Border crisis, Charlotte solution: Volunteers line up to help refugee kids at home

Even after hauling in extra chairs, OurBRIDGE for Kids didn’t have seats for everyone who came to hear about helping immigrant and refugee children in Charlotte.

It’s a pleasant challenge spurred by grim news. The nonprofit is seeing a surge of would-be volunteers upset by reports that America’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement has separated thousands of children from their parents after they crossed the border with Mexico.

“We looked at each other like, ‘How is this happening? Why are we doing this to each other, and doing it in the name of safety for ourselves?’ ” said Karin Solomonson of Huntersville, who came with her friend, Kristen Patterson, to check out OurBRIDGE.

The group, housed at Aldersgate Senior Living Community in east Charlotte, held its first-ever community open house last week because it was getting so many queries from people who want to help, said executive director Sil Ganzó.

OurBRIDGE plans to provide after-school programs for 150 immigrant and refugee students and support for their families in the coming school year. Speakers from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which is home to North Carolina’s largest concentration of immigrant students, said there are thousands more who can benefit from mentors, advocates and reading buddies.

“While there’s a crisis at the border, the kids are in Charlotte, too,” OurBRIDGE community engagement coordinator Salma Villareal told the group.

OurBRIDGE file
Students at OurBRIDGE celebrate their pending move to a new, larger location in summer of 2017. David T. Foster III Observer file photo

“They hear a lot of messages that say that they’re not important, that they’re not loved,” said Mark Landon, family advocate at Merry Oaks Elementary. “We’re going to change the narrative to being a place where immigrants and refugees are welcomed with open arms.”

CMS and OurBRIDGE serve children regardless of their family’s documentation. The school district doesn’t seek or tally information on whether students are in the country legally.

The threat of deportation for families who are in the United States illegally is not new. But this spring the Trump administration launched a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all adults caught crossing the southern border illegally. Their children, who can’t be prosecuted with them, have been taken to separate detention facilities, creating a series of heart-rending videos and reports that have spurred mass protests and intensive lobbying of elected officials.

Last month the president signed an order reversing that policy, but many children remain separated and immigration advocates say inhumane treatment continues.

Julie Sandoval, whose family comes from El Salvador, said she has contacted elected officials and attended protests against U.S. immigration policy. She started looking for other ways to get involved and found OurBRIDGE through social media. When she learned that many children in the summer program didn’t have swimsuits, she launched a drive and brought a trunkful of swimwear and towels to the center.

“It was such a wonderful, welcoming place. The kids looked so happy,” said Sandoval.

Sandoval, a social worker who is fluent in Spanish, plans to work with parents in the future, while her sister, a veterinarian, hopes to help set up a chicken coop on the spacious grounds.

Solomonson and Patterson, both teachers, have worked with a school in Guatemala. Solomonson said they heard stories of the gang violence and desperate poverty families are fleeing there.

Solomonson said she was disgusted when a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and killed a 19-year-old Guatemalan woman crossing the Mexican border in May, and heartbroken when that was followed by images of children being separated from their parents.

“First we got angry,” she said. Then she and her friend vowed to become part of something life-affirming.

Ganzó told the people at the open house that the main requirement is that supporters buy into the pillars of her group’s mission: Love, education, respect and diversity. “Refugee and immigrant children have a right to live a happy childhood,” she said.

Solomonson and Patterson listened as one person after another stood up to affirm that mission and talk about how they could help. By the time a Burmese pastor stood to thank OurBRIDGE for embracing children in his family and congregation, the two women were in tears.

“It sounds super-cliched, but it restored our faith in humanity,” Solomonson said afterward. “I want to be a part of the things that are beautiful. It was a beautiful night.”

How to help

People who want to volunteer in schools should preregister at www.cmsvolunteers.com so they can clear the required background check before classes start Aug. 27.

OurBRIDGE needs volunteers and donations of books, shoes, school uniforms, other clothes and school supplies. The group especially needs volunteers and staff who speak Spanish, Burmese, Arabic, Amharic and Tigrinya.

Because OurBRIDGE is largely funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, which President Trump has tried to eliminate, the group is also seeking leads on new grants.

Get more information at www.joinourbridge.org, sil@joinourbridge.org or 980-272-6022.

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms