Being born in the United States is a privilege that comes with the gift of citizenship. Even though this citizenship does not guarantee a lifelong prosperity, it gives people the right to reside in a country where there are no constant bombings, extreme food scarcity, political repression, fear of imminent invasion or unjust persecutions. Even though an American life is far from being perfect, it is a life that those suffering constant oppression, fear, and poverty could only dream of. As a result, many people are willing to traverse mountains and long miles in order to reach a land where a stable life is no longer an absurd dream but rather attainable. As a fellow immigrant, I was exposed to the preciousness of having a legal US document at a very young age. Growing up, my father has always told me that the story of immigration for every family is filled with blood and tears. Though in a different degree of severity than many who flee their homeland in search of asylum, my father’s own story was full of tears. When my father was thirteen, his family received the opportunity to become US permanent residents after years of waiting. However, in order to accept the offer, the family has to move to the US. Unfortunately, with its mandatory military service, Taiwan’s government prevents teenage males from leaving the country to prevent people from escaping conscription. As a result, my dad was left alone in Taiwan until he completed his military service years later. This is just one among the millions of stories that narrates how the fight for legal status breaks families apart. Yet, ironically, it is this experience that unites me more closely to the experiences of those whom I encountered during my short stay at San Diego.
Despite the shortness of our trip, each of the countless encounters with people from all across the globe left a lasting imprint for me. Within just three days, I have encountered hundreds of people. For some, it was a short encounter as I handed them a new mask while they exited the ICE bus. For others, it was a longer conversation to inquire about their departure plan from the hotel or helping caseworkers translate as they assist Chinese travelers in their check in process and booking travel plans. However, regardless of the length of the encounter, each moment gave me a glimpse of the long journey that each person had to travel in order to arrive at that precise location and moment of time. The very first group of family that I helped with was a Chinese family. The dad and mom have traveled with their young child for almost two months in Latin America in order to reach the border. When I encountered them, the social worker and I were trying to help them sort out their travel plan. They have a point of contact, but the person will not be able to provide them housing or other support. They were hoping to get settled and send their child to school; however, it is often difficult for undocumented families to find housing especially if they do not have any connections. Despite this, they still wanted to go. I wasn’t able to help them much besides helping them understand when and where they have to appear before the court and what they should do if they ended up changing their address. In the end, they decided to take an uber to rest somewhere in LA first, recuperate, and travel to San Jose where they hope to establish their residence. As I walked them to their car, I couldn’t help but worry about their journey. With little English, will they be able to reach their destination? Or will they be taken advantage of because of their vulnerable status as immigrants? My head was filled with concerns. However, the most difficult thing to forget is when their daughter, who loved to wander around and make friends with everyone, asked her parents if they would ever return home. This was immediately after the parents had told me about the paths they have taken to reach this place. I wasn’t sure exactly what the little girl meant by home. It could’ve been her home back in China or a stable and permanent home that she had long missed after months of being a traveler. However, regardless of the type of home that she longs for, she will probably have to wait for another long journey to be able to live in it once again. As I say goodbye to the family while giving them final precautions about ubers and extending my prayers to them, I kept thinking about their journey forward. I prayed that they would be able to be welcomed at their final destination and find a hospitable home.
For me, the experience at San Diego parallels many of my service activities. While I have always wanted to make significant impacts on other people’s lives, I realized that the most common role that I played was as a traveling companion during the short stage of another person’s life. Sometimes it can be a little frustrating and sad knowing that there is little I can do to clear their obstacles for them. However, despite how short of an encounter I had with the clients and how little I can do to bring them a prosperous life, I was glad that I was able to provide them with a little warmth and comfort during their transition and be a witness to the hard journeys that they have trudged through. For me, seeing the smile and relief on clients’ faces as I handed them a new mask to replace their worn and dirty old mask was a precious moment that gave me the opportunity to extend hospitality to those who thirst for it and a hopeful moment for living a new life.