Migrant family in DC overcomes hunger and homelessness

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The children were hungry.

It was noon on Friday and they hadn’t had breakfast yet. They didn’t know when or if they were going to lunch either.

And yet, none of them complained or cried. Not the 4-year-old in the pink baseball cap. Not the 6 year old in the dinosaur top. Not the 11-year-old boy who wore winter boots in 90-degree weather. They seemed used to waiting.

“They shouldn’t be in this situation,” their father, Alberto, said in Spanish, looking in their direction. “They should be in a house, being taken care of, eating, resting, going to school.”

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For the past year, the family of five has been living in the Washington area on the edges of the edges. They are undocumented migrants, they have serious medical problems and have no home. The family lives in a van.

Some nights they park their Honda Odyssey on a street in DC. Other nights they find a place in Virginia. Where they hang out each day usually depends on where they can find a quiet night and an easy commute to Alberto’s many medical appointments. He receives dialysis for his failing kidneys three times a week.

As he sat outside a church in northwest DC, he lifted his sleeve to expose large chunks on his right arm of the fistula that connects his body to the dialysis machine. He then lifted the rest of his shirt and revealed the gunshot wounds that prompted him to leave El Salvador with his family. He said he was shot six times by gang members because he didn’t want to cooperate with them. Scars appear above his heart, on his side, and on his back. He said he had two bullets left in him. Doctors told him that the strong antibiotics he received after the shooting were likely the ones that damaged his kidneys.

“I can’t work,” he said. “I can’t feel my left side anymore. If I stay on my left foot too long, I fall.

I heard about Alberto and his family from DMV Food Justice, a collective of volunteers that formed at the start of the pandemic to ensure migrant families in the Washington area would not go hungry. Three years into the pandemic, much of the region has returned to normal practices, but the collective continues to witness daily how elusive stability is for many of the region’s undocumented migrants.

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Volunteers have seen a growing number of requests for help at a time when inflation is limiting what they can do for families. On Thursday, for the first time, they could not afford to give more than 1,000 families oil or masa, staple ingredients of many Latino homes.

Denise Woods, the founder of Food Justice DMV, said at the start of the pandemic, volunteers aimed to serve 200 families. But they quickly saw that the need was much greater. Today, volunteers serve more than 7,000 families. The collective did not have to raise awareness to find these families. These families all found the volunteers through word of mouth.

As the collective focuses on fighting hunger, volunteers are also receiving requests for toothpaste, laundry detergent and bar soap. They recently delivered beds to an apartment after discovering that 12 people, including seven children, were living there and had nothing to sleep on.

Like many people across the country, Woods watched with grief as early news reports recounted the deaths of 53 migrants trapped in a stuffy tractor-trailer abandoned on a San Antonio road. She also watched knowing that if any of these people had been to the DC area, her group would have fed them and provided them with basic comforts. She watched knowing that the horrors many migrants face continue long after crossing the border.

Food Justice DMV has been trying to help Alberto’s family for months, and while they were able to provide groceries, clothing, and funding for an occasional hotel room, they haven’t been able to help. able to get the family into a shelter.

The couple said they arrived in the Washington area last year and spent most of their savings, about $4,000, on the van. They agreed to share their story but asked me to identify them by their middle names because they fear being deported and being found by members of the gang who shot Alberto.

Imelda, the children’s mother, said some people come to the United States because they are drawn to the American dream, but her family has no choice but to come. She said her family told gang members that Alberto died in that shooting, but they continued to watch her family closely. They even harassed her when she was with her children.

I wrote about the fall with my baby. Now other moms are emailing me.

In 2019, the couple said, they left El Salvador and settled for a while in Mexico, where Alberto had a humanitarian visa. After the gang members found the family there, they took a bus to California. Imelda said that once in the United States, they found a lawyer who helped them apply for asylum. But that didn’t offer much reassurance since they saw no movement on their case.

“We don’t have much hope,” Alberto said. “There just isn’t much hope when it comes to getting asylum. But I need it. I can’t go back to El Salvador. And children have medical needs.

He described Alberto Jr., who is 6, and Naomi, who is 4, as both having health issues being treated by a doctor in Virginia. He said Alberto Jr. had a brain tumor and had had seizures, and Naomi had kidney problems that could cause her to retain fluids.

As we talked, the kids were watching videos on a tablet and phone. From time to time, Naomi would come and hug one of her parents and smile. His T-shirt told of fanciful hopes.

“Today, I want to be a…”, he said. One line covered the word “princess” leaving only the word “unicorn”.

Helen, who is 11, said in a low voice that she dreams of becoming a singer. She then quietly listened to her parents talk about their living situation – the van. It was parked in a nearby garage next to a Mercedes.

The family had started the day with $12, but that would go to parking. This left them with no money for food, which they had to buy prepared, as they had no place to cook.

“It’s difficult,” said Imelda. “The grown-ups manage, but for the children, it’s hard.

She said she tried to find a job, but without papers or the ability to speak English, she was unsuccessful. Getting asylum, she says, would allow her to work.

It would save her from having to stand on the sidewalk with one of her children and ask strangers for help. She sometimes does this when the family is short on money and food – as was the case on Friday.

That day, the family was planning to do it. Then a Food Justice DMV volunteer handed them some money for groceries.

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