Greetings from Casa Alitas. March 30, 2022

Hello and greetings from sunny Tucson! It is a beautiful sunny spring day here, the birds are chirping, and I woke up to the aroma of freshly baked bread.  Life is good!

This day stands in contrast to my arrival in Tucson, five hours later than scheduled and in the middle of the night, due to a change of flight plan in Dallas.  It was a full flight and few were complaining, however, probably due to actually being able to reboard and not stay overnight in Dallas.  I’m sure it disrupted in a big way many a planned arrival.  I was a lucky one, however, because I had Peter and Paul from ORUCC here in Tucson on a month hiatus from Madison awaiting me with transportation and good cheer.

Peter and Paul with Ruthanne

Peter and Paul had already been in Tucson about a month, investigating the extensive system of bike paths in and around the city.  This was a new world to me, having restricted myself totally in the past to transportation by car, and mostly from where I was living to Casa Alitas.  I would really be tasked to maneuver my way around Tucson, especially in the city itself, where the bike paths on the primary roads stop and start without warning.  The outskirts, however, have beautiful, well-kept, manicured paths that many enjoy. The welcome and time spent with Peter and Paul was exactly what I needed to transition into another month at Casa Alitas.

I received an equally wonderful welcome when I arrived at Casa Alitas.  I was greeted in the office with, “Ah, our star is back!”  (They may say that to everyone, but I can tell you that it warmed my heart).  I was also introduced to several new interns, one of whom said, “Oh, I’ve heard about you.  So glad you are here.”  I think I’m practically old guard here now – definitely the only one with white hair!

Another good reason to welcome anyone bilingual and with experience is because they are so short on experienced staff. Thank goodness for the new young interns, many fresh out of college, full of eagerness and healthy, welcoming attitudes.  Many of the young interns have backgrounds from junior-years abroad, peace corps, or as volunteers in refugee camps, perfect background for this kind of setting. This group, most of whom volunteer with intake or travel arrangements at the help desk, stands in contrast with those in the clothing area, any number of whom have been volunteers with Casa Alitas for many years, know each other well, and are able to fill a full schedule of time at the Center.

I wouldn’t want to miss mentioning, also, that one of the first people I saw was Kirsten Johnson, a fellow Madisonian, who I met through a mutual friend of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition and encouraged to volunteer at Casa Alitas. Kirsten was volunteering for several weeks (has now returned to Madison), as were a number of others from Wisconsin and Minnesota.  We liked to joke about it as the Wisconsin takeover of Casa Alitas.

Many things have changed at Casa Alitas since I was here only four months ago (Oct-Nov 2021). It is testament to Casa Alitas staff that everything continues to function as well as it does.  Casa Alitas basically turns on a dime from one day to the next.

One of the most obvious recent changes is the cost of plane tickets.  We’re all aware of this, and it hurts, but when the cost of a plane ticket shoots from $300 to $1,000 for someone who has little or no money in their pocket and a sponsor with $300, the impact bounces across the entire system.  One of the first is that people end up staying longer at Casa Alitas or one of its companion hotels for more than the customary one to two days while alternate arrangements are investigated (like bus transportation) or the sponsor seeks more funding to pay for the ticket. Another is that the available housing fills up.  Day-before-yesterday we had to shop for additional hotel rooms for guests and they come, of course, at a cost that burns quickly through a pocketbook.

A second change is the number and nature of the guests arriving, many of whom are families with young children.  First, in terms of numbers, we average 230 – 300 guests per day.  There was a day when 150 was tops.  This number stretches all resources – whether it be intake staff, food staff, help desk staff, and availability of clothing.

You may remember that the majority of guests arriving the last time I was here were from Cuba, Colombia and Brazil.  Note: not from Mexico.  People from Cuba, Colombia and Brazil are able to gain entry due to agreements conjured up between the U.S. and Mexico during the Trump administration such that Mexico stated that those from these countries could not be turned back to live in Mexico so should be passed through to the United States.  In contrast to this, those people attempting entry from Mexico or the other Central American countries are automatically turned back to Mexico.  This is part of the ”Return to Mexico” policy.

Another major policy affecting the number of guests arriving is what is referred to as Title 42.  This is the public health policy again conjured up during the Trump administration by which people from Mexico and the Central American countries were turned back for fear of their expanding the number of people with COVID.  One of the ironies of this, which I myself find hard to believe but I see with my own eyes, is that of 300 people who we tested for COVID yesterday, only four people tested positive. This kind of data is well-recognized by those working with the asylum-seeking populations, but not-so-much by those in a position to change the law.  However, the word is that this is changing!  The word is out that Title 42 is going to be amended or totally dropped, and we are beginning to see people from Mexico and Nicaragua come through our doors. 

I mentioned that we are now overflowing with guests with families. Kids of all ages and sizes, but primarily little ones, several months to 8-10 years old. The result is that, at the moment, Casa Alitas is like a huge day-care center with kids of all ages wandering around, some tagging along with Mom or Dad, other sleeping in whatever spot they find comfortable, others poking around on their own.  I love talking with them and making sure they are OK.  I think you’ll appreciate this one incident.

Children at Casa Alitas

Due to the influx of so many guests, we are restricting everyone to just one set of clothes.  We give everyone a large cloth or paper bag to carry them in. One afternoon this week I was helping in the “tienda de ropa,” helping people find clothes that they liked and in their size.  I noticed these two little ones, a little boy and girl, perhaps ages 8 and 10, wandering among the rows of clothes with a sack that looked very full, so much so that their little hands could hardly carry it.  So I asked them if they had found some clothes that they liked. 

The little boy (Santiago) enthusiastically told me that he found a whole bunch of things – as he pulled out about 10 pairs of underwear.  He explained to me that he liked all the colors of the underwear.  Hmmmm.  So I asked if he could pick out a favorite pair to wear tomorrow.  It turned out that his sister had also found about 5 little tops that she liked.  As they were deciding which ones they liked best, their younger brother appeared, perhaps a 4- year- old.  We ended up deciding to make 3 sets of clothes, one set for each of them, and having fun finding clothes that were actually their size.  So it all worked out with everyone happy, even though little Santiago didn’t get to take all 10 pairs of underwear with him.   And in the meantime, their parents sought them out.  They had been trying on some clothes for themselves while the kids decided to do a little shopping on their own.

This story is typical of my days. I’m sure you can see why this can all be so rewarding. At the same time, know that there are those difficult moments.  One situation that I find particularly difficult is when we have to close the clothing area because we have so few clothes, or not enough for so many. On those days we provide only underwear, sox, and a packet of healthcare supplies.

I see that this is getting quite long, so I will close with a few paragraphs about two things: information about where I am living, and a note or two about the conference I attended this weekend.

Nearly everyone asks about where I am living, so here’s the scoop.  You may know that the last time I was here, I stayed at the home of a Mennonite couple who had been recommended to me by a Mennonite member of our Immigration Team (this all has a much longer and fun story to relate at some other point in time).  After I left Tucson the last time, I asked my host who she would recommend that I stay with if I was able to return (her home was going to be under construction).  She recommended her best friend, who turns out to be my current host (Jen).

Jen is a positively delightful person, also a Mennonite, who has lived in Bangladesh and Viet Nam and traveled all over the world, including Africa and Egypt, let alone the most common Eastern and Western European countries. She teaches fourth grade in a nearby school of 600 students. The Mennonite church where she is active is about 3 blocks away (I attended church with her last Sunday).  Living with Jen is a wonderful lesson in environmental awareness, especially as it relates to water conservation. 

Jen’s home is large – three bedrooms, two baths, large kitchen, with a separate room devoted to where she makes home-made soap, and another where she does her sewing, which is evident wherever you look. In the back yard is a cistern in which she collects rainwater, a small garden on which she sprinkles crushed up eggshells from the eggs of her two chickens housed in a separate building in the back, along with a small swimming pool and large hot tub. I haven’t even considered using the hot tub because I see how carefully she conserves water and it appears to be such a waste of that resource – I’d probably feel differently if it were 110 degrees outside.  We are sharing costs for groceries and enjoying cooking and sharing meals together. So, in terms of the “home” front, life is good for me in so many ways, despite all the pain and tragedy in the worlds of so many. Hopefully, I provide some solace to those I welcome at Casa Alitas.

Turning to the conference I attended this weekend – Wow! The title of the conference was “All the Walls Must Fall.” The focus of the conference was on the militarization of so many borders throughout the world, with particular emphasis on the US-Mexican border and that of Gaza and Israel. I was particularly interested in the history of those walls.  Maybe there will be a time to share a bit of it with you all.

I close with gratitude to our church and to you for all that you do to support justice- related activities, and for taking the time to read about all that is happening here. Please check out the attached photos.

Paz y justicia,