In August, a caravan of grandmothers from across the US, as far as Portland and New York City, traversed to the Rio Grande Valley for a full day of action in “the fight for human dignity.”
The caravan, known as “Grannies Respond,” linked up with the Angry Tias and Abuelas for 24 hours of action. Assisting Angry Tias and Abuelas with filling backpacks to drop off to immigrants waiting on bridges at the U.S. ports of entry seeking asylum, they accompanied the local volunteers in delivering aid, but also to “bear witness.”
The 24 hours of action included a panel discussion at the Renaissance Hotel’s second floor in a conference room, just across the street from Archer Park in Mcallen, in the shadow of Bentsen Tower, the federal court building where many criminalized immigrants received sentencing. It towers and looms over the hotel. But it was there that select speakers, Jennifer Harbury, Jodi Goodwin, and Martha Sanchez testified to the out-of-town witnesses about what the Valley community knows all too well.
From the start, the intention was set to “listen,” that they may take home the lessons learned on the border. “How can we help?” This question was answered with announcing the launch of a new project for the Grannies: the so-called “Overground Railroad.”
The project was just an idea when Megan Martinez of the Angry Tias and Abuelas floated around the name, “Above Ground Railroad.” But Grannies Respond later coined the official name of the project, “Overground Railroad,” with the intentions of assisting immigrants who are dropped off at different bus stations around the country. According to Roya Salehi, who is a member of the Grannies Respond, the name of this project references Harriet Tubman’s The Underground Railroad.
“We ended up with overground [name] just to kind of parallel with the underground,” said Salehi. “Once we left [McAllen], we thought that would be a good project.”
Harriet Tubman’s work to help people who were enslaved escape through secret routes was life-threatening, while Grannies Respond’s volunteer work poses little risk to themselves. Salehi recognized that their volunteer work is not life-threatening, but she explained that they see two similarities between the Underground Railroad and the “Overground Railroad.”
“The similarity is that we are helping folks who are traveling to get to their sponsors and along the way we are providing aid,” said Salehi. “We’ve also kind of come up with a code which is similar to the code that I guess was used in the Underground.” Salehi referred to the T-Shirts they wear and the packets they carry which are similar to the yellow envelope that the refugees travel with. It says, “I’m here to help you” This, said Salahi, is “to show them we’re here. That’s our code.”
Salehi also mentioned having to honor and respect the rules of the bus stations. “We want to make sure that we’re not kicked out. We want to collaborate with them. The risk is that we are not going to be able to do the work. That would be painful.”
Referring to herself and the rest of the Grannies Respond members, Salehi said they want immigrants to know that there are people that welcome them into this country. So far, Grannies Respond has identified 12 cities that have the highest needs: Atlanta, Dallas, Kansas City, Kansas, Houston, Louisville, Kentucky, Memphis, Tennessee, Montgomery, Alabama, New Orleans, New York City, and Sacramento, California. Ultimately, they want to expand beyond the 12 cities, but, as of today, New Orleans is one of the few that is active. The Louisville and New York City stations are still forming, Salehi said.
“This is very new for us,” the Grannies Respond volunteer said.
Grannies Respond have highlighted three goals that they intend to uphold for the “Overground Railroad” project: To provide a smiling and a caring face, assist refugees in finding their next bus, and “provide basic care kits to the refugees to use as they continue their trip.”
“We help them find their next stop because if they don’t, they are stranded,” said Salehi. “We are also providing food, diapers for their children.”
As the current crisis moves upward and throughout the US from the bus stations in McAllen and Brownsville, replications of the Angry Tias and Abuelas are proof of the undying need for those living in the US to help immigrants navigate the chaos inflicted upon them by the federal government. But although the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies have mobilized many across the country who are new to activism, the growing pains of being mindful about invoking sacrifices by people of color is but one of many “lessons” still to be learned.