Stories regarding immigration, increasingly in the news, are often difficult for many people to learn about, but on Vashon several islanders are working for change: raising funds, educating themselves, lobbying for legislative improvements and volunteering their time to assist those released from detention in Tacoma.
Some have been involved for several years, such as the island’s Unitarian community, while others are new to the immigration arena. The Indivisible Vashon: Immigration/Refugee Work Group, not yet two years old, is in the midst of hosting a small flurry of fundraising and educational events. Even volunteers at Granny’s Attic were recently involved when they provided clothes to people released from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Many of those who volunteer encourage others to get involved — however they see fit, often with no special skills required except empathy and the desire to make a difference.
“It is real, what you read,” said Carol Spangler, who volunteers in Tacoma, helping those released from the detention center.
Coming up at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15, the film, “Sapana Ko Desh: A Song of a Bhutanese Refugee” will be shown at the Vashon Library, hosted by the Indivisible Vashon: Immigration/Refugee Work Group. Islander Merna Hecht, the member of the group who arranged for the film, said it focuses on the lives of Bhutanese refugees who are living in the refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Like many of the young refugees featured, the filmmaker, Sunita Biswa, was born in Nepal in a refugee camp. She returned to the camp where she lived until she was a teenager in order to make this documentary, which Hecht called “uniquely fascinating.” The film allows people to see into the wrenching generational divide that occurs when elders stay behind and the younger people leave, knowing that they will not see one another again, Hecht said. She noted that many of the refugees are settled in other countries, such as the United States, and only a few hope to return to their motherland.
Following the film, there will be time for questions and answers with Biswa, whom Hecht has befriended through her work with young immigrants and refugees. Hecht said she assisted her in acquiring funding to travel back to Nepal to create the film, and several islanders donated to support her work as well. Admission to see the film is free.
Last week, the same Indivisible Vashon group hosted a standing-room-only poetry reading at the Vashon Bookshop and held a First Friday fundraiser in downtown Vashon, both to support the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which provides legal services, advocacy and community education. Combined, the two events brought in approximately $2,400, Hecht said, nearly $1,800 from the reading alone. Another fundraising night will take place on the first Friday of September.
Hecht, a poet herself, noted the longstanding tradition of poets speaking up for compassion, witness and protest in many matters of injustice — and she believed offering a poetry event on Vashon would be valuable contribution in that tradition.
The Indivisible Vashon: Immigration/Refugee Work Group, which formed after Donald Trump was elected, has about 60 people on its email list and about 10 to 20 active members, leader Susie Murphy said. Members meet from noon to 2 p.m. the second Wednesday of each month at the Sheffield Building. New members are welcome.
Initially, Murphy said, the group focused on educating themselves and each other. Murphy spent 10 years as a principal of a school with many immigrants and refugees, and she said she thought she understood immigration — but realized with the creation of this group she did not.
“I did not know anything about the legal and social implications (of immigration), nor did I realize how big it is and how interrelated it is to social justice and human rights nationally and internationally,” she said.
In addition to educating themselves, the group has been responding to the changing needs that they see in this country. In 2017, Murphy said, members marched happily in the Strawberry Festival parade. Now they are raising money for parents in federal detention centers, separated from their children.
As part of their work, they collaborate with groups on and off the island working on immigration and refugee issues, Murphy said, and have a member who attends weekly meetings with staffers for Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, raising questions and trying to bring about legislative change.
Looking ahead, Murphy said the group will focus on the mid-term elections, talking to candidates and voters alike about immigration issues.
Some of the islanders working on immigration issues focus their attention off-island and volunteer with the Tacoma-based Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest (AIDNW). That organization assists people released from the Northwest Detention Center, which holds more than 1,500 people. Volunteers help those released make free phone calls to family, friends or an attorney and provide them with clothing and toiletries. They also arrange for their transportation to the bus station, airport or taxi, or take them to an AIDNW home for those who are recently released, where they can stay for up to 30 days. That work happens from an old RV parked outside the detention center. Volunteer Coordinator and Program Administrator Deborah Cruz said more volunteers are needed for a range of needs, including visiting people in the detention center, driving people to appointments, showing people around the city, assisting at the home in various ways and public speaking.
Last month, Cruz said AIDNW assisted 120 people from 17 countries, including 50 people from India, 19 from Mexico and one each from Guinea, Kenya, Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan. Of those who were released, 17 were granted asylum and 96 were released on bond.
Those who are interested in volunteering should contact her to learn how best they can help meet the organization’s needs given their skills and interests.
Carol Spangler and her husband Bob are two of the island volunteers who volunteer with AIDNW, twice a month assisting those who have been released from the detention center to Tacoma’s tide flats.
“There is nothing like seeing the world from this perspective,” she said.
Last month, with the deadline to reunite parents and children looming, there was an unprecedented increase in female immigrants from Central America and Mexico released there, Spangler said, and more women’s clothing was needed urgently for them. She turned to Granny’s Attic, which provided 10 large bins with the best clothing they could find from their stock for infants, toddlers, women and men. Last week, the volunteers who had organized the clothes spoke passionately about being able to help.
“Everybody stopped what they were doing and started doing that. It felt like a priority to us,” said volunteer Nancy Nelson, who noted that all the women were against separating parents and children. “It gave us a chance to be represented the way we want to be represented.”
Calling what was happening to immigrant families “a human issue,” Nelson said they were all happy to extend Granny’s mission beyond Vashon in this case.
“We are all on this planet. We all have needs,” Nelson said, “and we had to be charitable.”
Ann Lewis has long been involved with immigration issues and lived and worked internationally for years. She is also a volunteer with AIDNW. She and her husband George have sponsored immigrants and are part of the Vashon Unitarian community. At least six years ago, she said, island Unitarians began holding vigils outside the detention center. As part of that work, they comfort and support visiting family members, who can see their loved ones only during short visiting hours.
“We hear the stories. Our role is to be attentive and compassionate listeners and let them know we are there for them,” she said.
She is among those who encourage people to get involved, by learning about immigration, supporting immigrant families, attending hearings, protesting, contacting elected officials about immigration reform — or for those pressed for time, simply baking a loaf of banana bread or providing money to buy apple juice for those who are assisting. No special skills are required.
“Everybody can serve cookies and comfort,” she said.
For more information, about the Indivisible Immigrant and Refugee group, email immigration@ indivisiblevashon. org.
For information about AIDNW, see aidnw.org or email Deborah Cruz at email@example.com.