The Greyhound bus station in San Antonio has become a resource center for immigrant families who show up with few belongings and little understanding of what's next for them.
Several times a day, families looking nervous and lost tentatively step off buses from McAllen and the Dilley and Karnes detention centers. But they aren't lost for long. Volunteers from the Interfaith Welcome Coalition are waiting. Standing among them is a nun, Sister Sharon Altendorf. She said they call them “the abuelitas,” which is Spanish for the grandmothers.
The IWC is a network of organizations and volunteers who've been reaching out to refugees at the bus station since a surge of young people traveling alone began in 2014. On this day, one of those volunteers is Janice Olsen, who motioned toward the gathering of families from all over Central America. A mom was braiding her little girl's hair. A teenager was braiding her mom's hair. Little ones ran under legs and over laps.
Olsen said there were about 16 families, totaling about 40 people.
Altendorf said the coalition tries to greet them all.
"We are welcoming the women and their children — men and children at this point, too — trying to orient them for their trip,” she said, “giving them a backpack, food for their trip, any kind of comfort about what's going to happen along the way."
Olsen said the most important thing they do is give each parent an itinerary with a map, then they explain the rest of their trip to them.
"A volunteer will sit down with each mother and go over her bus itinerary in great detail,” she said, “so she knows when her departures are, the layovers, how to navigate those layovers and what to look for when they exit and enter the busses."
The immigrants leave San Antonio and fan out across the country, but their obligations to Immigration and Customs Enforcement are far from over. A nonprofit organization of legal advocates for refugees and asylum seekers, RAICES, has someone at the bus station, too. Mariela Jasso, a post-release specialist at RAICES, sits down with the parents and prepares them for what they might face.
"We come here and provide a legal orientation for families that are being released from detention so that they know what the next steps are toward asylum,” Jasso said. “We provide a list of legal resources to help them and we also explain what their rights are to them."
IWC volunteer Janice Olsen says she spends long days at the bus station as an act of lived compassion.
"I think in such a very troubled, divisive world that we live in if I wasn't actually doing something to balance with that, I think I'd be a little crazy," she said.
Altendorf says they'll keep going to the bus station for as long as families need them.
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kbonniepetrie