“I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me into your home. I needed clothes, and you gave me something to wear. I was sick, and you took care of me.”  Matthew 25:34-40

This week the United States will end the Covid immigration restriction called Title 42.  This was enacted by the former president and kept in place by the current one. It has caused incredible heartache and harm all along the southern border and beyond by denying entry to tens of thousands of humans seeking asylum.

While humanitarian and legal groups work nonstop to help those who are trapped on the Mexican side of the border there are also many who are working on the U.S. side to help those who miraculously make it across the border. The images and stories relating to the situation at the border are heartbreaking. While the policies of the past 30 years are intended to deter asylum seekers, people still keep coming. This tells us that the horrors people flee are worse in their minds than the cruel greeting they encounter on arriving in the U.S. 

The rate of deportations under the Biden administration is incredibly high. Tens of thousands of humans have been deported back to the violence they fled. It is one of the most inhumane things our country does.

Sanford joins cities hosting asylum seekers

Portland, Maine has been receiving asylum seekers for years, and recently the numbers of arrivals has increased. The city has done an incredible job with limited staff and resources. Augusta, Bangor, Bath, Brunswick, Lewiston, Waterville, and other towns have also hosted asylum seekers in recent years. Newest to this effort is Sanford. As the seventh largest town in Maine, Sanford is part of the Portland Metro district and has a population of approximately 22,000.

I learned that Sanford was becoming a host city from a friend who lives in Sanford. She told me that she was driving on Saturday evening when she noticed something different – people sitting on the steps of City Hall. She turned her car around to ask if they were okay, and find out if they needed help. It turned out that they did need help. It also turned out that for them guardian angels do exist. The people told her that they were thirsty, hungry, and had nowhere to stay. Some of the people spoke Portuguese and some spoke French, and even with the use of a translation app communication was challenging.

Marcia learned that the people were from the African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both countries are experiencing incredible unrest and violence so they fled in search of security and eventually arrived here hoping to find safety for themselves and their children – the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, which the U.S. signed, as well as other international treaties, promises to protect the rights of those seeking asylum. My friend, whose name is Marcia, purchased food for the people and then booked hotel rooms. She went to WalMart to get personal items and shoes, as several didn’t have any. 

An all too common four part journey

Although we do not yet know the exact story of the people who ended up in Sanford, those of us who follow the experiences and listen to the voices of those working along the southern border can guess their story, which is likely all too similar to so many who arrive at that border.

Most journeys in recent years seem to be divided into 4 major parts. 

The first part involves the why and how of the flight from violence and the abandonment of everything that must be left behind in the struggle to survive. Whether due to war or other forms of violence such as gangs, or climate change, or overwhelming poverty, some people in danger choose to flee for their lives. What would cause me to leave my life for somewhere I didn’t know. What would cause such fear that I would grab my kids and flee? Imagining what has happened to these people is horrifying. Whatever the exact details, this first part of the journey includes the initial decision to leave and the logistics of doing so, and almost always includes leaving family members behind. It also usually includes arrival in South America. 

The second part of the journey involves the treacherous path north, including perilous travels on foot through the dangerous jungles and mountains of the Darian Gap. Once through the jungles they continue north through Central America. This is incredibly challenging as they work their way to the border between Guatemala and the southern Mexican border. But with fortitude some they make it across, despite the border patrols installed by the U.S.

But even at this point the journey is far from over. Those who still can, next make their way through Mexico, struggling against exhaustion, fear, hunger, drug cartels, and financial stress all the way to the border of the U.S. The odds are good that all travelers will experience trauma of some sort on the journey. Finally, the “fortunate” ones are allowed to cross into the U.S. Next come the holding cells at the border, in the event they avoid being put into our for-profit detention system – which many wind up in for weeks, months, or even longer. To me it baffles all human imagination to conceive that these “fortunate” individuals still have to endure grueling experiences like this once they enter the U.S. I would have thought that being “fortunate” would include a humane, kind, organized greeting to the U.S. But instead, these people have two more grueling parts of their journey still to get through. Many say the next two parts are the most difficult. 

While we may feel the weight of the world and wonder what we can do, we are reminded that small acts of kindness add up to big actions.

The third part of the journey entails finding a safe place to be welcomed and settle and work. Barriers of language and housing follow them, as well as fear of harm from those who openly claim they hate anyone who is an asylum seeker coming into this country. I often think about an experience I had years ago, when I traveled in Portugal for three weeks. I found it was an incredibly difficult three weeks. The language and cultural barriers were things I couldn’t successfully maneuver without experiencing incredible stress. And that was a vacation I was on, not a major life change! What would it have been like for me to try to find housing, meals, and a job in Portugal? The idea fills me with dread to this day. 

But it’s the fourth part of the journey that many people say is the worst. This is the constant fear that accompanies the immigration process, and the fear that their asylum claim will be denied. In fact, the odds are very high that their claim will in fact be denied. Rates of denial vary depending on the part of the country you live in, and who the judge is. Sadly, Boston has a low asylum approval rate. This means that deportation back to the country these people fled is a constant fear, and the stress and eventual decisions can tear a family apart. The rate of deportations under the Biden administration is incredibly high. Tens of thousands of humans have been deported back to the violence they fled. To me this is one of the most inhumane things our country does. 

Individuals can make a difference

We as individuals cannot help those who need assistance during the first two parts of this four-part journey, but we can help them with the third and fourth. And that’s exactly what happened in Sanford recently, after the city agreed to temporarily house100 people as a way to offer support to Portland. But what Sanford didn’t expect was that after the 100 individuals had arrived, more continued to come. All were tired, thirsty, hungry, and unsure of what greeting they would receive. And they arrived on the weekend, when organizations which usually help those in need were closed.

I first became aware of the situation when I received a text from Marcia, alerting me. I found it beyond endearing to watch several “angels” from Sanford step in, and with incredible grit and tenacity secure hotel rooms and food for over 30 people that they hoped could provide safety and comfort until the weekend ended and organizations were available to approach. Within 12 hours the “angels” raised almost $900 to help provide food and shelter. More guardian angels. I am always overwhelmed with gratitude when I see people I know and love – together with people I don’t know at all – share what they have with people they have never met. 

What do I take away from this?

While the world, including our country, is full of hateful actors and actions as well as talk, there are still many, many people doing good things and helping those in need.

We may feel the weight of the world and wonder what we can do in the midst of such sorrow and so many disasters, but we should remember that small acts of kindness add up to big actions.

Thank you Marcia Farmer and all those who helped welcome these asylum seekers to Sanford.

Contributed by Mary Dunn, Maine