Nightmares of Drowning

I wonder if the Supreme Court justices who decided this week to uphold a lower court decision that significantly limits people’s ability to request asylum would have made the same decision had they heard what I did last night.

A seven-year-old, creative child was drawing pictures of superheroes, castles, and water. When he drew the water, he shared with me that he is afraid to go to sleep because he has nightmares about drowning in the Río Bravo. A few days earlier, he and his mother crossed the Río. He told me that it was very difficult and scary; he was knocked under the water, and his mom plugged his nose.

The policy that was temporarily upheld by the Supreme Court displays a gross disconnect, both on a human level and on a logical level. The more difficult it is for people to request asylum at Ports of Entry, or enter “the right way,” the more humans will be forced to travel through rivers and deserts. More people will drown, dehydrate, and die.

More children will have nightmares of drowning.

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Continuing the Fight

It has now been almost exactly one month since the culmination of my Young Adult Volunteer year. One of the many, many personal benefits I gained during my YAV year was the discovery of blogging, or really, the discovery of my love for it. I found that it provided a platform on which I could share my observations and ideas. Speak out. Be vulnerable. I also found maintaining a blog caused me to reflect more deeply on what otherwise may have been mundane events. So, with all of those aspects in mind, here is my first post-YAV blog post. (Check out my new blog subtitle/ description!)

I fought many fights during my YAV year. Some deeply internal, some deeply systemic. To be honest, there were times when I didn’t know how much fight I would have left in me once the year ended. I am proud to say that because of my intentional efforts of seeking support and self care, I do have fight left in me. And I’m continuing to fight, both internally and systemically.

What do I mean? Let’s start with my job. I am working as a full-time staff member at a migrant shelter in downtown San Antonio. Families who are seeking asylum come to my church of employment when they are in transition between government detention and uniting with family in the U.S. A nearby city-run resource center provides lodging and food during the day, and this large, beautiful church provides hospitality during the night. I am working the overnight shift, 10 pm to 9 am four days each week. Last week was my first week, and I loved it! I think this is a great fit for me.

A powerful banner on the tower of the church where I work

My First Week in Brief

Night one: Children who spoke Spanish, French, and Portuguese repeatedly shoved Play-Doh pizzas in my face because they liked my reaction of making “gobbling-it-up” noises.

Night two: I assisted a concerned father whose three-year-old son had a fever and difficulty breathing. We called the EMT, I translated what the EMT said while he checked the child’s temperature (103•), and reminded the father that when they’re at the hospital, he can say no to any treatment that the medical professionals want to give his son and he can always ask questions.

Night three: Part of my role is supervising volunteers. During this shift, I became frustrated by a volunteer.

Night four: In the middle of the night, I listened as a woman explained to me that she couldn’t sleep because she was too worried about her husband. When they arrived at the Mexico-U.S. border, the officials did not believe that he was her husband because they did not have their marriage certificate in hand. She and her child were released to pursue an asylum claim while living with her aunt. She didn’t know where her husband was or what was happening to him. Her hope was that he was detained. Her fear was that he was deported in a matter of days.

A Different Way to Fight

If you are familiar with my work at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, you’ll know that this job is very different than my last. Although I’m still working with predominately Central American migrants, the circumstances are very different. This is a “brighter” side to the ugly beast that is our hateful immigration system. These folks are not detained. They were recently detained, but now are on their way to live with family in the United States. They are, generally speaking (see Night four above), together as a family unit. In contrast to FIRRP, I am not working with children who are alone or who the U.S. government separated from their families. Finally, the scope of my duties is drastically different. I am not involved at all in their legal case. I am not even involved in collecting data. The resource center where they spend the day handles of the data tracking and travel arrangements. When families are with me, all that matters is their safety and comfort. If someone decides to share with me about their home country, their treacherous journey, or their fears of returning, I listen and admire their courage. BUT, if they don’t want to share that information, I don’t have to ask! I can see these folks as people who just want a good nights’ sleep and some comfy clothes for their travels, simple desires we can all relate to, instead of having my view of them so fogged by the trauma that they’ve experienced.

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on resistance and what that looks like. There are many ways to resist or to fight. Some are disobedient. Others are bold and demonstrative. Some fights are years-long legal battles. And I’m grateful that others fight in these ways. But my way to fight, at least in this moment, is subtle. It is helping a wound-up child settle down by coloring with him and reading him a bedtime story. It is going to Good Will to find the right size of pants for a father who, because he’s spent his first four days living freely in the U.S. attending to his very ill child, has not been able to change out of the pants that are stained from his journey. It is recognizing that stunning florescent lights are turned on at odd hours of the day as a mico torture in government detention facilities and so allowing folks to decide when to turn their lights on, and instead waking them with a soothing voice saying “Buenos días.”

Fighting for Myself

If I had to name one unexpected lesson I learned during my YAV year, it would absolutely be burnout. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there were moments that I doubted whether I could continue on fighting, or even just continue on. The flip side of experiencing burn out is that I had the opportunity to learn about compassion fatigue, acknowledge my own triggers, and really develop my self care practices. The fight for a more loving and humane immigration system is a long one. Cynically, I think it is so long that I won’t be around to see the end of it. But, I know that it’s a fight that I hope to support for a long time. Because that is the case, I am also fighting for myself. I am protecting my longevity by creating clear boundaries around how much time I can spend thinking about, reading about, and discussing immigration when I’m not at work. (This was an invaluable piece of advice given to me by my supervisor at the Florence Project). I am making time for Tanner and for our shared hobbies, despite the challenges my schedule presents. I am prioritizing sunshine and dancing and crafts and signing karaoke in my free time. I am embedding myself in supportive communities of family, church, and friends. And most importantly, I am trying to be compassionate with myself when I fall short.

Before writing this, I did not realize how directly it would tie into the “big” lessons that I learned as a YAV. I simply thought that I would provide an update as to my new job. But, once a YAV, always a YAV, I guess. They’re not kidding when they say, “A year of service for a lifetime of change.”

I am proud to be continuing my fight. What is your fight? How are you resisting? How are you caring for yourself so that your fight may be long and passion-driven?

Peace and perseverance,

Dakota

August Newsletter Update

The following was written on July 20, 2019 for inclusion in the University Presbyterian Church (San Antonio) newsletter, but for everyone else, it gives a good overview of the last portion of our YAV year and our future plans. 

Hello, UPC Family!

Our Young Adult Volunteer year is coming to a close. In fact, there are suitcases and boxes strewn about our bedroom as we write this! We have one more week of work at our community partner organizations, a three-day closing retreat (which includes camping at the Grand Canyon!!), and then we will be done. We would like to take this opportunity to give you one last update on our recent activities and reiterate our gratitude for your support.

March and April were very busy months! We spoke at numerous churches and events, reflecting on our experiences and promoting the program. It was great to share with folks, but with so many speaking engagements on the weekends, we did not have much time for relaxation in between long, hard weeks of work. But fortunately, at the end of April we had an amazing opportunity for respite and rejuvenation. We spent a week on a “Desert Spirituality Retreat,” of which three days were spent camping solo in the desert. For nearly 72 hours, we were at individual campsites and had zero communication with each other and the outside world. Although challenging at times, the experience helped us feel closer to God, creation, and our inner selves.

The summer months have flown by! We have been working hard at our site placements: Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona (Tanner) and the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (Dakota). Tanner has spent his days repairing evaporative coolers and writing grants. Dakota has been providing legal services to detained migrant children. We have enjoyed spending time in intentional community with our housemate, Ryan, and crossing off our favorite restaurants from our Tucson Food Bucket List!

We have come to love many aspects of Tucson, and seriously considered staying here after our YAV year. However, we have decided to return to San Antonio! There were many factors in our decision, but UPC was definitely one of them. We know that we have a loving community to return to. We can’t wait to become re-involved in Sunday school, Beacon Hill mentoring, and worship! Our plan is to spend the next few weeks with family, and return to San Antonio in late August. We can’t wait to see you then!

Once again, it was the generosity of the UPC congregation that largely made this opportunity possible for us. We deeply appreciate the outpouring of support and love that you have shown us. Thank you!

Warmly,

Dakota and Tanner Kohfield

Good Tucsonans

I shared this reflection at Mt. Shadows Presbyterian Church on July 14, 2019. Speaking at the end of the year was a great opportunity to reflect on my experience as a whole. 

When Pastor Rachel sent us some suggestions of how to tie our reflections of the Young Adult Volunteer year into the worship service, she mentioned that the parable of the Good Samaritan would be read. She suggested that we talk about how the YAV year has brought us into contact with Good Samaritans. I really liked this take on the parable, especially because it wasn’t putting me in the role of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes people I’ve met throughout the year, especially at churches, want to make me the Samaritan. They praise us for our work. While I appreciate the support, I don’t think I’m the hero of the story.

I’ve only been here for one year. There were people loving their neighbors long before I arrived, and they’ll be here long after I’m gone. I have encountered so many “Good Samaritans.” While I’m at a place of transition, at the conclusion of my YAV year, sometimes feeling sad about leaving my work, leaving friends, leaving Tucson, I find great comfort in knowing that the Good Samaritans- or Good Tucsonans, if you will- will continue on loving our neighbors.

The incredible attorneys, social workers, legal assistants, and all staff who I work with at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project will continue fighting for the rights of detained migrants. When our neighbors come from other lands, fleeing violence, extreme poverty, or climate conditions that have made their farmlands unsustainable, and are then met by a legal system that inhumanely punishes and beats them down, the Samaritans at the Florence Project will treat them with respect and dignity. They will take the challenging cases, work the long, exhausting days- and believe me, there are some very long and exhausting days- and have the tough conversations necessary to provide quality legal and social services. All of that to say, they will make these neighbors feel seen, heard, and valued.

We’ve visited nearly a dozen churches in Tucson and the larger Presbytery de Cristo. We’ve met amazing people like you all whose commitment to ministry and mission is not going to end as our YAV year comes to a close. From large acts like organizing and operating a shelter for families at Hotel San Marcos to smaller-scale acts like buying Café Justo each week or making donations to the Tri-Community Food Bank, your ministries have major impacts on people’s lives. You embody what it means to love your neighbor.

And great news for you all and the Tucson Borderlands is that more YAVs are coming! I imagine that you’ll meet them in just a couple of months and give them the same, warm Mt. Shadows welcome that you gave us. (Which, by the way, included a generous supply of toilet paper that sustained the YAV house’s needs from October to February!) The new YAVs will be ready to grow, be challenged, and learn from the Good Samaritans here in the Borderlands.

In this time of transition that brings me excitement, sadness, and a bit of fear, there is comfort in the belief that God’s love is abundant. Her love is deeper than the YAV program, deeper than Presbyterian churches, and deeper than the Florence Project. And as Pastor Rachel said, empowered by this abundant love, I have faith that you, the Good Tucsonans, will continue on loving your neighbors.

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Ryan, Tanner, and I at Mt. Shadows Presbyterian Church on July 14

 

El Amor de un Padre

I have met many fathers during my YAV year. I have vidid memories of some of them, amazed by the sacrifices they made for their children.

Victor

Victor was a client of mine at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. Out of all of the cases I’ve worked on this year, I probably spent the most time on his. I got to know him pretty well through our many hours of meetings and conversation. Victor was a 17 year old from Guatemala who left his family, partner, and baby in hopes of better providing for them. During one of our meetings discussing his abusive relationship with his father, he told me that dads do not love their children as much as moms do, but that he was going to be different. He said that he was going to love his daughter and provide for her. When leaving the meeting that day, Victor pointed at a teddy bear that was sitting on a shelf in the conference room. “Do you like that bear? Do you want it?” I asked him. “Yes,” Victor responded quietly, “for my baby.”

Jose Antonio

I met Jose Antonio at Hotel San Marcos, a temporary migrant shelter at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church. One week each month, Hotel San Marcos opens to provide hospitality to asylum seeking families recently released by ICE. The guests usually stay for a couple of days until they leave via Greyhound bus or airplane to join loved ones already living in the U.S. Tanner and I volunteered for an overnight shift when Jose Antonio and his eight-year-old son, Henry, were guests at Hotel San Marcos. Being near the end of the week, Henry was the only child still at the shelter, so Tanner and I played with him a lot during our shift. We set up bowling pins for Henry to knock down and played hot potato with a bright, multi-colored ball. Henry would laugh and laugh at Tanner exclaiming “¡Hace calor!” when he was holding the hot potato ball.

We found out the next day that Jose Antonio and Henry’s bus was delayed. Having been transferred to a larger shelter in town (because Hotel San Marcos had closed) they would be stuck in a church basement with little to do for another day. Jose Antonio told me that he had spent weeks at a shelter in Mexico, a few days at Hotel San Marcos, and would now be waiting again. He seemed discouraged, disappointed, and bored. Hearing this, I asked if he wanted to go out for a bit, for a walk, or to a park. He said yes and excitedly put on his shoes and gathered Henry.

The rest of this day was one of my favorite in all of my time in Tucson. It happened to be the weekend of the Fourth Avenue Street Fair. Tanner, Jose Antonio, Henry, and I shared a massive plate of barbecued meat and french fries. We sat at a picnic table and listened to a mariachi band. Each time the band took a break and then returned to the stage, Henry became very excited and tugged on his father’s t-shirt to make him watch. We perused the street fair vendors and chatted with Adrian at the Cafe Justo booth.

We left the street fair and walked to a nearby park. It was a December day, but the sun was shining and the weather was wonderful. Henry, Tanner, and I ran around, raced down the slides, and played a zombie attack-game for hours! Henry’s beautiful giggle could be heard again as Tanner, playing the zombie, walked with stiff legs and arms and made groaning sounds. Henry belly-laughed as he climbed on the equipment and ran through the field to escape Zombie Tanner.

As we played, Jose Antonio sat on a bench, walked around a bit, and played music on his phone. He seemed relaxed, relieved. For weeks since leaving their home in Honduras, Jose Antonio was solely responsible for Henry. He provided for him and protected him on a journey of thousands of miles, multiple weeks, and innumerable dangers. Because of the circumstances, I also imagine that it had been a long time since Henry could be a kid: that he could play and yell and laugh freely. A few times I took a break from playing with Henry and sat with his dad. Jose Antonio told me about his wife and twin babies in Honduras. He showed me pictures of the babies, remarking at how their red hair was like mine. Jose Antonio described to me his life in Honduras, the violence, and the threats. Fearing for his life, he made the difficult decision to flee, to endure extreme risks so that he could protect himself and his family. He hoped that one day his wife and twins could join him and Henry, when he knew it would be safe for them.

Craig

I cannot write a tribute to fathers and their sacrifices without being reminded of and recognizing my own dad. Craig was 21 years old when I was born. He had a step-son who was four. (I am 23 now, and can barely fathom raising a toddler and new born). Craig worked and went to college and watched Babe– the pig movie- with his baby until she fell asleep. For a large portion of my life, my dad raised me as a single father. I had the support of my mom from afar, but Craig single-handedly dealt with the teenage meltdowns, supported me in school and extracurriculars, and instilled in me the importance of attending church every Sunday (yes, even if I had slept over at friend’s house the night before- ugh!).

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Craig and Dakota in 1996

I vividly remember the day that I received a rejection letter from the college that I had my heart set on. My dad and I were eating together at home, during my school lunch break. When I received the news, I went straight to the couch, curled up in a ball and began to cry. My dad came and sat with me, stroking my hair and comforting me, for probably thirty minutes. I was late getting back to school, and he was late to work, but that day, he was willing to make that sacrifice.

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Craig and Dakota in 2011

Since birth and Babe, through adolescence, tears, college, and beyond, my dad has given me the unconditional love of a father.

A Todos los Padres

To Victor, Jose Antonio, and Craig, happy Fathers’ Day! Your love and sacrifices do not go unnoticed.

Faces of Our Faith

“There are many heroes of the faith, people we admire and wish to be. However, there are even more ordinary people of faith—those doing what they can with what they have to make a difference. [The Faces of Our Faith] series digs deep into 16 bold and untold stories of those often overlooked in our biblical narratives, hoping these characters remind us that we all play a role in shaping God’s story of redemption and grace.” From A Sanctified Art, LLC

Last fall as we were visiting churches in Tucson, one of the churches we attended, St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, was utilizing a series called Faces of Our Faith from A Sanctified Art. The series used multimedia arts, and each week focused on an unsung hero from popular bible stories. Following the scripture reading and a sermon exploring these secondary characters, a member of the congregation would share about a person in their life who impacted their faith journey.

Having this theme in the back of my mind all year, I decided to utilize for the topic for a group discussion that I led on June 14. Ryan, Tanner, and I each considered people who have played a significant role in our life and/or faith, shared with each other, and wrote a blog tribute to our unsung heroes.

Kelly Allen

Rev. Kelly Allen was the pastor of University Presbyterian Church (UPC) in San Antonio, Texas when I first began attending in 2014. She was a bold and passionate leader, inspiring  a predominately white, wealthy church to take action in the wake of increasing injustices against migrant families and children. I imagine she took many risks in speaking out against these injustices. She challenged the status quo and blissful ignorance that congregations can tend to adopt when problems do not directly affect “us.”

Without her passionate leadership, my life may have gone in a completely different direction. As a fresh-faced college student from a small town in Wyoming, I was determined to become a doctor so that I could help those in need. My idea of what it meant to help was quickly challenged by Kelly’s ministry.

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Kelly preaching in front of University Presbyterian Church, San Antonio

Within the first couple of months living in San Antonio and attending UPC, I participated in a weekend-long mission trip to McAllen, Texas, which is near the U.S.-Mexico Border. There, a group of us volunteered at a Catholic Church whose parish hall was serving as a temporary resting, eating, and showering station for migrant families about to board Greyhound buses. I did not know at the time, but a seed was planted. In the following months I continued to listen to Kelly’s sermons, see her speak at community rallies, and watch a whole church mobilize. By the end of my first year at college, my dream of becoming a doctor was dumped because I realized that there is more than one way to serve those in need (and ways that more directly aligned with my skills and passions). I altered my college and career trajectory to focus on immigration justice. Kelly and the UPC congregation taught me how to put faith into action and to love the forgotten.

In 2016, following my second year of college, I was ecstatic to begin a summer internship in which I would assist and shadow Kelly in her immigration advocacy work. To the shock of our congregation, Kelly passed away unexpectedly on June 5, 2016 after suffering a stroke. It was a period of mourning for our congregation and community. Just as her living taught me so much about faith, so did her dying. I learned that one person cannot carry the torch. One person alone cannot be committed to faith, love, and justice. It takes many. Kelly inspired a congregation and a community. The Interfaith Welcome Coalition she helped found directly serves migrants everyday. UPC has many ministries committed to justice and called a pastor who has continued Kelly’s fight.

And even me, just one congregant, has been instilled with a passion that has driven me to serve God’s often forgotten children. Since experiencing Kelly’s ministry, nearly all of my internships, jobs, and volunteer work have been related to migrant services. It has been over three years since her death, and I am still working in immigration and know that it will be an essential focus of my future endeavors. I do not think of Kelly often, but when I do, it is so clear to the connect the dots and to see how she was such an impactful face in my faith.

 

 

Flash Blog: Opposites

During Community Discussion time on Friday, June 7, we were given a prompt by our Site Coordinator, and given 10 minutes to write. Enjoy! 

Prompt: Discuss a set of opposites that you have experienced during your YAV Year.

I am not sure if this qualifies as traditional opposites (like hot and cold), but when assigned this prompt, the first set of opposites that came to mind were calm and stressed. The word stressed could also be substituted for busy, anxious, or overwhelmed.

I have experienced a sense of stress, anxiety, and busyness a lot during my YAV year. I would say that the majority of my days at work at the Florence Project entail a high level of stress. I have to make very difficult decisions almost everyday, and I know that my actions, or lack thereof, have a direct impact on the lives of individuals.  I have also felt stressed when we have speaking engagements as YAVs. We have presented at numerous worship services and church meetings. In the lead up to those presentations, I feel worried about what to say, what the audience will think of me and of the YAV Program. Many of the systemic issues that we discuss and explore via readings, community events, or travel also leave me with a deep-seeded anxiety.

On the flip side, I have also felt very calm during my YAV year. The line between work and home is more defined now than it was in my life before. Yes, I often take work home emotionally (something I’ve worked on a lot this year), but I do not have “homework.” I do not have to stress in the evening about deadlines and assignments. Usually during the weekends, I can attain a certain level of relaxation, whether that be on a hike, playing board games with my housemates, or sleeping in. Sometimes just walking into our house gives me a sense of tranquility. It is a refuge where I can breathe and relax with my community. Perhaps confronting huge issues (yes, the same ones that make me feel anxious) has also taught me that so much is out of my control and that sometimes the best thing I can do for myself and the world is to enjoy a moment of calm.