Thursday, October 11, 2012

Serving My Brothers and Sisters

The following is a reflection written by Ali Heinen, one of this year's North House Volunteers.

Biologically, I have 4 siblings. However after my past two months working as a legal assistant on the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Children’s Project, in my heart I have about 60 more little brothers and sisters to add to that. Over the next 8 months, that number will continue to grow but if you met some of these kids you would know how hard it is not to fall in love with them.

My new “hermanitos” and “hermanitas” are from Ecuador, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and even a few from as far away as China and Romania. So perhaps now you are wondering what exactly it is I am doing, right? That is a great question. I am still learning exactly what my responsibilities and different roles are everyday, so bear with me as I try to explain them.

On my first day of work, my supervisor Ellen told me, “you have a super steep learning curve ahead of you.” This comment scared me but mostly excited me. She was absolutely right, I hardly knew anything about law let alone immigration law. I knew I wanted to use my Spanish and work with kids. So far, I could not have picked a better placement in which I can do both.

During a typical week, I spend Monday and Wednesday at centers throughout the Chicago area where those younger than 18 are sent after they are detained for attempting to cross the US border. Most of the kids are about 11-17 years old. The centers are nice places, they go to classes, have three meals a day, their own bed. These minors attempt to cross into the United States for various reasons: they want to make a better life for themselves and their families and/or they are fleeing from increasing gang violence in their home countries. The number one reason I have heard is that these kids purely want to be with their parents or older siblings. Their families have good intentions for immigrating to the US; they want to be able to provide for their children economically because there are no opportunities for them to do so in their home countries. Their only other choice would be living in complete poverty. Most of the kids understand this reasoning; however, the inevitable result is a lot of young people who desperately want to find and be with their parents who they miss so much.

My organization goes to these centers and gives Know Your Rights presentations so the kids know why they are being detained and that they need to go to their court dates or they will receive an order of deportation. Without the presentations that we give, it is possible these kids would not even know why they are at the center or that they are now in the court system. The United States requires that all detained minors under 18 years of age be assigned a court date.

We then do individual intakes with these kids to screen them for the possibility of qualifying for a Visa that would allow them to stay in the United States legally. Some of these types of visas include asylum, trafficking, and/or if one or both of their parents have abandoned or abused them. The reality is that many of them do not qualify for these visas and we then explain to them the options of either voluntarily deporting to their country or receiving an order of deportation. The latter is not my favorite to explain but it is important that these kids know the truth and whether they have a case to fight in court.

We can represent them in court only while they are in Chicago. When they reunify with their family in the United States, which all of them are allowed to do once they leave the centers regardless of whether they have a legal way to stay here, we change their court venue to that new city. This is where the administrative part of my job comes in. Three days out of the week I am on the 20th floor of a building right down in the Loop, on the same block as the Chicago Board of Trade. There are a lot of databases to update for our funders and court venues to file in court and kids to keep track of as they come and go. I knew I would not love sitting in front of a computer and filing things but being able to meet and get to know some of the kids I am doing all the paperwork for, puts so much more meaning behind the routine tasks to which I am assigned.

Not to mention how amazing my co-workers are! The Children’s Project team consists of about 13 people: lawyers, legal assistants, and interns – they have been wonderful teachers for me. They are very knowledgeable and worldly and have seemed to find the perfect blend of a career where they can truly help others and work towards social justice while also making a living. For me, that is pretty much the ideal situation so I feel very blessed to be in a placement that allows me to witness that balance.

The National Immigrant Justice Center as a whole does a lot of phenomenal work in many different aspects of immigration. For example, during my first week on the job, the staff agreed to volunteer at Chicago’s DREAMer forum at Navy Pier. The government began accepting applications from immigrant youth applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on August 15th, a policy by the Obama administration providing temporary reprieve from deportation and work authorization for DREAM Act-eligible youth. Thousands of people came to the forum and it was one of the largest in the country. I literally felt like I was witnessing history in action!

At the end of the day, what remains in my heart and mind through the hectic trips to court and long team meetings and cramming onto an overcrowded El train, is the faces and names of the kids I meet. My housemates and other fellow Amatians will listen to me talk about them sometimes relentlessly but fortunately for me they are genuinely interested (at least that’s what they make it seem like…) These kids want to be doctors and teachers and study English. They don’t care when I make mistakes conjugating verbs in Spanish, they get excited when I sit and eat lunch with them, and many have such a beautiful and pervasive sense of hope for the future that I cannot help but be affected by it. They have traveled thousands of miles, by foot or bus or car, just so they can be with their families. While most of my family only remains a few hours away in Wisconsin, I honestly can only hope I would be as brave and do the same.

Many of these kids have already experienced more hardships and tragedies then I will probably deal with in my lifetime. Some of these kids seem to have no hope, and this is when I have to hold back my tears and do my job. I want to give them the information and power to make informed decisions in their legal cases but I also just want to wrap them in my arms and tell them everything is going to be okay. As a professional, I cannot do the latter but chatting with them about their favorite hobbies or telling them it is okay to cry or coloring with them are all ways I can still serve them with love and care and solidarity. I receive that love back and can only hope that come June, my heart will still be able to handle constant heartbreak of seeing these kids leave and more often than not, never being able to hear from them again. With the support of Amate and my family and friends back home, I have faith it is a challenge I can handle with grace.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Discovering our Strengths - Recapping the Fall In-Service Day

The following is a reflection written by Mackensey Carter, one of this year's South House Volunteers.

“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us.” 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

Difference is something that we often run away from in life.  Most of us are drawn to similarities, find comfort in seeing where two ideas have common ground or love to discover mutual interests or friends when just meeting a new person.  Difference may be uncomfortable for many of us but it is the very thing that Paul claims builds the community of God.  The excerpt above from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians speaks to this idea that God uses differences in each of us to create a unique, spiritual unity between believers.  Our first Amate House In-Service this year explored this idea and what it means to be a faith community filled with thirty-three distinctively different individuals.

The StrengthsFinder, which was the topic of our Fall In-Service day, helps to highlight these differences (and similarities) between individuals as they relate to certain strengths.  Each Amate House volunteer was asked to take the StrengthFinder assessment, which asked us a myriad of questions about ourselves and our personalities, and in the end received a list and explanation of our top five strengths.  While exploring our own strengths was enjoyable, our In-Service allowed us to see how our strengths and the strengths of our housemates complement each other and build our unique community.

While my top strengths included empathy, harmony and connectedness, I was able to discuss and sit next to my housemates that have the strengths of communication, intellection, or responsibility.  The diversity in strengths and thinking patterns within the Amate community, and even my own house community, gave me a renewed insight into the importance of individuals using their strengths to work together in service.  We all have tendencies and ways of thinking and behaving that are unique to our own temperaments and backgrounds but only when we work and serve together are we able to fully complement each other and create a cohesive whole.  Affirming the strengths that I see in myself and in others allowed me to become more aware of where I fit into the community and how I can use my special strengths to benefit and challenge the individuals around me.

Throughout the day I was continually reminded of the continuation of Paul’s letter in chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians in which he uses the metaphor of the human body to describe the community of believers.  Paul writes “you are the body of Christ, and each on of you is a part of it” and “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Corinthians 12: 18,27).  Just as the body has many parts that perform many functions, Paul reminds us that in a community each member has a different role to fill, which is not more or less important than the person next to him or her.  God’s work is accomplished when each part of the body or community performs its function with determination and passion.  This idea can help us better understand a cohesive community where we are able to willingly accept our roles, no matter what it may be, because we see them each as equally important and necessary in working together for God’s greater purpose.

If all the roles and strengths of the community were the same, then nothing would be accomplished or changed.  Therefore, just as God has created us with such diversity, we must embrace this difference in community, even when it is frustrating and confusing, so that we can work together to challenge and compliment each other. Discussing my strengths during our In-Service helped me realize that whether I’m the toe or the heart, which perform drastically different functions for the body, I have a central role to play in creating and sustaining the body of Christ in and through my community.