The Rock of Salvation

The fourth in a series on the first day of the national military emergency; a day spent with the Refugee Health Alliance, a group of Californian volunteers; doctors, nurses, health professionals, and students who have treated over 3,000 refugees since November 2018, when the first migrant caravan arrived in Tijuana. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris

Our group of health care professionals crossed town in an Uber, and headed into a neighborhood of tiny cinderblock walls, metal gates, and small courtyards with one story makeshift homes of painted white plywood, brick, and concrete. 

The neighborhood sloped down the side of a giant bright green hill, topped with red and white cell phone towers; from the highest tower. a small red light blinked in a constant steady rhythm. 

The hill was called Sierra Colorado- the red mountain  Normally the hill is a giant red rock, but with the recent rain, it has bloomed into a bright vibrant green; a prominent landmark in Tijuana, its’ hunched dome towers above the river valley.

Our Southern Californian healthcare team arrived Rock of Salvation Evangelical Mission, advertised by a mural and sign painted on a grey wall separating the street from the shelter.  Black letters advertised the services provided in neat narrow calligraphy. “A temporary shelter, providing food and support for immigrants, clothing and personal hygiene– 24 hours a day.”  A painted scroll unfurled the words of the Book of Mathew; “You visited me hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me water to drink.  I was a stranger, and you comforted me.”

Entering through a black metal gate, we arrived in a narrow courtyard.  To the right of the mission’s main door was piles of plastic bottles and recycling, overflowing from blue, orange and black trash bins. 

To the left one could a crowded room full of bunk beds, with shoddy plywood doors and walls, cracked grey painted wood beams holding the structure upright.  The courtyard of cracked concrete was covered in three giant blue tarps strung together tied up and fastened with twine and metal wire connected by rusted nails to the narrow plywood shacks on either side.  In front, past a rusting car parked to one side, sat building that housed a kitchen.  On its right wall one could see a washer and dryer, Blankets sleeping bags jackets and backpacks hung from a clothesline.  Squinting one could almost see the shining silver interlaced wires of a chicken coup far in the back of the compound.

The Foundation of the Rock of Salvation

“About eighty people stay in this shelter, most are down in the city right now.  They come here in the evening to sleep,” Magdala explained.  A petite woman with a weathered face, streaks of grey in her hair pulled back, she crossed her arms, hugging herself as the wind whipped ruffling the blue tarps overhead.  Her husband, Salvador, the pastor of this refugee shelter, had lived in the Central Valley in California most of his life, between Stockton and Sacramento. 

“He was deported after working thirty-five years in the United States,” she told me.  My eyes connected with Salvador’s.  He smiled, spreading the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes link sunbeams on a bright warm day.  “He came back to Mexico in 2008.  His suffering made him want to help, so other migrants didn’t experience what he had to go through.  They abuse people who are strangers.  Immigrants especially, if they know you are alone, and not from here.  He had the heart to help people.  Se we opened our house to the poor and homeless.”

Salvador looked in his mid-60’s, his hair a speckled salt and pepper.  He sat crossed legged, wearing faded blue jeans and white sneakers.

He worked outside most of his life, building and repairing fencing in the San Juaquin valley, a rich agricultural region in California.  “After being deported, I set up this shelter, to help out those fleeing persecution in hope of finding work, and building a better life for themselves and their loved ones.” 

Honduran Teens

As we entered the courtyard, I was immediately surrounded by three Honduran teenagers; men – at least a dozen, probably more, stayed in that cramped room in bunk beds on the left of the entrance, past a clanging rusted door.

Sean was from the a small town near El Progreso and fled the gangs that control the area around there.  They were trying to kill him.  “Juan Orlando Hernandez,” the president of Honduras, “is covering up for the gangs that control the country,” the teen told me.  “They are one and the same.”  As we were talking, two other young boys ran up to the Sean.  The younger introduced himself as Joseph.  Then teens from Honduras had traveled together on the dangerous journey.  They walked, and at times hopped on the sides of cars and rode trains on up.  Joseph, seemed no more than 14 years old.  I looked down, he wore broken plastic sandals.  “You walked up from Central America with those on?”  I asked, pointing.

 “Yeah,” he smiled with a proud grin, shrugging his shoulder,. He quickly grabbing some item from the other kid, a youth with a nose ring piercing his septum, then ran to the bunk beds in the corner of the shelter.

A Makeshift Clinic

We lined up two rows of chairs that had been stacked along the wall, the seats still wet from last night’s rain, and moved two tables, one where Erica, the travel nurse, would conduct a basic health screening, and the other where Walter, the doctor, would diagnose and prescribe medicine.  Summer, the enthusiastic college freshman, sorted through the supplies to help Walter find what he needed, reaching her arm into a giant black duffel bag filled with medicine bottles for common colds and illnesses parsed out in Ziplock plastic bags.  She displayed the contents on a flat surface, and placed crayons, balloons , and brightly colored paper on a different table so children staying in the shelter could paint, draw, and play.  Bri approached each seated patient with a clipboard and pen, to ask a few basic questions about the nature of their illness; where they were from, their name, age, and the reason they wanted to see the doctor. 

Puebla, Mexico

“The Mexican INS sends people here to this shelter,” a man in his mid-forties told me as he sat waiting for the doctor.  “Some come from rural areas of Southern Mexico, others from Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa.”

A mother, her children running about the narrow courtyard now a makeshift doctors’ office and waiting area, said she arrived together with him and others packed in the same tractor trailer from Puebla, a state in southern Mexico.

“In Puebla, a t-shirt like this one,”  pointing to his green and white mesh soccer jersey, “costs 100 pesos,” he explained.  “Here it costs five or ten pesos.  Plus there are no jobs there, and the ones that exist pay next to nothing.”  After arriving from Puebla, the migration police placed them here at this shelter.

“What’s Puebla like?” I asked.

“It’s a mountainous state, ringed by volcanos, some of which are still active.   Hillsides covered by lush green forests, there is lots of rain all the time there.” A woman to my let replied, smiling as she gazed out imagining the contours of her home, all the while keeping an eye on the kids running haphazardly across the jagged concrete.  “So beautiful, but so poor.”


A short black man wearing a wool hat and jacket sat, smiling, sitting waiting for his turn to see the doctor.   He is from Ghana.  His family was in a land dispute, and he had to flee. “My father.  My father and our family farmed a piece of land there, for many years.  But a neighbor wanted it, to take our land.  So he came over, and shot my father, killed him before my eyes,” the man said, in perfectly pronounced King’s English, in a pained tone, looking up at me with wide clear eyes.  That was the day, in 2016, almost two and a half years ago, when everything changed.  “They shot at me too, but they missed, so I ran.”  He continued.  “I took off and fled.”  He described how they hacked off his brother’s hand; cut off his arm with a machete, he pointed, taking his palm and motioning to his forearm.   His other family members, cousins and siblings, scattered, fleeing their village to Ghana’s main cities; they were all separated.  “I had some of their numbers in my cell phone, but it was stolen some time ago,” he sighed.

He’d been to Colombia, Panama, and now Mexico, working for a while to save money to keep traveling, then moving on.  “We lived in a small rural community, back in Ghana, under tribal rule.  There is a court case against the man who killed my father, that the tribe’s elders will judge, but the process takes time; it wasn’t safe for me there; I had an opportunity, so I fled by sea.”

Besides the man who waited for the doctor, a few other West Africans congregated outside.  A tall muscular black man grabbed a soiled blue mattress and pleading for help from the Pastor to drive it to where he was now living, just a short trip down the street.  “Are you going to pay gas money?” The pastor asked teasing, but stern. “Give me 100 pesos.”

“How about 20?” The West African replied.  The haggled in good humor, and came up with a figure that worked for both.

He worked at a local factory, making hubcaps for cars.  He’s happy in Tijuana.  Mexico is his home now.  He has a Mexican wife, holding up his left hand to show the shiny yellow ring on his index finger.  “I’m happy here,” he beamed.  He’d been here about a year, and planned to work at least another year at least, to save enough money, to visit his family in Africa.  “One day I’ll return,” he smiled, proud of his job and the family he was building here.  “But not today.”’

Our Help Matters, But It Is Never Enough

A brown haired dog lay asleep on the cracked concrete floor, next to a muddy puddle from last night’s rain.  People walked to and fro, back and forth.  A group of women gathered to sort, fold and distribute a huge pile of clothes that was brought in and dumped on a table, donations for the refugees and the poor in the neighborhood.

Another Ghanan stopped me to ask how to take the medicine the Doctor had given him.  He showed me the bottle.  It was a multivitamin, for prescribed for malnutrition.  “Take one a day, it will help keep you strong and prevent you from getting sick,” I said.  He thanked me and kept walking.

An older man with missing teeth said he had a cold.  I could see spots of coagulated white phlegm in his mouth covering his tongue and the roof of his mouth when he opened his mouth to speak, and smile.  He was happy to see the doctor, and get some needed anti-biotics.

A man from Chiapas, a short indigenous Mayan walked in from the street, shaking and shuddering, with a white fungus or boils on his hands.  He stopped me as I sat down briefly.  “I need vitamins, medicine for my nerves,” he pleaded. 

I pointed to the line.  But h was too late.  “We aren’t accepting more patients.” Bri explained, apologizing politely.  “But we’ll be back,” she looked at him, to transmit a bit of compassion, and hope.  

“Ok, thank you,” the man mumbled, disappointed.  He walked towards the bunk beds, to sit down on one of the single mattresses covered by thin blankets.

A gust of wind passed by, and a cloud of tiny bed bugs or fleas jumped up off the dog laying on the ground, bouncing off my face before heading towards the crowded dormitory’s open door.

Out of the corner of my eye , I saw a police officer poke his head in, to see what we were doing.   He took a look, then quickly left.  The healthcare workers didn’t pay any mind.  They were focused on their tasks, concentrating to listen, diagnose, and treat each patient the best they could.

Love Amidst the Chaos

Children walked back and forth running, crowding around the table where Summer had placed crayons, colored paper, markers, and balloons.  The kids drew pictures, cards adorned with hearts and rainbows, drawings to tell their fathers and mothers they loved them.  They folded over the paper, into love letters and cards for their parents.  One boy folded his drawing into a big blue paper airplane.  They’d run up to their mothers, busy sorting clothes on that table, handing them the painted cards.

A little girl with brown pigtails wandered about excitedly, alternatively sucking a yellow balloon and a toothbrush still covered in a plastic wrapping.  She stomped around wearing a matching pink and black striped sweatpants and hoodie, and bright pink rain boots.

A young boy, around four or five entered into the courtyard skipping and running.  He had a set of fake plastic vampire teeth in his mouth, a sickly yellow color.  He jumped kicking up into the air as if to rattle the cold heart of some imaginary monster, to lash out at some invisible hand that had displaced his family, propelling them north fleeing for their lives, to land in this overcrowded shelter, in a precarious legal limbo, awaiting asylum on the south side of the Wall.

A balloon popped with a loud bang, startling one of the mothers.  A pink and white balloon floated away, propelled across the concrete courtyard by some wind, heading out the door and down the street.  A group of kids, including the boy with vampire teeth, dashed off to grab it before it floated away by on the currents of air.

A Reason to Go On

It was time to leave; our cab arrived to take us to the next shelter, just as Eddie, a Honduran opposition party activist who fled government death squads, announced food was ready.  We said our goodbyes as the men and women began passing around bowls of thin brown bean soup.

As we rode off, Dr. Walter explained that he had seen a lot of patients with colds and hypertension, chronic pain, and headaches.  “A lot of back pain, and other ergonomic injuries, especially the women.”  They break their backs all day working in the fields and factories, then return to housework and to care for children and husbands, pulling a double shift each day and night.

“Most of those staying at the shelter were malnourished,” Walter explained, “Their diet left them susceptible to colds and communicable diseases.”   Despite the vermin infestation, poor diet, and crowded living conditions, we still accomplished something; diagnosing conditions, distributing medicine, and showing we cared.

Summer was ecstatic—and energized.  She loved the cute kids; how they smiled so excited to have pencils and crayons.  She showed some how to use a toothbrush.  “I also passed out candy, a bubblegum flavor, and one put it on her toothbrush—I had to tell her not to do that!  They drew trees, flowers, and butterflies.  Scrawled cards to their mothers and fathers saying Happy Day, I Love You, and Live in Peace.  So Cute!” Summer beamed, smiling from ear to ear. 

It seemed that helping other find joy made her happy too.  Maybe that’s what motivated that San Diego college freshman; it gave her reason to volunteer weekends and study hard during the week towards a degree in global health.  A reason to be.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.