Christmas Arrangements: Children weather holidays at migrant camp

In this undated photo, children play at a playground set up for migrant families at a makeshift camp in Matamoros. Courtesy: Adam Erispaha, Solidarity Engineering

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, for most Americans Christmas will be a time to celebrate at home with their loved ones, eat delicious food, drink hot chocolate and turn the heater on to watch television comfortably.

But for the 300 children and their families living at the migrant camp located at the Gateway International Bridge, things will be very different in Matamoros, Mexico.

“The children are living in misery, in mud and there’s snakes and big rats,” said Melba Salazar-Lucio, co-founder of Team Brownsville. “We have pictures on Facebook of all the terrible things that go when you live outside. It’s not like when you camp for a day or two, they have been camping there for years now.”

Hundreds of children, along with their families, have been living at the camp for more than two years now. With no access to electricity and hot water, volunteers at the camp are trying to find ways so that the asylum seekers living there can spend a better winter.

“It’s been getting colder out, and there is no hot water for bathing,” Erin Hughes, principal engineer at Solidarity Engineering, said. “Solidarity Engineering is currently working with the Resource Center of Matamoros (RCM) to get hot water heaters for the showers, but that will require electricity, and there is extremely limited electricity in the camp. Currently, there is only one official connection to the city power grid, which is not nearly enough for the hundreds of people living there.”

It was not until this week that the children at the camp had somewhere to play safely. Solidarity Engineering, in collaboration with Team Brownsville and the Resource Center of Matamoros, fundraised, locally sourced, and built a playground where children can have a sense of normalcy and play at the various colorful playground equipment such as slides and swings.

“UNHCR provided a training a few months ago, which gave my team the idea to build the playground,” Hughes said.

“The training explained that play time is critical for a child’s development. It helps the child learn social skills, and in some instances, it helps the child work through their traumas. As a humanitarian aid worker and civil engineer, much of our work is focused on providing the technical human necessities, such as clean water, food, shelter, etc. But kids require more than that. By building a playground for them, we want them to know that they haven’t been forgotten about. We see them, and we care about them.”

Salazar-Lucio said the playground is needed at the camp because there were cases of children falling into the river when they were playing. She added that even though the children have access to books, music and crafts, a playground is necessary for them to be children and play with peers.

“Before we had children falling inside the river, now it is fenced and the camp is actually wired. The playground is a safe place for them to do what we have robbed them thanks to the MPP Remain in Mexico Policy,” she said.

“A child needs to play. It’s important for the children to exercise and now they have a slide, swings and things that we consider something so normal and such a given in our world here in the United States.”

Children at the camp attend Team Brownsville’s Escuelita de la Banqueta six days a week and learn English, Spanish, music, mathematics, art and crafts. To celebrate the holidays, the teachers and children are rehearsing to host a concert that will take place close to New Year’s Eve.

“The classes are Monday to Saturday and the classes are for five hours,” Salazar-Lucio said.

“We have six teachers right now that are actually parents of the asylum seekers and we are teaching English, Spanish, music, mathematics, art and crafts. The children have learned how to play the flute, how to play the piano and we are working right now on drums and guitar.”

When Salazar-Lucio learned the children and their families were planning on building their own Christmas tree with paper, she decided to send them her own. Team Brownsville currently has a project called “Cajitas Calientitas” where in a shoe box they send pajamas, socks, and underwear to the children.

“They were going to make trees out of construction paper and I was like ‘what do you mean?’ it’s going to rain and you’re in a tent’ so I took my own Christmas tree and sent it to them,” she said. “I can buy another tree, it’s not the same, this is for the kids , for them to enjoy. Here at my house it’s only my husband and I. Who will see it?”

For Christmas this year, Team Brownsville will take the children Christmas stockings filled with little items for them to play with such as Rubik’s cubes and other small things that can be put inside the stocking such as T-shirts, socks and puzzles. Those interested in donating can ship the items at 1045 Mexico Blvd, Brownsville, TX.

“This year we are doing Christmas stockings and we call it ‘Proyecto llena la media’ with gifts that are small, like the palm of your hand, with things that you can put in the stocking such as Rubik’s cubes, T-shirts, things that can be put in the stocking,” Salazar-Lucio said.

“Last year we had thousands of children at the camp, right now we only have 300 and the adults are like 400 or 500.”

Hughes said that now that the playground is built, Solidarity Engineering will start to plan to build a soccer field so children and their families can have another place to socialize, but the main priority is to create access to hot water.

“The children at the camp are under a lot of mental and emotional stress. They have experienced unimaginable strife; escaping their home countries, the dangerous journey here, and then living in this makeshift refugee camp for over a year,” she said.

“These kids have experienced some extremely traumatizing things in their lives. They deserve to have fun, and to learn and grow. We need to grant them and their families asylum so they can get out of this limbo and start their new lives in America. The camp is not supposed to be permanent, but these kids have spent a significant amount of their short lives here. We have a chance to make a real positive change that will affect the rest of their lives. “

To donate to Team Brownsville, visit teambrownsville.org.

To donate to Solidarity Engineering, visit solidarityengineering.org.

nreyna@brownsvilleherald.com