Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Outsider's Perspective - Tochan: Nuestra Casa

     This blog post is by my friend and fellow YAGM, Rachel Birkedal.  She came to visit us a couple weeks ago at Tochan to meet my friends - the migrants, and to see what a typical day is like in the life of a Tochaner.  She wrote this blog post about her experience, and I think it gives a perspective on what I experience every day.  So read it, enjoy it, and share it if you'd like!
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Haz clic aquí para español.

     Over Christmas break I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Mexico City with a couple of my fellow YAGMs and see their worksites. On Thursday I went with Rachel (Yes, please don’t get confused during this blog, she is also Rachel or Raquel, which is Spanish means she is my tocaya) to Tochan which is un albergue para los migrantes. I’m too used to saying that it Spanish! Ok, in English... She works at a migrant shelter. The majority of the migrants at Tochan come from Central America countries. Tochan aims to provide a safe place to stay and live together in community while the migrants figure out next steps for their goals. The word “Tochan” is Nauhatl for "our home," which is what the shelter aims to be, at least temporarily, for these people. Rachel often talks about the people she is blessed to work with and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet them in person.

Part of the new mural that is going up in Tochan that has been a collaborative project between volunteers and tochaneros. It is designed off of the descriptions from migrants about what the journey looks like. The wagons each have a flag representing a country from which Tochan has received a migrant, and the dove that starts the passage (not shown) is the symbol of Tochan.

     After walking up the steep stairs (everywhere I go with Rachel seems to involve a trip that leaves me out of breath at the end!) and entering Tochan, we were greeted by each person currently in the kitchen and living room. Handshake, kiss on the cheek, hug, “mucho gusto” (nice to meet you) and often a “She’s Raquel too?!” We walked in the kitchen and they had graciously left two plates on the table for our breakfast (sardines & beans!) and coffee was brewing in the pot. After eating and sitting down we were invited by a group of the residents to take a trip with them to one of the parks and the free local zoo. Traveling in the metro with 4 Hispanic men rather than my normal group of foreigners (YAGMs) made me feel much more comfortable and “blended in,” even though as we loudly chatted away in Spanish you could hear the Honduran accent easily giving away that we weren’t actually “from here.”

Part of our excursion group at the entrance to the park Chapultepec
Part of our excursion group at the entrance to the park Chapultepec
     When we got to the zoo it became apparent that (as my roommate recently wrote in her blog while in France) you just never outgrow those middle school years. These Honduran men (between the ages of 24 and 45) were running around snapping crazy pictures of animals, playing practical jokes on each other, climbing rocks, singing a Lion King song for every animal we encountered and just plain having a good time!

I turn around and they are all like this...
Turns out they had found a secret way to see the gorillas! :)
     Later when we returned to the shelter we were once again graciously provided lunch that had been cooked by the other residents. This time it was chicken soup... perfect for a cold day in which rain had started to fall on our return trip! The rest of the afternoon was filled with watching Rachel (my friend... not me!) lose at damas or checkers. Then she complained that their rules were not the same (which they aren’t!), but eventually she won (once) against the best player in the house to which he cried “No puede ser” – “It can’t be!” After damas was Mundo turismo which is a “world” version of Monopoly... needless to say... I lost. By this point it was already an hour past the time when Rachel normally leaves, so, as they all sat down for supper, we headed out to start the hour/hour and a half journey back to Rachel’s house. We individually said goodbye to all and then shivered our way back to the bus. It was a cold night!

Rachel losing at checkers 
She won! "It can't be!"
     It was a very fun and eventful day. I got some practice on listening to the various Central American accents and several games I haven’t played in years. Being in the house with 14 residents and a couple volunteers made me feel like I was on vacation with my family. Yet amid all the fun and laughter it could have been easy, and a shame, for me to forget the stories of these men and women. Stories that caused Rachel to shed a few tears on our way back home as we talked. Stories of hurt, violence and fear, but also of strength and courage. Stories of:

  • Men who don’t normally leave the house for fear of being caught by gangs that once attacked them on their journey... And yet these men allowed me to share in their bravery as they left the house to visit the zoo.
  • A young man about my age, who was kidnapped, almost killed and forced to flee... An incident that will forever change his life and force him to file for refugee status in Mexico, even though he was once a happy carefree college student living in Honduras. 
  • Migrants who had to ride La bestia to leave their homes and travel to an unknown land.
    • “La bestia” is translated as “The beast,” and rightfully so. Many migrants jump on the train that travels north through Mexico, but it doesn’t come without price. Rachel now has a fear of trains after harboring the stories that these migrants have shared with her. Stories of jumping off moving trains, of being attacked by gangs, of losing limbs, of being beaten by officials; La Bestia is truly a Beast.

     These men and women who in their time at Tochan have become Rachel’s best friends are some of the most fun and interesting people I have met. They are all different, with their own interests, music styles, hopes and dreams. But what they all have in common is that they are migrants in a foreign land. Not unlike myself as I have traveled across state borders and now across country borders, but unlike me, they are fleeing a home they love, but that in many cases has forced them to leave. The majority of them dream of returning (I can’t count how many times I heard “In Honduras...”), but they can’t for various reasons. They are praying for a day when their individual situations or the situation within their country will change and they can return to the land that saw them crecer - grow up.

This painting (by YAGM Rachel) hangs in the living room,it includes the seals of various Central American countries and reads "We are all migrants and all migrants deserve everything they desire."
     I am very blessed to have had this experience that allowed me see into a little bit of Rachel’s experience here in Mexico. As a YAGM Mexico group we are able to not just live our individual experiences but also to share in the stories that our fellow YAGMs share with the group. Rachel is a “Solidarity Sister” at Tochan... That’s the name our coordinator gave her. This means she is blessed with the burden of living with and sharing in the stories of these migrants. I ask that you pray for these migrants who are far from their homes and I ask that you pray for Rachel as she struggles with all she is learning from them.

     If you would like to hear more from Rachel, visit her blog at http://racheltheyagm.blogspot.com/

Hold these stories with care. There are many people who will benefit from the stories they hear during our time together. Imagine listening to another as you would listen to scripture -- attentively, mindfully, and open to the holy.” - Covenant of Presence

(re-posted with permission from Rachel Birkedal's blog)