Accompaniment with Al Otro Lado
A major part of MPT’s Border Team assignment in Tijuana involved volunteering with Al
Otro Lado (To The Other Side, aka “AOL”). AOL offers bi-national direct legal services
to indigent deportees, refugees, and migrants. AOL is deeply involved in human rights advocacy and litigation work on both sides of the border. We were told at our orientation that AOL organizers and volunteers receive death threats on an almost daily basis from organized crime, gangs, and abusive domestic partners. They are also harrassed by the U.S. and Mexican governments. Recently, two of AOL’s co-directors who are U.S. citizens have been denied entry into Mexico, a testament to the organization’s good work on behalf of humanity.
One of MPT’s “four pillars” is partnering with and working alongside other justice-oriented groups and organizations. Our team was honored to work with AOL volunteers at El Chaparral in the morning and at the AOL site where people attend daily charlas (in English, a chat”) in the afternoon. This is where legal issues related to immigration and asylum are discussed and asylum seekers can consult with volunteer attorneys and legal workers. There is also a volunteer medical clinic on site. As we interacted with those waiting to register to enter the building, we met children with terrible coughs, babies wrapped and shivering in thin blankets, and a young Salvadoran woman who asked for a pregnancy test. Many of those lined up to see lawyers and doctors were people we had met that morning at El Chaparral where they received information about AOL’s services via flyers distributed by volunteers.
This is a tense time of the day when people who are cold, tired, and worn down are especially vulnerable. Many asylum seekers are fleeing state violence, domestic violence, and gangs - violence which sometimes pursues them all the way to the border...and potentially to the doors of AOL. Many have cause to be scared. Others, especially women and children, are susceptible to the myriad types of violence on the city streets near the border, including muggings, assault, kidnapping and human trafficking. Our job was to create a peaceful space where people could feel safe and secure as they checked in for charla and the clinic while monitoring the street near AOL’s unmarked back door where a lot of activity takes place. Once people were registered, we accompanied them into the building, introducing them to the legal volunteers and doctors waiting to receive them.Although it was difficult, we embraced the AOL protocol of staying focused on the task at hand without succumbing to tears, rage, or anxiety that would only exacerbate the trauma that everyone carries with them to the border.
One of the highlights for the team was a meeting held with AOL to discuss how elements of our MPT de-escalation skills training could be integrated into AOL’s orientation. The team discussed strategies that could be employed, along with the techniques highlighted in our training manual, with a resulting commitment to hold a teleconference with AOL to help with this piece of their work. The MPT Border Team was impressed by AOL’s practice of starting each morning with a centering exercise and ending each afternoon in a closing circle where each volunteer was given the opportunity to name the joys and heartbreaks of the day’s work. The intensity of life on the border - the horror of the stories - the anger and grief that is inevitable - means that self-care in a loving community is imperative. It was good to collaborate with a group that recognizes the degree to which “our roots are all connected,” a key tenet of MPT’s belief in the sacred interconnectedness of all life. AOL's work is nothing short of heroic, and we were honored to partner with them. - Kim Redigan