Shannon Rene Dawson-Neubauer is well-known among border-crisis volunteers and many friends passing through Tijuana seeking asylum in the U.S. from her work early in 2019 running the kitchen a the World Central Kitchen in Tijuana. She remains deeply engaged in working with migrants and asylum seekers. This is the first of three parts of her reflections on her work in the past year.
Shannon Rene Dawson-Neubauer
Over the last seven months, with the help of money earned working with World Central Kitchen as well as donations, I have had the honor to be of assistance to several asylum seeking immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, as well as Mexican citizens and two Americans while living in Tijuana.
I have followed and been a part of the asylum-seeking paths of two Central American friends from the Tijuana border during a government shutdown and into the hielera, through the entire mind-boggling detention process, crossing the border to visit them in detention, waiting for their Credible Fear Interviews to be conducted and the results of those to be positive, the parole and bond process, and finally accompanying them to the homes of generous and loving humans who decided to take on the very important responsibility of being their official sponsors and supporting them through the asylum process.
I met many amazing humans volunteering in my kitchen, and bonded with so many just wanting to make a difference in the world.
I crossed the border into Tijuana on the early evening of December 26, 2018. I had signed up to volunteer for one week with World Central Kitchen to cook for migrant camps and shelters.
A chef friend of mine had been running the kitchen since the arrival of the migrant caravan in November, and I had gone to join him because everyone deserves loving and nutritious food. And also because the situation at the border was in crisis again, and this time there was something I could do about it, a way that could matter.
I arrived just as dinner was going out for service to the various camps and shelters, and had the opportunity to go deliver and serve food with other volunteers. I knew that I was going to be in the kitchen non-stop, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to see first hand who I would be cooking for and what kind of living conditions they were in.
After that first service, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. I knew that I would indeed affect change through love and food medicine. The next morning, I dove into food prep and learning the processes that were set in place, and began working 12-16 hour days cooking and serving 3700 meals per day to seven different locations out of an old Bol Corona (a burrito restaurant chain) with very limited fully functioning equipment and an inconsistent amount of volunteer help.
After a few days of being there, like so many others my friend who had been running the kitchen came down with a virus so I was asked to take over. Before I’d left the LA neighborhood of Mar Vista I knew that I would be gone longer than the week I had committed to, but I had no idea what kind of conditions I would see, how being with and loving these people with nurturing food would affect me and shift my course.
The World Central Kitchen Tijuana team worked continuously day and night tweaking and creating kitchen operating systems, delivering nurturing and loving food to all of the locations including a secret children’s shelter.
Delivering food to one of the camps one day, my chef friend and colleague met an excellent kitchen worker from Guatemala working in the camp’s mini-kitchen and decided to bring him on to our Tijuana kitchen team in a paid position. Soon after, four more people from other camps were hired for paid work in our volunteer kitchen.
A woman from Nicaragua, a man from Guatemala, a man from Honduras, and two sisters from El Salvador seeking asylum were now part of my kitchen team and under our care. I treat my team like family, so if you are on my team, I will love on you, nurture you, mentor you, teach you, and have your back.
In order to prepare them for living in the United States, because that’s the goal, I decided to train each of them in different areas to be sure that they were learning skills that would carry over across the border.
When the rains came and the camps flooded, when people’s belongings were ruined or stolen, when the camps were closing down and people were getting evicted, I invited our asylum seeking kitchen family to live with me and some of the other volunteers until we could find them other housing.
In addition to running the kitchen, we were moving people in and out of rooms, buying them clothes, giving them food and medicine, and continuing to give them jobs up until the emergency kitchen closed in early February.
They were paid an additional two weeks salary, but then what? When the kitchen closed, the money would stop. How would they pay for housing and food and still be able to send money home to their children, to continue this process that they worked so hard to get to?
Even though they had Humanitarian Visas allowing them to stay in Mexico, many places in Tijuana did not want to hire immigrants, and if they did, the working conditions and wages were pretty miserable. I met one man who worked twelve-hour intensive days for the equivalent of five dollars. Discrimation against the immigrants included robberies and violent attacks, sometimes even by the Mexican police.
By the time the kitchen closed in February, two of our friends (the Guatemalan man and Nicaraguan woman) had already gone through the process of presenting themselves for asylum, had been detained in the hielera and were put into detention centers in the United States.
A group called Families Belong Together, who had been working with World Central Kitchen, generously donated a two week stay and two weeks of pay for me in Playas de Tijuana so that I could continue to help find work and housing for our remaining three Central American friends as they waited for their numbers to be called.
During that time, I was also joined by Mexican man who had worked in my kitchen, along with his wife and baby in my temporary place in Playas. Just two days into my temporary residence, I injured my foot on a broken board on the boardwalk and was unable to walk for more than four weeks. Now the people who I had been taking care of were taking care of me. That also meant that I couldn’t physically take them out to find jobs or housing and had to rely on other people in the community to help with those pieces of the complicated puzzle.
With two of my friends already in detention – one in San Diego, and one in Arizona – I was busy with paperwork and outreach from my bed. I connected with people committed to sponsoring each of my two friends, and learned as much as I cold about the asylum process. With funding ending from Families Belong Together, I began to raise money for the unending wave of expenses. I paid for continued housing and food for seven people including myself.Two of the three adults got jobs, and the mother in our group stayed at home caring for her baby, now in a larger and safer place with an enclosed outdoor play area and a kitchen to cook fresh food in.
More to come in parts two and three from Shannon.