me that day:
He has had several family members and friends killed or disappeared by a gang. The gang stood outside of his school everyday and repeatedly told him, his cousin, and his best friend that they would be killed if they did not join the gang. Each time they refused to join; they did not want to kill or to hurt other people. First his cousin was “disappeared” by the gang. Then his best friend was shot over 40 times in the middle of the street in front of his house. Our client fled to the United States because he had a sinking feeling that the gang would keep their promise, and if he did not join the gang, he would be killed next.
I thanked him for sharing his story, a story so similar to others we have heard from children who have fled gang violence in Central America, and I told him that it is hard for me to even listen to his story; I am so sorry he had to live with that type of fear. He is so brave, and I am so frustrated with a broken system that very well might choose to send him back home to his death.
That day I also ended up waiting for someone from Immigration to bring me a G-28 for the unaccompanied minor client who had court earlier that day. While I was sitting in the large waiting room, I smiled at a 3-year-old boy who was running around, hitting chairs, and giggling. His mother looked exhausted and was obviously not going to make him sit down, so I called him over and asked him if he wanted to play a game on my phone. (Stranger, danger, right?) His mom seemed to be speaking a native Guatemalan dialect, so I just smiled at her, and nodded, and her son and I enjoyed a game of Pac-Man. We would have played Sonic, too, but their attorney arrived, and they had to leave. Immigration court is no place for a child.
On Friday, I volunteered with the Everglades Outpost. I was able to feed the macaques and a few of the birds, and I got to go inside of the alligator exhibit for a little bit. I also got to see an axolotl, which is really a cool amphibian. Apparently it can grow or lose its gills as needed to survive either on land or in the water. I’m not learning quickly (there are a lot of animals in the world), but I am learning. I spent most of the day moving ~50 recently-cut PVC pipes, some of which were probably 25 feet long, for a maintenance project. I took almost 20,000 steps while carrying them and was pretty sore afterwards.
On May 3, South Florida JFON held our monthly Redland Community UMC clinic. Our clinics normally last from 4-7 PM, but this clinic ended up starting at 3 PM and finishing up after 8 PM. I worked for a solid 11 hours that day, but it was worth it since most of it was spent with clients. One client and I finished two DS-260s for her parents who are in Mexico, a process that has taken us months! We hugged each other for a long time. I am so grateful for all of the volunteers who came to help us; we could not run our clinics without them.
My first rabies shot in the 3-shot series was on Wednesday. It did not hurt until a few hours later, and then it hurt to even lift my arm for ~48 hours. I was grateful for a relaxing day at work. We were allowed to come in an hour late, and we spent part of the afternoon watching a movie about Esther with some of the ladies who normally attend Bible Study. We shared cheese and crackers and delicious cookies, and I felt particularly grateful for the community I’ve found at Redland Community UMC.
On Thursday, I was the only person in the office. I finally caught up on my e-mail, and I started working on a grant report that is due on May 15. (It helps that some of it is similar to another grant report that I submitted on May 1). After work I had my Candidacy Recertification interview over Skype.
I had the program car to myself this weekend, and I chose to make the most of it. On Friday I used my Groupons for the Seal Swim and Sea Trek encounters at the Miami Seaquarium. Seals are awesome and cuddly. My favorite part was when we were able to swim freely around their exhibit next to them.
On Saturday, I drove down to the Everglades National Park in search of crocodiles and alligators in the only place in the world where they coexist (or so I’m told). I ended up only seeing an alligator, some turtles, birds, and fish, but it was a beautiful day, and the scenery was gorgeous, so it was still worth the trip.
I hope to go to bed early tonight and to sleep uninterrupted…which can definitely be a challenge when dog-sitting a 60-pound (nocturnal?) Golden Retriever puppy who has no idea how large and obnoxious he is when he tries to jump on you in the middle of the night. He makes up for it though when he is just so cuddly and adorable and affectionate and playful during the day.
That’s all for now. Thanks for following this journey.