Ordinary People Making a Difference: sent in by Ann Epps

This is one of many stories from a wide variety of sources and a multitude of forms contributed by people upon request for my 70th birthday.   They will be posted without editing, with the attribution that was with them.   I will be posting these regularly until they run out next year sometime: if you have others to add, please send them to me.

Mi casa es su casa’: the American welcoming migrants into her home

by Olivia Solon in Denver, Colorado for The Guardian   Tue 16 Oct 2018 05.00 EDT Last modified on Sat 20 Oct 2018 10.30 EDT

At Casa de Paz, Sarah Jackson gives food, shelter, and support to people recently released from a nearby immigrant detention center.

Sarah Jackson of Denver, Colorado built a space for newly released detainees to get back on their feet.

Eight years ago, Sarah Jackson went on an all-expenses paid trip with her church to learn about immigration at the US-Mexico border. At the time, she knew nothing about why people migrate, and viewed it as an opportunity to indulge her wanderlust with a free vacation.

“I was just living my perfect little life,” said the 34-year-old. “I didn’t know immigrant detention centres existed. I didn’t know about families being separated. I didn’t think there were people who were fleeing danger coming to the United States. It was not even a blip on my radar.”

The people she met on that trip – including a man fleeing Mexico after his pregnant fiancee was killed by a gang and a father with no criminal history who was deported from the US after police pulled him over for driving too slowly in a school zone – had such a profound impact on her that she pledged to dedicate her life to helping migrants.

“Over and over the Bible talks about treating the sojourner or immigrant as one of your own,” she told the Guardian, recalling the desperation of those she met at the border. “That’s not how we treat our own.”

Two years later, Casa de Paz (Spanish for “House of Peace”) was born. The Denver-based not-for-profit helps newly released detainees and their families get their feet back on the ground after months of immigration detention – offering a place to stay as well as food, clothing and transportation. It is also Jackson’s home, and guests are treated like family.

“Most of us have a bad impression of America and are not expecting any good from anybody”    32-year-old asylum seeker

Every evening, volunteers make the 15-minute drive to the Aurora Ice detention centre to collect those who have been released, either on bond or because they have won their immigration case, and bring them to the Casa.

The two-story house looks exactly like every other in the tree-lined suburb. At the front door is a mat that reads “home”, with a heart in place of the “o”. Inside, it’s cosy and welcoming, with huge bowls of granola bars and fruit left out on the kitchen counter.

“Everything is ‘mi casa es su casa’,” Jackson said. “If you are hungry, eat. If you are thirsty, drink.”

When the Guardian visited in mid-September, one of the guests, a 32-year-old asylum seeker from central Africa, described his impressions of the Casa after spending seven months in Ice detention.

“Most of us who have passed through the border and the detention centre have a bad impression of America and are not expecting any good from anybody,” he said, over a bowl of chilli con carne that had been brought round by volunteers.

“You are released into this strange place with no money in a country that has treated you poorly. Then you have this home where there’s free food, clothes, everything,” he added. “It is really amazing.”

Downstairs there are two guest bedrooms – one for men and one for women – with brightly coloured quilts on top of bunk beds. Upstairs there’s a room for families. On each of the 12 beds is a handwritten welcome note from a Casa volunteer, as well as a bag of travel-sized toiletries, a backpack and a towel.

Since guests are released from the detention centre wearing the outfit they were arrested in, the Casa also has closets filled with donated clothes for them to choose from, as well as shoelaces to replace those confiscated at the detention centre as a suicide hazard.

So far, more than 1,400 people from 23 different countries have stayed at the Casa, the vast majority asylum seekers from Central America. They can stay for up to three days although most leave sooner, eager to meet up with family or friends elsewhere in the United States.

Jackson, who has a day job selling software to churches, came up with an unusual funding model: volleyball. Each season, between 70 and 80 teams of six pay $250 each to participate in the “Volleyball Internacional” league that Jackson, a keen player herself, founded in Denver. All proceeds go towards the Casa’s rent and running expenses.

Zero tolerance, the subject of a major Guardian investigation this week, hit the Casa de Paz hard. Typically guests are happy to be released from detention, but over the summer they would arrive distraught and desperate to track down the children they’d been separated from within a system that wasn’t effectively keeping track of them.

“It was extremely difficult to sit with people who were having a nervous breakdown over their missing children,” she added.

She recalls one Salvadoran mother who was trying to find her detained son by giving a physical description to a not-for-profit.

“She was saying, ‘He’s tall, he’s thin. He has dark hair and dark skin. He’s a quiet boy and he’s funny.’ That’s how they were trying to locate these children,” said Jackson.

During those months, the volunteers went into overdrive, raising money to bail parents out, connecting them with attorneys who could help track down their children and buying plane tickets to get them home.

Jackson found the lack of empathy for detainees among some members of her community troubling.

“If your response to hearing that we were putting babies in jail – babies – is to question whether they are here legally, then it’s going to be hard to find any common ground,” she said. “The majority of these people are not criminals. They are coming here to ask for their human right to asylum. They weren’t breaking the law.”

That doesn’t stop anti-immigration trolls from targeting Jackson and the Casa online. She doesn’t have a sign on the outside of the house to avoid any harassment from passersby.

She tries to educate people where she can, inviting them for dinner to meet with the guests. Still, it’s an uphill battle – a member of her church recently told her that a “solution” to immigration would be for the government to put crocodiles in the rivers at the border.

For those not moved by her appeals to Christian values, Jackson also calls on American values.

“It’s important for citizens of this country to understand that our government has had a direct impact on the instability of these countries. In a sense we’ve created a lot of these conditions forcing people to flee,” she said.

One silver lining to zero tolerance has been the surge in volunteers and donations, particularly as family separations hit the headlines. The Casa’s garage is stacked high with boxes of toiletries, clothes, cans of food, cellphones (which are topped up and given to guests) and bags.

On the evening the Guardian visited, at least 12 volunteers turned up at different points, some bringing food and groceries, others turning up to clean the bedrooms or assist the guests. When the Casa was filled to capacity over the summer, some of them even open up their homes to asylees.

Jackson is about third of the way through raising $400,000 to buy a bigger house next to the detention centre. Without rent to pay, the money from the volleyball league can go towards paying someone to staff the house all day, which will allow Casa de Paz to help more people.

Part of Jackson’s motivation comes from keeping and reading letters written by former guests, thanking her and the rest of the volunteers. “We read them to remember the impact our small acts of love can have on this world,” she said.

She translates part of one of the notes, handwritten on an A4 sheet of paper, surrounded by a border of hearts doodled in pink felt-tip pen. “I feel that God gave me Casa de Paz because he didn’t want me to get a bad impression of Americans.”

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Ordinary People Making a Difference: Zahra Arabzada’s Story

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Ordinary People Making a Difference: Abdel Hai Patel’s Stories

1 – In 1985, I submitted a one page report on some safety issues in apartments in Thorncliffe Park to the Mayor’s Committee of former Municipality of East York. The report was supported by 53 Division of Toronto Police.

The committee acknowledged that, we don’t have By laws to address most of these issues, so it ordered review and revision of Property Standard By laws. The By laws were just few pages about 20 in my estimation. When it was updated, it was close to 500 pages of new Property Standards By laws. The new By laws addressed some items, such as:

Elevator Safety, Hot Water temperature, Street and Park lightning etc. Thus making safer living for all residents in Thorncliffe Pk.

2 – In 2003 or 4, I was invited by the local Council of Scouts Canada, to help with its outreach in GTA’s ethnically and religiously diverse community. One of the problems we found was Scout’s Oath. I helped developed a Neutral Oath, acceptable to all Faiths or no Faiths. Thus making it easier for many communities to join Scouts.

3 – In my work on building bridges among various faiths in Canada, we came up with an idea of taking a group of adherents of Abrahamic Faith to Israel and Palestine. The aims were:

  • By visiting holy sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the participants will broaden their understanding of three faiths;
  • Message of peace and harmony to Citizens of Israel and Palestine, showing our Canadian model of peaceful co-existence among diversity of faiths and cultures.
  • Empowering participants to help promote Inter and Intra faith relations in Canada.

 

In our first trip in 2011, there were 55 people and on 2nd trip in 2013, 40 people went on the trip.

 

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Ordinary People Making a Difference: Ann Gloger’s Story

Ann is the director of a community organization called Storefront in the East End of Toronto.

She told me this story on a subway train just before Christmas – this is how I remember it.

One group of people in the community has for years put together packages of hand-made hats, scarves, and mitts for people that need them in the community, including homeless people.  Until this year, they have put out messages that people who need them should come to their centre to pick them up if they needed them.  A few people came each year, but they were concerned that many people were going without.

This year, they put each set in a resealable plastic bag with a message.  They put them in bus shelters and in other outdoor gathering places across the community, inviting people to take the bag of warmth if they needed it.  All of their packages were picked up, and they knew that people who were too shy or too far away or otherwise found it difficult to come to their centre were able to get what they needed.   It took away the shame of admitting that they couldn’t afford warm clothing.

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Ordinary People Making a Difference: Inez Killam’s Story

Inez Killam’s Story

The Child Advocacy Council in Camden County, Missouri, sponsors a program each year called “Christmas Is Sharing.”  The sign up for help averages over 350 families and over 900 children each year.  One of my favorite stories from Christmases past is this one:

In delivering Christmas presents to the needy family that Child Advocate Maggie adopted, she discovered that the family had a huge tree with many presents already wrapped and under the tree.  Maggie was thinking that maybe the children didn’t need all of the packages that were in the trunk of her car.  She was beginning to feel a little angry, too, that this family had asked for help, but followed the mother into her kitchen with the boxes of food.  The mother turned to Maggie with tears in her eyes, thanked her for her generosity, and asked if she could give Maggie a hug.  When Maggie commented on the size of the tree, the mother proudly whispered to Maggie that the tree had been cut in the hills behind their house and the presents under the tree were boxes of the children’s favorite snacks and cereals.  She said that they had so little to spend on their children that they could only afford the “good snacks” and “real cereal” once a year; they wanted to give the children something that she knew they wanted.  Maggie looked under the tree and realized what she was actually seeing.  She and the woman unloaded the toys and clothing from the car and Maggie took off feeling she had not done enough for this family.  Maggie made a return trip to the home the next day, bringing food cards, gas cards, and winter coats for the entire family.  In retelling this story Maggie always cries and prays that what she surmised initially about this family is forgiven.  What she remembers most is one of the children saying, “Are we going to get REAL presents?”

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Ordinary People Making a Difference: Kaze Gadway’s Story

Sitting with the Homeless  (by Kaze Gadway)

Gabriela left the homeless population two years ago. After her one daughter died in a car accident, she become addicted to heroin and lost her job. After being evicted, she started living on the streets.

After eight years, she turned around and worked with a sponsor to get off drugs and into a rehab program. She moved into a Title Eight apartment and began to volunteer her time with the homeless in Albuquerque.

I met her at the park where many homeless people sleep at night and sit during the day. She buys water with her limited income and sits at a park table to talk to people and hand out water.

Everyone likes to sit down and talk to her. She has lived on the street and gotten out. She speaks her native Spanish to the Latino population and English to everyone else.

Although she has several physical problems including a Bi-polar diagnosis, she doesn’t give up on awarding dignity to a population that is often treated as invisible. She visits the homeless on the streets every week and volunteers to hand out food daily at a soup kitchen.

I ask her what keeps her going. She tells me “It is not much but at my age it is something I can do to spread hope.”

She does not change the system of homelessness. Her presence has a ripple effect among those who have few to care for them individually. I hold her up as an unsung hero of presence in a community of indifference.

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Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference: Heidi Zahrt’s Story

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About a week ago, a fire started on the hills at the outskirts of my city.  Most of the city was not in danger, but emergency responders decided that large sections of the city adjacent to the hills should be evacuated.

The evacuation order was announced shortly after the fire began, and the winds were relentless. People packed and left quickly. Traffic jams occured on the few roads out of the area.  The sky turned black with smoke and was illuminated by red-hot flames.  During evacuation, some people who had just completed a Community Emergency Response Team training decided to jump right in and help calm people and direct traffic.  A few others of the neighborhood CERT teams decided to check on people who may need assistance.  All were evacuated with no harm, but there was confusion about where to go and how long they would be out of their home.

The next day the evacuation order still held, but people were desperate to get to their homes for forgotten medications or pets left at home, and just to reassure themselves that the house was ok. The Sheriff arranged a system and asked for volunteers, to support traffic control and escort residents to homes for a quick check and get meds, etc.

People in line were just about frantic for their health, their pets, their property.  It was made more tense by the length of the line and the time of waiting to be next in line to be escorted to their home.  Volunteers from several trained agencies showed up. They walked along the stopped lines of traffic, talked to residents. Listened to harrowing stories, worries and frustration.  Offered water to drink. They gave up-to-date information on the process and time expectation for the line to move up.  At the front of the line, several volunteers were assisting the Sheriff deputies by riding and escorting the residents to their homes.  Some of the volunteers just calmly sat in the shade and held pets while people visited their homes.

For the volunteers, it seemed like not much of a job to do, but the residents were so thankful.  The feeling of having a reassuring presence, knowing there was order and a procedure and that people were being listened to and cared for changed the whole perspective of this day of waiting.  After our day of working with the residents, we heard such grateful comments.  I heard from the volunteers what a gift it was for them to receive the appreciation and gratitude from the evacuated residents.  Each volunteer was so uplifted to have given their support to the people when needed and sharing the positive spirit to keep the calmness and comfort in the community.

By the end of the second day after the evacuation, the residents were allowed to return to their homes.  The fire had moved in a direction away from our town.

I am grateful for the volunteering community who rises up to meet the needs of the moment.

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