As I sat in a room of friends, acquaintances, and fellow adult-education learners, we listened to a rabbi speak of his recent visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. The sadness loomed and our hearts ached for those who are suffering, those far from the homes they know, and ones separated from family members.
I can tell you that all in the room were good people, people who cared and had compassion. They were upset by the actions of our government officials, as the interpretation of immigration laws became the subject of our evening. We heard about the lack of supplies, the homelessness, the fear so many faced, the poverty, and more happening “at the borders.”
And I wanted to tell them of my experiences. I did not.
I didn’t know if it would have fit into the evening’s topic nor did I know how to integrate my past into this point: Americans are in need, right here!
I wanted to ask them to help those in our local area, to begin at home … but I did not.
I wanted to tell my fellow students, my friends — go to your nearest shelter or food pantry, drive around Newark, look on the sidewalks of New York City, for God’s sake. Look! But I did not tell them that.
Time can be deceiving. Days pass so slowly, then years fly by. I sit here sharing what I have been through, when I can still remember praying to stay alive. The 1990s was not that long ago, or so it seems, because as a trauma survivor, every detail is etched within me forever. I share my story so my past won’t become someone else’s future.
In an effort to survive the abuse I endured, I fled my home. No money. No family to help me. Neighbors said they were too afraid to offer me a place to stay. I had no bank account. No credit cards. But I did have a car.
I stayed in a domestic violence shelter for a few days. Sleeping on a blue canvas cot and living on Entenmann’s Blackout cake, orange juice, and coffee.
Then I returned home, and after a while, I left again. I fled. I went to a homeless shelter, which proved so awful that I decided to live in my car for a week instead. I learned to wash up in a local hotel bathroom (Arrowwood Hotel, thank you). I guess when you drive up in a new Mercedes, wearing Prada and Gucci, no one expects you to be mooching off the hotel services.
I had a little money to purchase bananas and Zone bars. I would not waste money on bottled water, and filled up an empty water bottle in the lobby’s bathroom sink. Again I went back to the domestic violence shelter, gaining some support to change my life. Long story short, I survived. And proceeded to thrive.
I met some wonderful people along the way. I can go on and on about my experiences, but that isn’t what matters most here. What does is what I DID with my experiences.
To whomever coined the phrase “pay it forward,” I like to refer to it as “survivor gives back.” In the course of transforming my life and reinventing myself, I changed my narrative. In the years following my no-home-base experiences, I saw so much.
Socks. I have a thing for them. Never enough of them. And I give them to people as gifts and donations. No one ever asked me why but it’s because shelters never have enough for their clients.
After fleeing a Westchester, N.Y., suburb, moving to New Jersey, and doing quite a bit of healing, I started volunteering at shelters and food pantries. We can all do something, no matter how small, to repair our world.
I will never forget an experience I had four years ago at the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges. I addressed a repeat client on the baked goods line by his name and saved him his favorite dessert, a blueberry crumb danish from Supreme Bakery in West Orange. He looked at me and fumbled on his thank you as a tear snuck out of his eye. I knew. I knew how important it was to have a name, be treated with respect, and have someone remember you. And I told him that I was once on his side of the counter. We talked. I told him my story. It was quite a surprise for him to say the least.
My life experience has taught me what matters most. And I know that the circumstances affecting immigrants at the borders are also visible in the everyday struggles of so many American citizens. For example, that time I handed a 6-year-old boy at a shelter a toothbrush only to see his eyes light up. He was so excited to have one of his own. He told me he had shared a toothbrush with his four brothers and sisters.
At the rabbi’s talk I listened to good people worry that supplies are needed at the border. I wanted to shout that they are needed here. Here!
As a survivor of domestic violence, I usually avoid confrontation of all sorts. However, contrary to that behavior, I’m also learning to stand up and speak out. I didn’t say anything at the lecture so I’m writing it now. Baby steps matter.
We all come from a place of our past. My point of view is that we need to fix and help what is wrong in our country first. I know many people will disagree with me, but remember: I come from what I saw, from what I know, and what I have witnessed.
I wish I would have told the friends who said they wanted to send supplies to the border to take a ride with me and see who needs those supplies not far from where we live. Not far from where we sat in Livingston … talking about getting clothing to immigrants at the detention centers, getting toys to those children.
Look WITHIN our borders.
I wanted to tell them that they can do something. Everyone can do something.
Julie Levine is an artist who lives in Roseland. She’s also a pre-school teacher at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, where she is a member.