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Memphians Organize Relief Effort for Influx of Asylum Seekers at Bus Station

Hundreds of migrants seeking asylum have been passing through the Memphis Greyhound station on their way from detention centers along the border to destinations east of here. Many are on their way to take shelter with friends or family who’ve settled in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Richmond, Virginia as they await immigration court dates.

There are 5-7 buses a day carrying anywhere from 5-50 migrants. They’re traveling with very little other than the clothes they’re wearing and often haven’t eaten in 24-48 hours.

In October, this came to the attention of local activists who have since been organizing supply drops at the bus station multiple times a day to try to provide relief for the travelers.

Hunter Demster is one of the lead volunteers in a coalition of individuals, activists, and organizations that have been working on the initiative previously referred to as #MigrationIsBeautiful. They recently have transitioned the grassroots operation under a new name, Mariposas Collective.

Volunteers for Mariposas Collective work out of a hub set up at First Congregational Church on Cooper Street. “First Congo is ground zero for social justice,” said Hunter. “Anytime any of the local activists or community is in need, all you’ve got to do is ask. So, immediately, they offered this space for us to work out of.”

Volunteers assemble lunch bags at Mariposas Collective’s hub at First Congo.

They work in shifts, receiving and sorting donations and preparing bag lunches that usually include a sandwich, fresh fruit, and a salty and a sweet snack. On this particular day, Hunter welcomes the mid-day shift volunteers and explains that lunch prep will be a little different.

“Today is an example of how the community shows up. There are some people in the Latino community that on Tuesdays, they make a huge batch of tamales. So we’re going to come in and we’re going to make the brown bag with chips, granola, fruit snacks, fresh fruit, and then we’ll take the tamales down there and pass them out to everybody.”

After the meals are prepared, another group of volunteers takes supplies to the station. These volunteers are “bus support,” and their work is a bit more involved. Mariposas Collective set up a system where they send one interpreter and two community members to meet every bus that’s coming through the city.

“Before we put this together, all these people were coming through the stations and there were no translators,” said Hunter. “Because Memphis is a hub for connections, people were missing their connections.”

Hunter notes that Mariposas Collective makes a special effort to prepare volunteers to greet the buses, making sure they know how to interact with people who are in the midst of a difficult journey without causing further discomfort or disruption.

“Frederico Gomez put together an entire bus training session. The volunteers who go to the buses have to come to the training to learn do’s and don’ts and how it’s worked because we don’t want to take up too much space. We don’t want to cause any problems. We just want to help people and get out.”

Hunter helps to load Vanya’s car for a bus support shift.

Vanya Barraza, a bus support volunteer, shared why she’s involved. “I’m Hispanic and I’m part of this community, and also evidently I’m a migrant. I moved to the U.S., so I feel what it is to be from a different country. Many of them are pretty confused because it’s very confusing to navigate this system.”

Before she leaves to make her delivery to the station Vanya turns back to offer the following:

“One of the most shocking things that I have seen is the fact that these people are wearing what they had when they were traveling, and most of them they were robbed at the border. So they are wearing what was left and they have been in a detention center for a couple of months, so they are wearing what they were wearing maybe for five months. That makes me feel that we need to help them because they are in need certainly, and also the children. I have seen many children, very young children. They speak maybe Mayan, or that Maya dialect, and so if it is a barrier of the English language of course, they don’t even speak Spanish. I feel that we need to help them because they have an enormous barrier to be integrated into society.”

As Hunter helps Vanya load her car he describes what it’s been like responding to a steady stream of need that has no signs of slowing.

“We are here seven days a week. We’re still meeting between five and seven buses a day. Everybody I think at first assumed that numbers would taper off. Numbers have picked up. We’ve been averaging between 150 and 175 a people day. We’ve probably helped closer to 7,000 people since October and purely through donations and the generosity of community members and volunteers stepping up and getting out of their comfort zone and deciding that they want to help people in need. It’s that simple.”

Hunter says that Mariposas Collective is always in need of fresh fruit and particularly as the weather gets colder, there’s a need for men’s, women’s, and children’s jackets in every size.  Children, whose safety is often the motivating factor in a parent’s decision to migrate, are also among those most affected by the journey.

“One of the first buses that I went to, there was a three-year-old without shoes and socks going to Detroit. There was a five-year-old who had a hoodie and the zipper was broken halfway down, didn’t even have a t-shirt underneath.”

Hunter says that witnessing the severity of need can take its toll and that volunteers have to remind themselves to relish in the bright spots and how simple it can be to make a difference. Things that are so simple to us — a clean shirt and a small toy — can make a huge difference.

“One thing that is particularly satisfying is giving these children toys like coloring books and crayons and small stuffed animals.”

Nour Hantouli updates the running list of donation needs.

Nour Hantouli, another lead volunteer, relays the importance of these small comforts.

“The toys are amazing because once the kids are able to relax and be occupied, then the mothers and the parents can relax and that allows us to reach them better,” says Nour. “They’re so worried about their children that until they get a chance to unwind and feel safe, then the parents are not going to relax.”

The work that many at Mariposas Collective once thought might be temporary is still continuing at a steady clip, and there are needs to be filled.

“This has been an extended initiative,” says Hunter. Right now, we’re dangerously low on non-perishables and fruit, and basically everything. This is a hard project just to keep sustaining. I’ve been getting a little nervous about it, but every time I get to this place of my nervousness, that we’re not going to be able to provide for these people, a reporter shows up and does a story. Some church shows up with a mass donation. It has been inspiring to say the least of the outpouring of support for this project and for these migrants coming through.”

How to Donate

Mariposas Collective accepts donations every evening at 6 pm at First Congo, located at 1000 South Cooper Street. Go to the rear of the building and look for the red door, the hostel entrance.

Items Needed

  • Toiletry bags of travel-sized toothpaste, deodorant, toothbrushes

  • Fruit

  • Non-perishables

  • Coats (all sizes)

  • Hats, gloves & scarves

  • Bottled water

  • Coloring books & crayons

Mariposas Collective is also accepting donations via PayPal under

How to Volunteer

To volunteer for brown bag assembly, sign up for a shift here.

Training Sessions for Bus Support are every Monday and Thursday at 6 pm at First Congo.

Read more about Mariposas Collective with the Commercial Appeal and the Daily Memphian and follow them on Facebook for updates.

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