Above: Pacific Ridge student Sofia Hart makes friends at Templo Embajadores de Jesús in Tijuana. The church has turned its sanctuary into a migrant shelter for over 250 refugees awaiting pending claims for U.S. asylum. Photo by Abigail Adams
CARLSBAD — “Is America beautiful?”
Pacific Ridge School junior Sofia Hart was touched when the young Honduran refugee repeatedly asked her the question.
“He kept asking me this and other questions, like ‘Is the water warm?’ He was dreaming of doing what all of us take for granted. While we talked, he said a word that I didn’t understand and he gestured a bomb exploding. He was talking about all the violence in Honduras – and he is only eight years old.”
Hart and other students studying Spanish at Carlsbad’s Pacific Ridge School recently connected their language learning to the humanitarian crisis by meeting with migrants at several shelters in Tijuana.
On April 19 and 20, students visited Templo Embajadores de Jesús and Agape Mision Mundial, two churches that have opened their doors to migrants applying for asylum in the United States. They also visited a shelter operated by Border Angels, a San Diego nonprofit that provides immigration services.
According to Pacific Ridge Spanish teacher Chris Burman, meeting with the migrants was an impactful learning experience.
“It’s powerful to look at someone face to face, speak directly to them, have a conversation and be open to learning about their story and how they got to where they are,” he said.
At the Border Angels shelter, junior Laura Jones heard a poignant story from a man who was brought to the United States when he was 8 months old and lived his entire life in America until he was deported at the age of 47. He has lived on the streets in Tijuana for five years trying to get a visa in order to return.
“He told me ‘I don’t want millions; I just want to see my family,’” said Jones.
The man has a large family, including 17 grandchildren, living in the U.S.
Gustavo Banda, the pastor at Templo Embajadores, told the group that some of the Haitians at his shelter have been refugees twice. They fled Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 and settled in Venezuela. With the recent economic collapse and unrest there, they are now trying to make their way to the United States.
On the second day of their visit, the Pacific Ridge students and a dozen migrants from Agape Mision Mundial visited a trash dump located between Tijuana and Tecate to serve lunch to homeless individuals who live in the dump.
Jones was especially moved by the experience.
“At the dump, we met with people who don’t even have access to clean water. The people from the migrant shelters realized their situation was a little better than those in poverty in Tijuana because at least they currently have a bed, clothes and some resources. For these people, their entire life is digging through trash and sleeping in a tent at night.”
Burman noted that the service work was a meaningful way to connect the students and the migrants.
“It was great for our students to do a service project with people from the migrant caravan and share the experience, working side by side. It was a unique opportunity,” he said.
The language program at Pacific Ridge uses extensive exchanges, homestays and field trips to enrich students’ language learning.
The school enjoys a close relationship with Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior (CETYS), a private high school in Tijuana.
Students from Pacific Ridge and CETYS participate in exchanges each year for language and cultural immersion, as well as academic projects such as a language/biology collaboration to study water quality in 2018.
“We learn language in order to connect with others and have meaningful relationships,” said Meredith Brady, coordinator of the World Languages Department at Pacific Ridge.
She explained that by taking students’ learning beyond the constraints of classroom walls, the trip to the migrant shelters also promoted a deeper understanding of political and cultural issues.
“There are so many opinions about this issue, but at the end of the day, there is a human being who has a story to tell. For the students, it really opened their eyes to the human side of things.”