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Area activists work to meet needs of detainees flowing through Memphis

Among the passengers that got off the Greyhound bus from Oklahoma about noon last Saturday were immigrants freshly released from detention centers near the U.S. southern border.

Most did not speak English; many were children. A translator worked from one passenger or group of passengers to another and then told another helper of the need for several more food-filled sandwiched bags.

It’s a scenario that has been unfolding several times a day since a collective of activist coalitions learned Memphis was on one of the trails immigrants were traveling since being freed from the detention centers.

Nour Hantouli is with the Memphis Feminist Collective, which was part of the network.

“We have a loose-knit network that includes activists in the border towns where these detention centers are,” Hantouli said. “Thanks to that network we can keep each other informed about what’s going and that’s how we heard about it and how we are passing the world along to these subsequent cities that these people are traveling to.”

Since then, the days have been running together, Hantouli said.

“At first it was just a couple of individuals. When I first went there it was just me and my friend Edith. We made some sandwiches and went up to the station with bottled water and snacks in a wagon and just handed things out.”

Borrowing a description from Memphis journalist Wendi C. Thomas, Hantouli said it was “like building a plane as we were flying it.”

The level of support and response has soared.

“We are just floored from the response that we have gotten from the community,” Hantouli said. “It’s been tremendous. We’re just very shocked about how it exceeded any of our expectations.”

At the bus station, the support operation for the immigrant bus travelers involves bringing fresh meals.

“A lot of them left the detention center and were handed a pack of saltine crackers and they’ve been traveling sometimes for more than 24 hours without eating. …

“We also have non-perishables to take along on the rest of their journey…diapers, menstrual products, over-the-counter medicine …Anything we learn from the last bus that came through that we need, we bring it on to the next bus.”

And translators have been involved in helping the travelers make connections.

“There are no services for that here despite Greyhound receiving federal funding,” Hantouli said. “We already have a very tight-knit community of activists in Memphis and as soon as we put the word out (for translators), people responded. A lot of the people who first responded …this is their community and their hearts are in here.”

Thinking about her biggest takeaway, Hantouli paused, collecting thoughts.

“The time that we are in right now has just been really traumatic and devastating for us as a nation, as well as our local community. We’ve been stretched very thin just trying to make it day to day through this toxic climate.

“Despite this crisis and everything, the community response and the way that people were so willing to help and so generous has brought a lot of hope, I believe. It makes me not want to give up on the future.”

Hantouli also stresses this:

“We (Memphis Feminist Collective) are not the only ones running this. We just happened to respond at the right time. A number of coalitions are involved in this and many, many different organizations represented, as well as individuals.”

The timeline

On Friday, Oct. 26, volunteers were positioned to greet arriving buses with newly released immigrant travelers. Three days later, a donation drive was in full effect, said Laura Coleman, who was alerted from an associate in Texas that “we’re about to have mass people coming through…upwards of a hundred people a day….

“We haven’t missed a bus,” Coleman said, folding donated clothes in a room made available the First Congregational Church in Cooper Young.

“We’ve been able to find emergency housing for people, if their layover is overnight. The hostel here offered us room for overnight layovers. People have offered their homes. People have done laundry, made phone calls…We’ve also been able to reach out to Nashville and Knoxville and arrange bus support there. And now we’ve got bus support all up the east coast.”

Five busses come through daily with 20 to 40 people on each bus, said Coleman.

Hunter Demster – one of the first people Coleman reached out to – recalled the first day of greeting travelers.

“Many of them did not have basic necessities. There were two- to three-year-olds without shoes. They get released from these detention facilities with the clothes on their backs and three pieces of paper from the immigration courts. That’s basically your next court date and your alien ID number. And besides that, zero resources.”

Fast forward to last Saturday at First Congo. Volunteers sorted through clothes, folded them and put them in designated piles.

Nate Smith and a friend arrived.

“Hi, how can we help?”

Smith followed Demster out to the parking lot, where an Immigration Relief table was set up at the Farmer’s Market. More donations needed to brought up. Smith, too, had been among the first responders.

“We probably made 300 sandwiches in an hour,” Smith said, recalling the day before. “It was amazing.”

Demster had spent that day reaching out to companies for produce and reported a good response. He was confident there was access to enough to make it into the next week.

Smith and Demster loaded up the donations, running into activist Keedran Franklin, who had dropped by to help.

“Why is it important for me to be here? … To see the process of how some people’s lives can be shifted and swayed because of some dollars and the impact, the negative impact on people’s lives. That resonates me,” Franklin said.

“I wonder if someone had been aware during the trans-Atlantic slave trade to say, ‘Hey, hold up. Let’s aid some people. Let’s assist in another way, let’s intervene.’ Then there might be more understanding of so-called black people. …There could be some shifts in the paradigm of how we think and look at ourselves.”

Coleman said, “The thing that we’re seeing here – to bring it around to the bigger picture – is the criminalization of black and brown bodies. As long as the prison system continues to be for profit, criminalizing black and brown bodies, especially people in poverty, or people with fewer connections than some of us, it keeps those prison systems profitable. I feel like this is going to continue until we can change that.”

(PayPal donations can be made via memphisfeminist collective@gmail.com, which is also the email address for finding out more information about volunteering. Memphis Feminist Collective also has a Facebook page.)

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