One tender moment between a young migrant girl and comedians volunteering at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen lingers in the thoughts of one television producer while sitting in the comfort of his home in Brooklyn, New York.
Colin Jakubczyk joined a group mostly composed of people who devote their lives to making people laugh, spent 10 days in the Rio Grande Valley — a region under a national spotlight because of intense debate over President Donald Trump’s polarizing immigration policies.
“And they just made so, so many kids laugh. I saw one pair of us that, after braiding a girl’s hair, showed a video on their phone of a motorcycle and proceeded to steer her braids like handlebars as she giggled endlessly,” Jakubczk said. “One of the things that worries me the most about this crisis is how much of a permanent psychological effect it is going to have on the children that are forced to endure it.
“Having a moment of laughter after such trauma was deeply needed and appreciated by these kids.”
They came from New York City, Los Angeles, Utah and Atlanta to McAllen over a 10-day period this month after raising $15,000 used to support the respite center and Team Brownsville.
Ana Bretón, a digital producer on the late night television show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, said she has visited McAllen two previous times. When the heart-wrenching June 24 photos of 25-year-old Óscar Alberto Martínez and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, showed their lifeless bodies face down in the Rio Grande in Matamoros, her friends began messaging her on Facebook asking how they could help out on the border.
“So, I took all these messages and put on Facebook that if I organize a border trip to help, who wants to come? And everybody started commenting,” she said.
Not only did the trip come to fruition, the group also raised thousands of dollars.
“We also did a fundraiser that reached $15,000 from family and friends,” Bretón said. “So we were able to use that money to buy food, supplies, clothing, anything the center needed.”
The group spent the majority of their time at the respite center helping process people released by Border Patrol.
However, because of a traditional downturn in illegal entries during the summer and the impact of the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico, the respite center received fewer people during their trip as opposed to the thousands released into McAllen, Brownsville and Harlingen during the spring months.
“So we tried to be helpful and we made repairs at the respite center,” Bretón said.
On the second to last day of their trip, a Saturday, the respite center actually closed its doors.
“So on Sunday we made the trek to the (Gateway International Bridge) and met up with Team Brownsville and we helped them give out dinner, and it’s a pretty chaotic but touching scene,” Bretón said. “You are surrounded by 500 people who are living in tents on the floor and they line up to get food.”
After the whirlwind trip, the group all departed from McAllen to Fort Worth on the same plane before the volunteers went their separate ways on connecting flights.
“I think everybody was pretty devastated,” she said of the flight. “I myself bawled the whole way back. I think it just hits you on the way back. It was really overwhelming.”
THE AMERICAN WAY
Jakubczyk, a freelance producer and sketch comedy video writer and director, said he joined the volunteer trip because he felt removed from the humanitarian crisis at the border and wanted to see the situation first hand and help people directly.
“What stuck out to me the most was how much the asylum seekers were just normal, decent people who wanted a chance more than they wanted charity,” Jakubczyk said via email from Brooklyn, New York. “Many of the men I gave fresh shirts to in the respite center offered me the shirts off their backs in exchange, just so it would feel like a fair trade.”
Then there was a man who was a mechanic by trade who explained to Jakubczyk what he needed to fix a large fan that had fallen over at the center.
“Even at the bridge camp in Matamoros, when desperate parents asked me for supplies I didn’t have, they understood and took it in stride,” Jakubczyk said. “Despite everything they have gone through they never lost reason, they never lost dignity, they never lost self-respect.”
But one thing the freelance producer and director also realized was that with so many heartbreaking moments that are emotionally difficult to process, their role as comedians was critical to staying positive.
“Having so many talented comedians on the trip was critical for this — they could make other people feel better by making them laugh, and make themselves feel better by knowing they had made others laugh.”
There were also practical skills comedians use in their work that assisted the group in their volunteer efforts.
“In addition to their ability to keep morale high, the comedians made great use of their abilities to read a room and think on their feet,” Jakubczk said. “I felt that they always had a keen sense of what the mood in any large group was, and what that meant people needed the most. They could always tell which child needed cheering up, and which adult needed help that they didn’t want to ask for.”
Like Bretón, though, once it was all said and done, the reality of the trip set in for Jakubczk.
“It didn’t feel good to come home,” Jakubczk said. “There was so much work that I felt I still could’ve done there, and I think it was hard for everyone to grapple with the indefinite nature of the crisis.”
But there was something else, and it was more subtle than the tired faces at the respite center or in the camp in Matamoros. There was something so American in that moment, down on the border, that transcends the talking heads and social media fights so prevalent when it comes to immigration.
“I don’t think every nun there and every retired volunteer who had traveled from other states necessarily shared the same political opinions about the issue that we have, but they saw that people were hungry so they fed them,” Jakubczk said. “They saw that people needed shoes so they gave out shoes. Nobody looked beyond that in the moment. It felt so non-political, and so American.”