Open Focus with Richie Davis: Inspired by ‘the human spirit of people’ in Tijuana

  • Wendy Goodman, left, with Merna Phillipe and Junior Dubreus and their daughter, Princessa Jouniqa. RICHIE DAVIS

Published: 4/15/2019 9:32:24 AM

Family conversations she’d had at Christmastime left Wendy Goodman “so furious about what’s going on at border that I thought, ‘How can I be this angry about it and not do anything?’”

So Goodman, a Greenfield resident who’d spent more than seven years volunteering in Haiti, including a Peace Corps stint, headed down in early March to Tijuana planning to do what she could to help refugees while also brushing up on her Spanish.

Yet she was “shocked,” on her first day volunteering at the non-profit NGO Al Otro Lado, at the number of Haitian refugees she began seeing. Her Creole language skills became especially valuable during her three-week stay to help people from Haiti who were among those planning to seek asylum from customs authorities at the border.

Goodman also never expected to invite back to her Greenfield home a Haitian couple with their infant while they awaited their asylum proceedings in Boston.

“They have nothing. They lost everything,” during their two-year, 10-country journey to flee religious persecution in Haiti, Goodman says of the couple, whose daughter was born in Honduras on Feb. 17.

From the moment Goodman identified herself as a Creole speaker, she was designated to work with Haitians, who she said she didn’t realize would be among the hundreds of asylum seekers hoping to cross into the United States, along with Africans, Syrians, Bangladeshis, and other refugees fleeing persecution from Central and South America.

A communication consultant and personal coach, Goodman was tasked with translating what the refugees identified as their case for asylum: determining whether they’ve faced persecution in their own country over ethnicity, race, religion, or group they belong to from their own government or a group. One of dozens of volunteers at Al Otro Lado (literally, “The Other Side”), Goodman also did medical translations for volunteer doctors and medical students at the center.

What struck Goodman, she says, was the desperation of the asylum seekers.

One man from the Cameroon, an anglophone seeking refuge from the French-speaking majority in his West African country, had his number called by customs agents but was denied entry, Goodman says.

“This is a man who had had a life and had been a thriving businessman who had to leave everything, who had to leave his family and journey from Cameroon and come up from South America,” she says. “He’s got a brother in Maryland, but he was refused when his number was called.” He managed to cross the border the next day, with support of Al Oltro Lado workers.

“We were talking, and he said he wants to build a life,” Goodman recalls. I told him, “You’re still young. You can make a life.’ Just offering words, just showing up and caring. It means so much. I think that’s how people are being sustained.”

The list of numbers assigned by volunteers to the migrants who assembled each day at El Chapparal plaza near the border crossing— a list that despite rules and adherence, Goodman says, also seemed arbitrary at times in how it was being handled at a border crossing that’s being overwhelmed.

“They change how many people they’re going to take at border, maybe saying no numbers are going across today,” Goodman says. “So everybody who showed up thinking they were going to cross because their number was next goes home and comes back the next day. And sometimes they say ‘we’re going to take 30 people’ and people don’t think their number’s going to be called, so they don’t show up and they lose. But if you’re not there that day and they call your number, you’re out.”

Among those who Goodman helped were 28-year-old Junior Debreus and his 24-year-old wife, Merna Phillipe, who had left in March 2017 for Chile, and were now caring for their month-old daughter, Princessa Jouniqa. Phillipe’s father had emigrated with her siblings to Chile, and she flew there while Debreus traveled first to the Dominican Republic to work and make money for the journey ahead.

He worked for a year in Chile but was denied documents for working after a year, and the couple — with hopes of reaching his sister in Boston — journeyed on foot and by bus to Peru and Brazil, where they spent six months, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras.

Goodman, a University of Massachusetts education graduate who left her IBM career to work internationally and join the Peace Corps, where she stayed on for years setting up a nonprofit arts center, says she’s never volunteered for the kind of effort that drew her to Tijuana. But “I was really pissed off (by) .… the way we treat people, the way we sit in our privilege and superiority while dehumanizing those who are fighting to create a life. The way we inflict misery and accept such little responsibility for the effects.’

She broke into tears as she translated Debreus’s recounting of how Colombian authorities demanded their money, allegedly because they are black, and how he trekked for a week through the Panamanian jungle with Philippe, who was eight months pregnant, before she went into labor between Honduras and Guatemala.

With “very little food,” often sleeping on the bare ground and walking for days on foot, he said, their three-month journey to Mexico — at times accompanied by other Haitian refugees until the pregnant woman couldn’t keep up — meant spending nearly all the money they had, and taking a taxi to the hospital in Honduras where Princessa was born. After entering Mexico’s southern border, he was jailed for seven days, separated from Philippe and their 5-day-old baby.

At one point, during their month-long stay in Tijuana, they missed a turn to cross the border, but, a second opportunity came weeks ahead of schedule because of the medical attention needed by Princessa and Debreus.

They were detained at a U.S. holding facility where Debreus said they were fed one tortilla in the morning and a second in the afternoon, with milk or juice at night. He says he slept in a sleeping bag, but that Philippe was allowed to sleep with the baby on a mat.

With ankle bracelets, they were allowed to seek asylum and went on to San Diego. Goodman learned after she had already returned to Massachusetts that Debreus’s sister wasn’t able to find room for them to stay with her in Boston. A nephew brought them a week ago from Logan Airport to Greenfield, where Goodman is hosting the couple and helping them get settled, with clothes from the Salvation Army and food from the food pantry.

“It really is stunning,” Goodman says. “All of these people have stepped up and want to donate money (to them.) They have nothing. They lost everything. It’s incredibly heartwarming. This community is amazing.”

She has also set up a Debreus Family account at Greenfield Savings Bank where donations on their behalf can be made, with checks payable to her.

“What struck me,” reflects Goodman after her three-week stay in Tijuana, “is that people (who we call migrants) weren’t angry. These are the people we want here: They’re so determined, so open-hearted, so courageous, so creative, and to describe them as criminals was just infuriating.”

Inspired by “the human spirit of people” — including dozens of medical students, lawyers and other volunteers she met — Goodman says it was anger that drove her to help the situation.

“I told them, ‘I’m still really pissed off, but now there’s a lot of love and inspiration mixed in.”

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His email is richie@richiedavis.net.




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