Since I was a little girl in Honduras, I’ve always admired the U.S. military. Where I was born there was a U.S. military base. We got hit a lot with hurricanes and natural disasters and American soldiers were the first ones to respond with humanitarian aid. They were heroes to me. I would just stare at them and think, “Wow, what does it feel like to be part of the greatest army in the world?”
Then I got pregnant at the age of 13. And pregnant again at 17. And I was like, “This is not what I want.” I was always looking at the U.S.; for me it meant freedom. And I was like, “I’m leaving.” So, I grabbed my three-year-old daughter and with my six-month-pregnant belly we started for the U.S. My goal was Arizona. I had an older sister there who was a U.S. citizen. It took us about 10 days to get from Honduras to the American border by bus, lots of little buses.
When we came to the border in Nogales, there was a tunnel. They told me to just go in this tunnel, walk a little way, and there’s the U.S. It wasn’t a secret. There were some metal bars. That’s how people got in — they cut the metal bars. They told me I would see holes in the wall and on the third hole, that was the U.S. So, with my daughter, we went through the tunnel. It was really, really dark. I remember it was wet and filthy. Now that I think back, I believe it was like a drain.
When we got to the place where the U.S. was, my daughter climbed up and the man who was helping me pushed me from behind through the hole while I held onto my daughter above and because of my pregnant belly, I was stuck. [Laughing] I was like half in the U.S. and half in Mexico but I finally made it through. I looked up and there was a MacDonald’s. And that’s when I was caught by border patrol. It was like, “Hello, I’m here!”
When they processed me in Tuscon, they asked me why I wanted to come here and I said, “I came because I want to join the United States Army.” They thought it was a joke then, when they realized it wasn’t, told me I’d have to get a green card first, which would take 15-20 years. And they were not kidding. It took many years. I arrived in 1992 and got my green card in July 2008. A month later, I was in basic training in the United States Army. I served for almost 10 years, part of that time in Iraq.
It all went back to my childhood experience. I wanted to be like the American soldiers I saw who arrived and saved the day and represented freedom. To me Americans were so nice, so giving and compassionate; that’s the idea that I had. And that’s why today I help give humanitarian aid to other Central Americans who are trying to achieve what I have.
When Marta was asked how she decided to get involved with helping asylum seekers, she replied:
Well, last December, it was all over the news. We have moms from Central America needing clothing — needing this, needing that. And my daughter said, “Mom, let’s go” So we went to this address. We went to a church where asylum seekers were being dropped off by the busloads and it was chaos. My daughter, who brought some donations, unloaded them and said, “I’m leaving.” And I said, “Take my car, because I’m not leaving. I’m going to help here.” I think we arrived at like 10 a.m. on a Saturday and at 10 p.m. I was still there.
Now I’m working regularly at a church here. We receive people there every Thursday. We also pick up people at the bus station [where ICE sometimes drop them off]. When the buses arrive, we all line up on each side of the walkway. And then we clap and say, “Bienvenidos! Bienvenidos!” That’s when freedom really begins to set in for them.
We put them in the sanctuary at the church. We explain what the process is at that point. We feed them. We get one of them to pray. And then we start making calls — making connections with their U.S. sponsors. And then we get clothes for them and put them through the showers. Once they’ve been clothed, fed, and showered, then we just wait for the confirmations and when arrangements are firm, we take them to either the bus or the airport for them to continue their journey. Some of them leave the same day.
Sometimes the church says we can only be there for 24 or 48 hours so we look for host families. Once we received a hundred people who came late and needed host families right away. We ended up with four families at our house, each from a different country — a Guatemalan family, a Honduran family, a Salvadoran family and a Nicaraguan family.
Israel [Marta’s husband] brought them home — I was still at the church helping out — and he told them, “We’re not going to be here. You’re more than welcome to do whatever you want. Our house is your house.” And then he left. When we came back, one of the ladies said, “Look! I made soup!” And I said, “What kind of soup?” She said, “Chicken soup!” I said, “Did Israel go and buy chicken?” She said, “No, one of the chickens from over there [pointing to a section of our yard].” So that was one of our pet chickens in the soup. I didn’t want to disappoint the lady. I mean, oh my gosh she ate my pet, but I didn’t want to make her feel bad so I ate the chicken. But now when the families come, I say, “You can eat whatever you want, just don’t mess with the chickens!
We’ve been doing this for the last nine months and during that time we’ve had over 500 in our home.
Marta served for years overseas, including time in Iraq, fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming an American soldier.
Israel, from Mexico, and Marta, his wife from Honduras, are productive members of their community and committed volunteers in helping those who are following in their footsteps.
Israel: I walked 100 miles alone through the Sonoran Desert to get to the U.S. when I was 18-years-old. It took me over a week. I didn’t see anyone during that time. After three days, my water ran out. I came across water tanks for animals but the water was green so I used my shirt as a filter. Also, sometimes at the bottom of the hills, the sand is dry but if you start digging and wait a minute, water will come out. I came to join my four brothers who have a cabinet-making business in Phoenix. I began working with them. Our family is from Morelos, Mexico.
Marta: That day, we went to the bus station around 3 p.m. and got the ladies with their kids. Late that night, Israel said, “Let’s go check on the men and see if another organization picked them up. So we went around 11 p.m. and they were still there. A few of the men came over and started saying, “Please, help me. Give me just a little corner in your house.” And Israel said, “Okay, I’m going to take you.” But then they all were coming. And I said, “What do we do?” And he’s said, “I don’t know, but I cannot leave anyone.” And then I said, “Okay.” And he said, “We’re going to take everyone.” And he put 25 people in his truck — 25 people in his truck! I was inside and we had like 10 kids inside the cab and we put about 15 dads in the back.
Marta: The police were following us and I’m like, “We’re done. We’re done. They’re calling the helicopters. You know we look like human traffickers.” [Laughing] “We are done!” And one of the dads, he said, “No we just have to pray.” And I said, “Do you know how to pray?” He said something like, “Yes, we just call for the blood of Jesus to cover us and to blind the police officers’ eyes.” I said, “Okay, do that.” [Laughing] So he did it. And I think we were followed for about 2 or 3 miles but nothing happened. When we got home, the ladies started hugging and saying, “Oh my God! We’ve been praying for you guys. That somebody would help you.”
Israel: To get everyone cleaned up, we have this enclosed trailer out back that we use to transport the cabinets. We got a big plastic container and we put water in it. We set up a fire and then we got a pot like where we cook tamales. I had the men use the pot to heat the water for the ladies. And then we put the container in the trailer and had them go in one by one. That’s how they took showers with warm water; it was winter time.
Marta: Gather them up and bring them. We are capable. And when I say “we,” I’m saying the community. A lot of non-profit organizations. You know we are ready. We are ready to provide them with a shower and clothing, food, you know, whatever they need. We are ready. We are not tired and we will continue doing it. We love what we do.
The welcome sign on the front pillar of Israel and Marta’s home isn’t just for show. They exemplify the saying “Mi Casa Es Su Casa” (My Home is Your Home). During the last nine months they have welcomed over 500 asylum seekers into their home.
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