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Immigrant family in DC navigates hunger, homelessness

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The children were hungry.

It was Friday afternoon and they hadn’t had breakfast yet. They also didn’t know when or if they would have lunch.

And yet none of them complained or wept. Not the 4-year-old in the pink baseball cap. Not the 6-year-old in the dinosaur top. Not the 11-year-old wearing winter boots on a 90-degree day. They seemed used to waiting.

“You shouldn’t get into this situation,” her father Alberto said in Spanish, looking in her direction. “They should be in a home, cared for, eat, rest, go to school.”

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For the past year, the family of five has been living in the Washington area on the fringes of the fringes. They are undocumented migrants with serious medical problems and no home. The family lived in a van.

Some nights they park their Honda Odyssey on a DC street. Other nights they find a place in Virginia. Where they end up each day usually depends on where they can find a quiet night’s sleep and an easy ride to Alberto’s many doctor’s appointments. He is on dialysis three times a week for his failing kidneys.

As he sat outside a church in northwest DC, he lifted his sleeve to reveal large lumps on his right arm from the fistula that connects his body to the dialysis machine. He then lifted the rest of his shirt, revealing the gunshot wounds that prompted him to leave El Salvador with his family. He said he was shot six times by gang members for not cooperating with them. Scars appear across his heart, down his side, and down his back. He said two bullets were still in him. Doctors have told him that the powerful antibiotics he received after the shooting probably damaged his kidneys.

“I can’t work,” he said. “I can’t feel my left side. If I stand on my left foot for too long, I fall.”

I heard from Alberto and his family about Food Justice DMV, a volunteer collective that formed at the beginning of the pandemic to ensure migrant families in the Washington area don’t go hungry. Three years after the pandemic, much of the region has returned to normal practices, but the collective continues to witness daily the elusive stability for many of the region’s undocumented migrants.

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Volunteers are seeing a growing number of requests for help at a time when inflation is preventing them from doing much for families. On Thursday, for the first time, they could not afford to give oil or masa, staples to many Latino households, to more than 1,000 families.

Denise Woods, the founder of Food Justice DMV, said at the start of the pandemic, volunteers aimed to feed 200 families. But they soon saw that the need was much greater. Now volunteers serve more than 7,000 families. The collective did not have to do any publicity to find these families. These families all found the volunteers through word of mouth.

As the collective focuses on fighting hunger, volunteers also receive requests for toothpaste, laundry detergent and bars of soap. They recently delivered beds to an apartment after discovering 12 people, including seven children, were living there and had nothing to sleep on.

Like many people across the country, Woods was heartbroken following the initial news reports that reported the deaths of 53 migrants trapped in a muggy semi-trailer truck that had been abandoned on a San Antonio street. She watched, too, knowing that if any of those people had made it to the Washington area, their group would have fed them and provided them with basic amenities. She watched, knowing that the horrors many migrants face linger long after crossing the border.

Food Justice DMV has been trying to help Alberto’s family for months and while they have been able to provide food, clothing and money for an occasional hotel room, they have been unable to get the family to emergency shelter.

The couple said they arrived in the Washington area last year and spent most of their savings, about $4,000, on the van. They agreed to tell their story but asked me to identify them by their middle name because they fear being deported and being found by members of the gang who shot Alberto.

Imelda, the children’s mother, said some people come to the United States because they are drawn to the American Dream, but her family had no choice but to come. She said her family told gang members that Alberto died in that shooting, but they continued to closely monitor her family. They even molested her when she was with her children.

I wrote about falling with my baby. Now other mothers are emailing me.

In 2019, the couple said they left El Salvador and settled for a while in Mexico, where Alberto was on a humanitarian visa. After finding the family there, the gang members took a bus to California. Imelda said when they were in the United States, they found an attorney who helped them apply for asylum. But that hasn’t provided much reassurance as they haven’t seen any movement in their case.

“We’re not very hopeful,” said Alberto. “There’s just not much hope when it comes to getting asylum. But i need it. I can’t go back to El Salvador. And the children have medical needs.”

He described Alberto Jr., who is 6, and Naomi, who is 4, as both having health conditions who are being treated by a doctor in Virginia. He said Alberto Jr. has a brain tumor and seizures, and Naomi has kidney problems that can cause her to retain fluid.

As we talked, the children watched videos on a tablet and a phone. Occasionally Naomi would come over to hug one of her parents and smile. Her T-shirt told of bizarre hopes.

“Today I want to be a…” it said. A line covered the word “princess” leaving only the word “unicorn”.

Helen, who is 11, said in a hushed voice that she dreams of becoming a singer. Then she listened quietly as her parents talked about their living situation—the van. It was parked in a nearby garage next to a Mercedes.

The family had started the day with $12, but that would be used for parking. There was no money left for food that they have to buy ready made as they have no place to cook.

“It’s hard,” said Imelda. “The adults get by, but it’s hard for the kids.”

She said she tried to find employment but had not been successful without documentation or the ability to speak English. Getting asylum, she said, would allow her to work.

It would allow her not to have to stand on the sidewalk with one of her children and ask strangers for help. She sometimes does this when the family is short on money and food – like on Friday.

That day, the family considered doing so. Then a volunteer from Food Justice DMV handed them money for groceries.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/07/02/migrant-family-van-hunger/ Immigrant family in DC navigates hunger, homelessness

Dustin Huang

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