It hasn’t been a quiet retirement for Marti Michael.
In the years since she left her post as executive director of The Riverdale Y, Michael has spent a lot of time on the nation’s southern border with Mexico, volunteering to help families seeking asylum with the United States. Her work has directly impacted hundreds of people. Now, that impact has spread all the way to her stomping grounds in the northwest Bronx, because Michael is alone on the border no more.
Last month, Michael gathered more than a dozen of her Riverdale and New York City neighbors, making their way 2,000 miles south to Brownsville, Texas, just across the border from Matamoros, Mexico.
When Michael first started volunteering to help recently arrived asylum seekers from Central America, she was greeting them in Arizona, handing out food and clothes to those who were then embarking on long bus rides to their U.S. sponsors to await asylum hearings.
But all that has changed under Donald Trump, his “Migrant Protection Protocols” requiring asylum-seekers to wait on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border in Mexico while they wait for their applications to be processed. Some 2,000 people now reside in a tent city in Matamoros.
The U.N.’s Human Rights Committee visited Matamoros a few months ago. “They said it was the worst they’d ever seen,” Michael said. “It’s worse than Syria. It’s worse than any of the war zones.”
And some of Michael’s travel companions can vouch for that, like Carol Gross, who previously worked in Greek refugee camps in Europe.
“In Lesbos, now, it’s much worse than it was,” Gross said. “But there were tents for everybody, and there was a central water place, and there was central electricity. None of that was true in Matamoros.”
“It’s beyond the pale,” said Arleen Stern, another volunteer who traveled with Michael.
“And they’re surviving,” Michael said. “These are the survivors.”
The women had expected to buy huge quantities of food to haul across the border and prepare for the tent city inhabitants of Matamoros. A few months ago, Michael was strategizing the most efficient meals to feed that many people.
Those plans changed, however. Just about a month before the women made the journey, someone else got there first — Chef José Andrés and his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen.
Andrés and his organization have been showing up to cook at natural disaster sites for years, feeding people in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas after they were ravaged by storms. Now World Central Kitchen has made its way to Matamoros.
“They set up a gigantic tent, like you see at a wedding, that they made a dining hall,” Michael said. “With tables, and chairs and lights.”
It’s actually the only place with tables and chairs. Right near it is a corner stocked with children’s books, so parents can eat in peace while their children are read to.
“One morning, one of the women and I spent two hours taking the stems off the cilantro,” Stern said. “And I later read that Andrés said, ‘When you eat, you first taste the food with your eyes.’ And to think about that sort of thing, while you’re serving people who are on the edge, it’s extraordinary.”
Michael has worked with people on and around the border for years, and now finds it difficult to return home to Riverdale after these various trips.
Her travel companions this time around feel the same way.
“When I went there and saw it, there was an emotional connection to the dearth of what people are living with there,” said Leah Ferster, one of the volunteers. “It was pretty horrifying that, as humanity, we’re allowing it to happen.”
At the end of each day, the volunteers would go back across the bridge — paying the mandatory quarter and a nickel to cross — to visit with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents for re-entry into the United States. It was there they found their hotel rooms, an extreme luxury compared to where the people they were helping were spending the night.
“That’s when I cry every time,” Michael said. “Because you’re above the Rio Grande. As soon as I’m crossing the Rio Grande, I start to cry. Because I can do that, and they can’t. And they probably never will.”
Ferster compared Matamoros to the MS St. Louis, which carried more than 900 Jewish refugees to Cuba and the United States in 1939. Both countries turned them away, and more than a third of the passengers later died in the Holocaust.
“That’s the only thing I could think of when I would look at these children who weren’t accompanying us,” she said. “And the kids don’t understand this.”
Outside of the tent city, the women sat in on a few preliminary immigration hearings. Most of the people they saw in court were unaccompanied minors.
In those hearings, the judge read out the children’s rights and instructed them about their next steps while an interpreter translated. They received paperwork if they didn’t already have it.
“I mean, he went over it like a parent,” Stern said. “‘Listen to me, this is really, really, really important.’ He said it like four times, and he apologized. He said, ‘I know I’m repeating myself, but this is really important.’”
Hardly any of the people in Matamoros are old, probably because the journey to get there is so difficult. Many of them traveled as far, if not further, than Michael’s group of volunteers. But they didn’t have the luxury of an airplane.
“They hop the trains and get on top of them and lose legs, and get robbed, and their clothes taken, anything they have is taken,” Gross said. “But they actually have more of a chance, because they’re young.”
The women are already planning their next moves. Michael will spend her Valentine’s Day on a flight to Texas, and even a moment of quiet while reflecting on their journey with The Riverdale Press, the women came up with a new idea — trying to put together a mobile dentistry truck that could travel to Matamoros.
In the meantime, it’s been hard for them to stop thinking about what they saw.
“There is that feeling that, why do we deserve this?” Michael said.
Stern chimed in — “With our passport, and our 30 cents.”