My Summer at the Border

October 4, 2019 by

He reads the logo on my T-shirt: “Save the Children.”

“I’ve seen you guys around the hotel. What do you do?”

I calculate how much time I have before the elevator reaches third floor. Definitely not enough time for the long version that includes Save’s founding during World War II.

“I am volunteering a month of my summer with Save the Children, a nonprofit international organization. Down here in New Mexico we work with families seeking asylum in the US, setting up what Save calls ‘Child Friendly Spaces’ – places in the shelters where the kids can play. So yeah, I play with kids most of the day. And I love it.”

“Good work!” he says.

The first few times I gave this explanation I was surprised by the lack of a negative reaction to my work here. From what I’d seen portrayed on the news, the families I came to serve are not always welcome in this country. Down here, though, many people volunteer hours at the shelter as well as routinely housing and feeding families in their churches. I saw locals organizing parties for the kids – cake and a piñata.

And things kept surprising me down here. Like how many of the kids looked happy. I don’t know if it was the giant soccer ball or the Jenga and Lego sets, but they loved playing the games we set out for them. And their parents often came along as well.

painting of a girl by water at sunset

Even though most of the kids didn’t care that I spoke a different language, I often wished I knew more Spanish. Like the time I colored pictures with several girls all morning and one of them talked up a storm, stopping almost long enough for me to insert a every few minutes. I did understand casa and policía but not where her house was or what the police did when they got there.

I played Jenga with a three- or four-year-old one afternoon. He was extremely creative, often building towers with large holes in the middle, towers that tumbled down the second I took out one block. Then we had an all-out dinosaur battle. He won. At least, he told me that all my dinosaurs died, and we ended up building edificios to house all my dead dinosaurs. Then, “I used to do this in my school!” he told me excitedly.

Is he talking about the toy dinosaurs, the Jenga, or something else? I’m not sure.

“Where was your school?” I ask him instead.

“I’m not sure what the country is called.”

Later, I recall another part of our broken conversation. After we’d finished killing off each other’s dinosaurs, he looked at me and said something like, “When I get to my new home I’m going to be happy.”

He smiled.

A week later, back in New York, the smiles are what I remember. Smiles of kids whose names I never learned, their parents smiling too sometimes, happy to see their kids safe, if only for a few hours.

I wonder where they are now. Did they make it to their dreamed-of destinations? I will never know.

And what can I do now for them? These kids changed my life as they passed by, their sweet eyes meeting mine for a moment. I just wish I could have given each one that “happy ever after” ending.

All that’s left is to remember. To remember these kids who happened to be born into a country where violence, poverty, and politics dictate their futures. To remember their stories, their days without food, the heat, the cold; to remember the kids who taught me that, although I am lucky, I can’t waste my good fortune, flaunting it in the face of another’s future.

Meghan Rhoads lives at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in upstate New York, and is pursuing an accounting degree at SUNY Cobleskill.

Artwork by Joelle Hine, titled Stepping Out.


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  • Thanks Milyssa! I am Liz's niece. I'll tell her you say hi.

    Meghan Rhoads
  • Great job, Meghan Rhoads. Are you related to Liz Rhoads? If so, I work at Westmoreland County Community College, and Liz was a student at WCCC. If so, please tell Liz, Milyssa Sassos said hello! Grazie!

    Milyssa Sassos