MORGAN PARK — Children run around the Edna White Community Garden in winter coats and hats, making fun for themselves out of whatever they find, while their parents huddle nearby cooking arepas on a small grill.
One could almost mistake the scene for a normal autumn day at the garden if not for the camping tents crowding the shrubbery, the ill fit of the children’s donated jackets and the weariness on the faces of the grown-ups as they keep a watchful eye on their kids.
There are 24 tents at the garden, 1812 W. Monterey Ave., sheltering roughly 100 asylum seekers. They are among the thousands of people sent to Chicago on buses by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott after they’ve made dangerous journeys from South America and harrowing border crossings in Mexico.
A recent influx of asylum seekers over the past few weeks has overwhelmed police stations across the city where they are temporarily sheltering, leaving many with no choice but to wait and sleep outside in the increasingly colder temperatures.
At the 22nd District, 1900 W. Monterey Ave., volunteers and local organizations have stepped up to help, but as the number of asylum seekers continue to grow and as needs compound with the dropping temperatures, volunteers are burning out.
“You can only work it strongly for a few weeks at a time,” said Kathy Figel, director of the Edna White Community Garden, where the overflow of asylum seekers from the station have been sheltering in tents. “Then they have to take a break. That’s what happened to a lot of volunteers [who helped out in the summer.]”
The city, Figel said, hasn’t provided anything. All funds and support has come from volunteers and even her own personal funds.
When asylum seekers first began to arrive at the Morgan Park police station this summer, Figel opened up the garden to the people staying at the station, offering classes, a place to run around for the children and running water for showers and laundry.
Now, months later, there are 160 asylum seekers at the station and no room for all of them. So, the garden has shifted from a place of daytime respite to a full-time tent community where nearly 100 asylum seekers and their families can stay warm and relatively dry in the cold, wet fall weather.
“The amount of people stepping up and quietly doing a small role to try to be helpful. They’re doing more than the government,” said 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea. “Other communities have a lot of volunteerism, but nothing like ours. I gotta tell you, they’re getting tired. They’re getting burned out. And with the weather turning, just as this is going to be more difficult on the asylum seekers, it’s [also] going to be more difficult on our volunteers.”
From Garden To Makeshift Tent Community
“The rain is the most difficult,” said Luis Garcia, a photojournalist who fled Venezuela with his wife and two children (Jacob, 2, and Stephania, 13), while standing in front of the red and gray tent they stay in during the day.
Asylum seekers and volunteers say the police station staff require them to stay out of the station between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day. At night, Garcia and his children sleep in the station lobby to keep the kids warm.
But most of the other asylum seekers remain outside at night, bundled in their donated clothes and coats in hopes of getting better sleep than the noisy and crowded station lobby affords at night.
When it rains, Garcia said, water leaches into the tent from below and makes the cold even colder. Depending on the sergeant on duty, some of the asylum seekers are allowed inside when it rains during the day.
Still, Garcia said, the community that has developed at the garden is peaceful and everyone does their best to take care of each other and the garden.
“If I bend over to pick up a piece of garbage, there are four to six people immediately [there to help], three of them are kids,” said Joyce Cleary, a volunteer at the garden.
“It’s almost like a hippie commune,” she said with a big smile.
At any given hour, someone is moving about the garden hauling large trash bags to the eight trash bins in the parking lot, a car is pulling into the parking lot with boxes of donations, an asylum seeker is pestering a volunteer to eat an arepa made on the community grill, or a Greater Chicago Food Depository truck is pulling up to offer food.
But never too far away are reminders of the bleakness of the situation – the smell of the portable toilets only a few feet away from the nearest tents, mothers holding babies close to keep them warm, young men taking the risk of getting into a stranger’s car in hopes of finding paying work for the day.
“We just hope they get paid and they come back safe,” said Figel as she watched two young men climb into a car.
Every hour there is a car coming into the parking lot – some with well-meaning residents asking how they can help, some with a trunk full of donations, some looking for cheap labor for the day.
On Monday, a woman stopped by with two used suitcases shortly after Stephanie Garcia asked about getting bags in case a shelter spot opens and her family has to quickly gather their things.
Asylum seekers are allowed only two bags to take to the shelters and often have to leave behind many of the donated items they’ve received if they cannot carry them.
There are many such rules and circumstances that limit the asylum seekers options, said Tim Noonan, founder of the 19th Ward Mutual Aid group. The group has spent thousands of dollars helping the migrants and has arranged meal trains, weekly medical clinics and English language classes at the garden.
A big problem is the lack of warning when buses are arriving to place migrants in shelters. Often people must make the difficult choice between going out to seek work and possibly missing the bus or staying put and missing out on opportunities to find work.
The situation is untenable, said Noonan, but with a tremendous amount of support from local volunteers and a steady flow of donations, the garden is able to provide asylum seekers with at least some comfort so far.
Over the course of the past few months, systems have developed out of necessity – people designated to alert the volunteers if a bus arrives in the middle of the night with new asylum seekers, an informal checklist of supplies that each new arrival receives, even a set of rules for the garden dwellers:
“Be courteous and respectful of others, clean up after yourself, share – do not waste, children eat first, clean up after yourself, only designated people go into the brown house and sheds…”
And for the most part, aside from one reported fight on the premises, the rules have been readily accepted.
Keeping Busy While They Wait
Carlos Luque, 27, stands inside a little brown house at the Edna White Community Garden briefing a small group of asylum seekers who recently arrived at the 22nd District and found that there was no room for them. He hands out small packets of basic supplies and tells them the rules of the garden.
Since arriving 25 days ago, Luque has become the unofficial leader at the small tent community that has sprung up at the garden.
Luque says the role has mercifully kept him busy as he tries not to think too much about what he went through to get here – thieves and robberies in Guatemala, trafficking and violence in Mexico, the treacherous forests in South America where he saw many people die, including young children.
“Kids … little kids,” he said with a small shake of his head.
“I didn’t believe it could be true that I was here,” said Luque in Spanish. “Every time I wake up, I think I’ll be in Mexico again. I’m surprised to be here because of everything that happened to us. A lot of people came but not everyone made it. To be one of the people fortunate enough to make it, I give thanks to God that we made it.”
Luque keeps busy using the bit of English he learned online to communicate with volunteers about the asylum seekers’ needs, running the free supplies shop of donated goods in the little brown house in the garden, keeping the garden clean, cooking, translating what he can and welcoming the endless stream of newcomers who arrive on buses dazed and ill-equipped for the cold.
It’s nothing he ever imagined he’d be doing. Back in Venezuela he worked construction, but even if he made enough money to feed himself, his wife and his 6-year-old daughter, there was simply no food to buy at the market.
Now his family is in Peru and he made the trek here by himself for a chance to feed his family and keep them safe. As soon as he is stable, he said, he’ll send money back and try to bring them here.
In the meantime, Luque looks after the people and families here because he knows what they’ve been through.
“I’m just doing my part,” he said.
This kind of support and resilience is what Figel and Noonan wish everyone could see when they read and hear about the asylum seekers.
The hardest part, said Figel, is seeing so many people being harsh and angry about the situation.
“We’ve got a great community, but not everybody is behind [supporting the asylum seekers],” she said. “I don’t understand how somebody could walk through here or stop by and [have] this not pull on their heartstrings. Not thinking ‘how can I help?’”
Even as some of the garden begins to strain under the pressure of so many occupants – the shower at the garden had to be closed down, for example, because of issues with diverting water – Figel says she’s not worried about the garden and has no regrets about opening it up to help those in need.
“I’m not worried about the garden space. It’s land; it’s resilient. There’s nothing that these folks can do that can harm this space,” said Figel. “And if it’s something that’s long term, it’s long term.”
“Maybe perhaps it’s cultivating dreams and aspiration now, more than flowers,” interjected Noonan.
“Well, it could do both,” said Figel with a laugh.
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