Delen el dinero directamente. Ellos saben lo que necesitan hacer.
—Salvadoran Civil War refugee
When we were part of the organizing for Break Down Borders 5K,1 an annual event beginning in 2014 that drew connections between Palestine and the United States at the San Diego///Tijuana2 border, we were able to create a deep and intimate network of relations that crossed community, geographic, and border contexts. Far from being just a 5K run/walk, this event also functioned as an act of protest or resistance to the everyday realities of border, colonial, carceral, and other structural violences. One of our goals as organizers was to create an accompanying program that would foster exchange and connection between each of the participants and highlight each of their various struggles. One of the most inspirational and concrete examples of what a world without borders could look like was the moment when recently resettled Syrian refugees and Yaqui political organizers were able to talk to each other, learn from each other, and invite each other to their respective struggles with the help of our translation—Arabic to English to Spanish and back again. A Yaqui leader spoke about water struggles and political organizing on Yaqui territories in the border region of Mexicali-Calexico,3 while the Syrian elders shared their stories of coming from farming, land-based communities. Land and water struggles from both geographies connected them, and us, across language.
As part of the run, we invited both communities to participate and speak. While also being able to engage the broader community present at the 5K, more importantly, they found each other through the stories they were telling. Without knowing much about each other’s contexts aside from what was being shared in the moment, they began attempting to communicate in order to express their solidarities and share the resonances of the lived experiences that each person was describing. In this organic moment, organizers facilitated a trilingual back-and-forth of grassroots, experiential knowledge and a display of the ways in which transnational solidarities and joint struggles can surface in their own ways at any given moment. All that was needed were the conditions to meet—the invitation to be present with us at the fifth annual Break Down Borders 5K—but the otherwise geographically distant yet politically connected bonds were already present. These bonds continue to grow, develop, and evolve in the undercommons.4
As activist descendants of immigrants from the Palestinian and Central American diasporas, we have organized in joint struggle to bring together global analyses of border regimes while directly serving the most vulnerable and newly displaced communities where we have resided—specifically, on Kumeyaay territories, or the San Diego///Tijuana border region. This site has one of the largest resettled refugee populations in the United States5 and has enabled us to create new organizations, spaces, and coalitions for grassroots organizing. In this work, we are informed by our past organizing experiences in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Italy, and throughout California. As we grow together in our organizing praxis, we find ourselves building a feminist praxis that Angela Y. Davis has theorized when she asks us to imagine “a woman of color formation [that] might decide to work around immigration issues. This political commitment is not based on the specific histories of racialized communities or its constituent members, but rather constructs an agenda agreed upon by all who are a part of it. In my opinion, the most exciting potential of women of color formations resides in the possibility of politicizing this identity—basing the identity on politics rather than the politics on identity.”6 We are learning from each other’s geographic and transhistorical specificities of border regimes and displacement, while organizing to serve new refugee communities as they arrive in the United States and Europe today.
Through our positionalities as children of displaced communities, committed grassroots organizers, and educators in the academic-industrial complex, we find our specific vantage points in joint-struggle organizing as important entryways into more disciplined and accountable methodologies, analyses, and critiques of solidarity organizing in border contexts and regions. While we do not want to perpetuate the gatekeeping of on-the-ground work with refugees who need immediate services and relief, we do, however, want to speak to various dynamics that often result in more damage than good. No organizer, activist, or academic is immune to perpetuating violent dynamics and unethical relations with migrants and refugees who are crossing borders every day—including ourselves, as we write our reflections based on our different histories of organizing on the ground. We view “on-the-ground” work as being involved, potentially in an organization or as an individual, in collective work; going to meetings; and actively facilitating logistics, communication, and service provisions that prioritize vulnerable communities with various needs over a long period of time. While there are occasional interruptions to the continuity of our engagements, we always strive to remain committed to the work and to centering vulnerable communities and their known/expressed needs.
We recognize that institutions, bureaucracies, funding streams, and different political strategies that intend on helping migrants in transit and refugees in spatial border limbos all have their possibilities and faults. In the cracks of state infrastructures that have always failed our refugee communities, there lie other possibilities to create alternative structures that center the autonomy and dignity of migrant goals, desires, and needs. To start building these alternatives, we must see that the act of crossing borders, whether environmentally, economically, or politically motivated, is a rebellious declaration that is grounded in the desire for dignified life. Following the Zapatistas’ call to organize and create a world in “rebellious dignity,” la dignidad rebelde,7 we therefore commit to co-conspire in building the foundations and conditions that allow for all those who dream of a new world to enact it. As the Zapatistas continue to inspire us through their Seven Principles8 and newly expanded territories and caracoles,9 we recognize that the abolition of border industrial complexes is possible through working in autonomous relations, places, and spaces in joint struggle. Thus, we reflect on our coming together as comrades from our differing geopolitical, diasporic contexts and commit to each other in joint struggle to create the next world where local, communal, and land-based systems of care and exchange facilitate connection among all of us—beyond border regimes.
In the context of joint-struggle solidarity organizing at the border(s), there will always be contradictions between the work that we do and the politics that we believe in because we must engage oppressive structures even as we fight to dismantle them (currency, using passports to cross borders, etc.). We’re not immune to reproducing unjust power dynamics, but there are also ways to navigate them with more discipline, principle, and accountability to on-the-ground communities. Additionally, simply acknowledging the engagement of these contradictions as problematic is not enough of a reason to decisively not act. Not acting is not an option. As stated by Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”10 Inaction is a choice; it is neither a performance of “neutrality” nor an “apolitical” stance. It is rather complacency with and reinforcement of the system that oppresses. Therefore, we urge our readers to reflect on their own inaction, as well as their actions, and ask, “What are you doing to respect and valorize the desires and goals of people who are crossing borders right now?”
In this piece, we revisit moments that elucidate power dynamics that hinder the possibilities for refugee autonomy and rebellious dignity—namely, the savior complex and parachute activism—where racialized technologies of displacement dialogically create, and are created by, borders and refugee encampments. In addition, we also problematize humanitarian aid service work that lacks critical reflexive praxis. We do this by unpacking our respective experiences of organizing through the Palestinian Youth Movement that serves Syrian refugees in San Diego and Greece, and the San Diego Migrant and Refugee Solidarity Coalition that served as a facilitative infrastructure to support the Central American caravans of 2018–19. We share our individual analyses without representing the collectives and their analyses—an important distinction when we are part of organizations yet are not writing this article on behalf of them. Our reflexive praxis, and thinking through what we have learned and continue to learn as organizers, allows us to describe, in what follows, specific methods for combating hierarchical organizing tendencies as we move toward a practice that helps amplify migrant and refugee autonomy and rebellious dignity—a politics of accompaniment.11 We move toward forming a transcommunity and transnational borderland praxis of acompañar obedeciendo,12 where we can accompany and serve autonomous refugee and migrant journeys based on their guidelines, desires, and agencies.
A Method of Reflexivity
This piece is our reflection of our own movement work. We also include analyses, testimonies, and experiential knowledges based on our commitment and accountability to vulnerable populations, including the analyses of other organizers who have put themselves in danger while doing this work. However, we also refuse to expose compromising details in the sections that follow because we will not jeopardize refugee and organizer livelihood, consent, or possibilities of survival by making visible some dangerous work of cross-border organizing for our own academic gain. We ground our accountability in those places and people. Making these negotiations transparent is part of what Richa Nagar calls “radical vulnerability.” She states, “The responsibility and labor of telling stories involves a series of delicate negotiations through which one must underscore the impossibility of ever accessing ‘lived experiences’ and where one’s engagements with who is speaking, who is referenced, and who is listening can become legible only when contextualized within the multiple and shifting social relations in which they are embedded (Shank and Nagar 2013, 106). Only then can one hope to represent structures of violence without reducing them to accessible narratives that reenact the very violence that ‘we’ seek to confront.”13 In this vein, we also attempt to access our own fractured memories, traumas, lived experiences, and political formations to form a joint analysis across borders, regions, and diasporas. We do this by analyzing memories of moments, interviews, and dynamics among solidarity organizers and refugees, and we name these as “archives” throughout this piece. Taking inspiration from Fatima El-Tayeb’s work on the open activist archive,14 we hope to create a multitude of collective archives that reflect a seedbed of analyses from “below and to the left.”15
This piece can be interpreted as an interdisciplinary autoethnography grounded in community and grassroots organizing, but it can also be called our manifesto, our journal, our thoughts, our traumas, our ongoing questions, or our reflections. We hope that writing—aimed at both academic and nonacademic audiences—can support movement organizing with reflection and action processes. We hope our analysis engages other organizers who may have similar reflections or who may want to expand and add on to this piece. Simultaneously, we hope it helps other academics who are committed to on-the-ground politics and movement organizing to work through the tensions and power dynamics between communities in struggle and the academic-industrial complex. We engage this knowing that there are others in the academy, including in this special issue, who foster a similar approach in their organizing and academic work, and we hope to contribute to broadening this kind of disciplined and accountable methodology.16 We aim to work within slow, enduring, sustainable, and collective movement infrastructures that produce transformative change as opposed to declarative and performative radicalisms that are not necessarily rooted in this work. We’re in it for the long haul.
If people continue to write about or organize around border movements only with people who speak their same language (e.g., people who understand the academic or activist lingo), then there will be missed connections with those who can contribute their own seeds to the struggle. It is a praxis of vulnerability, openness, and accountability that matters most in building larger bases of collective organizing. This praxis requires an engagement with communities on the ground and linking them with one another if they are not doing so already—construir y no destruir, to build and not destroy, as the Zapatistas teach us to do. As diasporic organizers from different contexts, our vantage points allow us to be in community together, organize together, and bring our families, networks, and homelands into conversation with one another—not just in an abstract sense but physically, in a living room, community center, or park.
Transnational liberation and transcommunity organizing are not abstract or imaginative elsewheres that have yet to exist—they are already happening now and have been happening for a long time. Our own connections to each other require work, risk, and the vulnerability to try, fail, and try again. Part of that work entails building larger connections outside of ourselves, with refugee comrades who have already shared, organized, and built networks and collectives of resistance across generations. We hope that our reflections in this piece can help expand the possibilities for long-term, transnational organizing that is critically and committedly in support of refugee and migrant communities.
Institutionalized Aid: Jennifer’s Organizational Practices Archive
The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), an organization I have been a part of and held various leadership positions in for over a decade, created a project to combat refugee relief or service work, voluntourism, and damage-centered solidarity that perpetuated racist and orientalist tropes.17 The notion of damage-centered solidarity draws from Eve Tuck’s “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities” and Harsha Walia’s “grassroots theory” to frame the ways in which research and solidarity encounters could do better at centering those more affected and vulnerable.18 Additionally, this concept is imagined in response to the experience of receiving Palestine solidarity from peoples who center themselves in the act, further diminishing the voices and experiences of those with whom they claim to be in solidarity. PYM developed a program called “SWANAconnect Dignity, Survival, and Community for Refugees: A Volunteer Service Project in Greece”19 after a member ended up volunteering in Greece in 2016 when many new arrivals were making their way to the islands. This member’s experience gave them a lot to think about in terms of the importance and necessity of the work, as well as a more critical perspective about how this work was being done and who was doing it. This moment was riddled with Western individuals, travel bloggers, and others who decided, without any background knowledge or language skills, to go volunteer on the Greek islands such as Lesvos, where refugees were arriving and being hosted in camps for two or more weeks at a time. The member began to reflect on the need to shift the ways in which service and solidarity existed in the current organized and unorganized emergency response and relief networks in Greece. Through these observations and through their connections with refugees, coupled with praxis-based critique from their own organizing experiences, this member spearheaded the establishment of the SWANAconnect program through PYM and with other community members from the SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) region who had also been to Greece. We described the project, in part, as follows:
PYM has recruited its own members as well as other members of the South-West Asian and North African Community in the U.S. to offer translation and interpretation services to our partner organizations in Athens and in the Greek islands of Lesvos and Chios. Our volunteers primarily work as translators and cultural interlocutors between the refugees and lawyers, humanitarian aid workers and the Greek authorities. The particular role our volunteers have assumed is critical for refugees who are survivors of the violence of war, siege, starvation, displacement and the precarious position of being amidst a global refugee crisis that has resulted in 59 million displaced people worldwide. Our volunteers offer linguistically accessible, culturally competent, relevant and sensitive services for Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Kurdish, Egyptian, Moroccan and other refugees from the SWANA Region in Athens, Chios, and Lesvos.20
The project intentionally offers a different framing for volunteers entering the Greek service space and ensures that each volunteer is prepared for service by developing a set of principles and mandatory pretravel trainings. PYM developed four primary frameworks for this work: (1) the refugee dimension; (2) the transnational dimension; (3) the Arab/SWANA regional dimension; and (4) the rights-based approach, international law, and the international nonprofit industrial complex.21 Each of these frameworks has had a long trajectory of collective development in PYM in various ways. Both the refugee and transnational dimensions of PYM were inscribed in its founding as an organization that emerged as an attempt to (re)build a preexisting transnational struggle. PYM sought to center the refugee right of return, as the vast majority of the Palestinian population consists of refugees, through a new generation with a unique set of challenges. The Arab regional dimension was taken up at the dawn of the 2011 Arab Uprisings in order to account for the ways both Palestinian-ness and Zionism intersect with larger regional struggles and to grapple with the urgencies of other contexts that are connected to but not necessarily centered on the Palestinian case. Lastly, the rights-based approach in PYM was, from very early on in the organization’s formation, intentionally articulated as a tool to challenge the notion of the achievement of rights, specifically from rights-granting institutions like the United Nations or the state itself, as the path to liberation in the post-Oslo political vacuum. This framework reflects the notion that liberation cannot be granted by other powers, but rather must be determined and assumed through the struggles of those unjustly oppressed. In short, these frameworks mobilize Palestinian transnational subjectivities and politics to attend to very real and material needs, without the false notion that this kind of labor and these institutions can save vulnerable populations.
The longevity of Palestinian refugee subjectivity and the different ways we have been aided through the decades have provided experiential frameworks for how to better serve refugees based on our own intergenerational, lived experiences. As a transnational movement, the PYM centers ontological and epistemological pluralities on a transnational scale, attending to the various and drastically different subjectivities that our global communities face as generations removed from our homeland and in different contexts of exile. Attending to these ontological and epistemological pluralities transnationally shapes a more cohesive narrative and understanding of struggle, beyond the predominantly US-based experiential knowledges of our members. Through our regional lens, developed particularly after the emergence of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, a moment that has since significantly increased the need for refugee services, we highlight the interconnectedness of various nations within the region and their co-constitutive relationships to both oppression and liberation. Lastly, we have had a long-standing critique of the ways aid work reproduces pathologizing victim narratives, thrives off of the optics of pain, and feeds an entire industry that serves more as a Band-Aid.22 This kind of aid work at times does not even attend to the most pressing wounds and does not produce sustainable change. Through the framework and facilitation of collective process as our organizational methodology for formulating and dialectically developing our principles and politics, we utilize each of these internally developed frameworks to support more accountable and disciplined service work. We also use them as an overall framework to understand how we can participate in or create initiatives that speak to the very material needs of our communities without perpetuating harm or deviating from our political aspirations of liberation. By engaging in much-needed service work in a way that is more politicized and aware, this method makes for more meaningful experiences and more disciplined and refugee-centered solidarity, as opposed to damage-centered solidarity.
Many Western organizations and individuals in Greece that host volunteers and bring them to do relief work do not have culturally sensitive or refugee-centered practices. In my experiences and the experiences of those I have spoken to, volunteers are often European women coming with European NGOs. These European women, due to incompetence or an overt disregard for power differences, arrive in Greece with no “cultural competency” or any other kind of training around differences in cultural practices, including differing racial, gendered, and classed dynamics.23 Instead, they are there in hopes of fulfilling voluntourist24 desires—desires that can produce new sets of sexualized relations between refugee men and European women specifically that are established through liberal European notions of sexuality. These cultural disconnects and overt westernizing practices have the power to produce long-term effects by (re)producing feelings of abandonment and loss of loved ones, adding new dimensions of trauma for refugee communities.
We see Eurocentric and white supremacist logics of saviorism and conquest playing out in this racialized and classed dynamic not only in an individual sense but also in a way that serves the institutional power of EU (and US/Canadian) NGOs, funding, and relief circuits. Humanitarian missions operate with a mindset of superiority,25 and one of these “civilizing” tactics involves the use of sexual relations to impose the concept of sexual freedom on refugees. These dynamics demonstrate how normalized racism is to liberal multiculturalism.26 As Neda Atanasoski notes, in seeing “multiculturalism as a global ideal through which the sanctity of human diversity is declared, humanitarian projects have subsumed and supplanted the civilizing and humanizing aspirations of European racial imperialism.”27 As such, European racial imperialism (by way of gendered and sexual cultural practices) gets reproduced through the ways in which liberal notions of sexuality intersect with orientalist logics as a form of civilizing.
The presence of Zionist Israeli organizations in Greece adds another layer of political complexity. Most notably, IsraAID,28 a state-sponsored organization that engages in humanitarian relief activities globally, and particularly for Syrian refugees and others from the region in their Greek headquarters where they focus primarily on sending Arabic-speaking relief teams,29 serves to engineer a particular narrative that distances Zionism from its own refugee-producing practices. For example, consider their tweet on October 1, 2020, in which they shared an article titled “IsraAid—fixing the world, one disaster at a time” while highlighting a quote from a Syrian applauding the work of IsraAID.30 This humanitarian relief work helps create a Zionist, Israeli settler narrative of purity and saviorism, including, and especially, for those from the very region impacted by their colonial regime. It is one of several attempts by the Zionist state to absolve themselves of their own relationship to the production of refugees; with over seventy-two years of continued displacement, Palestinian refugees are the largest and longest-lasting refugee population in the world. These practices reinforce liberal multicultural principles of aid and humanitarianism in order to further normalize Zionism among Arab and Muslim populations and serve their public image, while Israel continues to cause humanitarian crises and bar aid from being delivered to those they harm. This is an excellent example of some of the most damaging long-term impacts of aid and humanitarianism. It exists as a facade or cover-up for other oppressions. Predictably, this Zionist strategy has had a mixed reception. On the one hand, some refugees refuse to work with Zionist aid organizations once they become aware of their connections to Zionism, while other refugees are grateful for aid no matter the source. This aid strategy and maximizing on its positive reception reinforces the narrative that Israel has no issues with other nationalities in the region and that it’s only the Palestinians and other “terrorist” Arabs who are unable to accept the Zionist presence.
Syrian Refugees at US///Mexico Border(s): Jennifer’s Community Engagement Archives
The PYM chapter in San Diego got word that Syrian refugees would begin to be resettled in greater numbers during the summer of 2016, with an influx of about two thousand individuals (several hundred families) between May and September of that year. There would be another large wave by the end of the year. We decided to begin grassroots planning efforts to support this new influx in early 2016 and began reaching out to other Arab youth who would be interested in supporting this work. We specifically contacted those who had language skills, cultural groundings, and politically thoughtful orientations to refugee life and potential traumas refugees faced. We began organizing under the name Arab Youth Collective (AYC), in an effort to grow a collective of Arab youth in San Diego and build stronger relationships with existing Syrian immigrant communities and aid networks. Aside from the four main nonprofit resettlement agencies in San Diego—the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Charities, Alliance for African Assistance, and Jewish Family Service—we encountered a few organizations comprising Syrian diasporic communities of working/middle- to upper-class backgrounds. Among them was the Syrian American Council (SAC), a wing of the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is a politically moderate and Western-pandering opposition organization. The other organization we met was the Syrian Community Network (SCN). This organization was made up of Syrians mostly from middle/upper- to upper-class backgrounds residing in greater San Diego County.
While SAC mobilized all approaches to opposing the Syrian regime, even lobbying for US intervention in Syria—an approach of desperation and defeat that faced significant criticism from other Arab organizations, including the AYC—the SNC was a self-proclaimed “apolitical” organization that just wanted to help poor victims in need. From the politics of apolitics to the urgency of countering regime repression by any means, these Syrian community responses reflected various currents in the global political landscape of the Syrian uprising. We ended up in community meetings with both organizations to make sure that we could centralize our efforts in order to not duplicate work and to assess what the resettlement agencies were not covering. One of the challenges we faced was having limited start-up funds for housing, furnishing, and rent until refugees could get on state-funded subsidies because of extensive paperwork processing times and increasingly reduced resettlement budgets from the agencies. In one meeting led by SAC, we discussed community furniture donations for refugee families. One of the SAC members shared an experience in which a Syrian refugee family refused an old couch and said it had cockroaches in it. The SAC member proceeded to say that he saw the couch and it wasn’t that bad; he complained that the refugees were being picky and exclaimed that they should just take whatever they can get. The AYC members in attendance felt the need to intervene in this discussion. The SAC was framing the conversation around the “gift” of charity to people of lesser value, as opposed to supporting our equal Syrian brothers and sisters whose journeys were more challenging in this particular moment. The charity paradigm reflects an attitude of superiority that is patronizing toward refugees and undermines their agency to determine their path in refuge and in creating a new life of dignity.31 This dismissal of the refugee right to dignity reflects the common dynamics and attitudes of global relief and humanitarian efforts. Even in subtle ways, the belief that the person serving is of a higher status than those being served manifests materially and prohibits genuine relationship and trust building for the creation of community. The creation of community empowerment and community sustainability was a central goal of the Arab Youth Collective, and we quickly realized that this was not a shared framework for SAC or SCN. Their goal was to do charity because they felt it was the right thing to do for people who came from the same place as them; however, their “pity-politics” approach only reinforced the social hierarchy that produced the economic and political challenges in Syria that resulted in this moment of refuge and their immigration timelines to the United States.
In another conversation with these same organizations, a discussion ensued about the terminology that we use to define refugees. A SAC member proposed that using the term immigrant was a nicer way of describing them than refugee, and that was assumed to be a universally agreed-upon truth. However, we refused to let this assumption go unchallenged. As youth coming from Palestinian refugee communities, we refused to mislabel this condition or undermine the significance of being a refugee. We explained that the term refugee was a more politicized term that invoked the Syrian regime’s responsibility for this condition, and doing so could also raise consciousness among the community to sustain their ties to their homeland. The fact that refugee is a more politicized term was part of SAC’s reasoning against its use, even though they were intent on implicating the Syrian regime in displacement, destruction, and more. As this back-and-forth about terminology developed, there was also an undertone of anti-Palestinian sentiment. Syrians have come to understand refugeehood through the Palestinian experience, wherein Palestinians in Syria mostly live in refugee camps, are mostly poor, and are often scapegoated as thugs and troublemakers. Additionally, because of the longevity of Palestinian refugeehood, there might have also been a correlation of the term refugee with the notion of seemingly never being able to return to one’s homeland. These ideas reflect a sense of inter-Arab racism and the desire to depoliticize the Syrian refugee condition. The rejection of the label of refugee—as a status to be avoided, let alone self-proclaimed—reinforces an assumed set of social hierarchies that mirror those powers that produce refugee subjectivity in the first place. As such, both the disavowal of refugee agency and the rejection of the term refugee altogether signify a framework that counteracts the notion of refugee dignity. This framework assumes that the term refugee negates any form of self-determination, choice, or dignity, which contradicts the very essence of refugeehood as a politicized subjectivity.
While the AYC continued to work with the Syrian community, and our relations with SAC and SCN continued to develop, we realized that there were clear differences in the ways each group imagined collaboration. Much of the coalitional infrastructure was built to serve the goals of the respective organizations. As such, being the least resourced organization, we were the least valued, although we continued our attempt to collaborate, or at least coordinate, in order to avoid duplicating work. However, our guiding principles, values, and orientation to the work were fundamentally different, especially our framework of building community as opposed to simply doing charity. Our community-building orientation was simultaneously rejected and posed as a threat to SAC’s and SCN’s organizational orientations. Because building a sustainable model around communities most vulnerable was the most dignified approach, our model began to direct refugees our way. Refugees would share stories with us about how they felt patronized and then abandoned by the other organizations.
Many of the refugees did not know which organizations were offering them resettlement services. Some of them were inevitably being supported by Jewish Family Service, a Zionist organization that is one of the four resettlement agencies that refugees were received by in San Diego. Many were dismayed to find out they were being supported by a Zionist organization. Additionally, as our work and relationships to the Syrian organizations unraveled, we discovered that the Syrian Community Network had officially partnered with and received funding from a local organization called the Leichtag Foundation, based in Encinitas, California, to assist in their refugee support. One of the Leichtag Foundation’s explicit missions, easily visible on their website, is “building connections between San Diego and Israel through engagement, relationship-building, and interest alignment.”32 In essence, their work focuses on engaging larger communities in Israel, garnering support for the state, and defending Israel on a political level. Upon discovering this, we entered a series of conversations with the SCN about the disservice of normalizing relations between Zionist institutions and newly arrived Syrian refugees, even, and especially, through the act of service. The political implications are exceedingly problematic, as they are in Greece, where Zionist organizations attempt to purify their reputations around refugees by reproducing savior narratives for other Arab refugees, all while concealing their creation of the longest and largest refugee populations in the world—one that continues to experience intergenerational oppression. The normalization of relations between Zionists and non-Palestinian Arabs also reinforces anti-Palestinian sentiments, strengthening the argument that Zionists can live side by side with other Arabs and that it’s the Palestinians who are the problem. Furthermore, normalization absolves Zionist regional imperialism from any responsibility for socioeconomic and geopolitical dynamics that helped produce these regional crises in the first place. Additionally, SCN’s lack of transparency with the refugees they were serving about this source of funding—for example, in defending their decision to take Zionist funds by saying, “We’re taking support from wherever we can get it”—further revokes refugees of the agency to refuse service from sources that contradict their principles and existence—in other words, their ability to live in “rebellious dignity.” In the end, SCN took the position of claiming to be apolitical and did not engage our framing that this relationship, in and of itself, is political, even if the grounds for entering into this relationship were not explicitly political. It was at this moment—when we realized that the deadlock around the normalization of Zionism would remain—that we, the AYC, severed our relationship with SCN. We would communicate when necessary for coordination but rejected further collaborative engagement in community-based work.
This severed relationship among differently positioned community-based refugee service organizations is not unique to the Palestinian or Syrian contexts. What will become clearer in the following sections is that similar power dynamics and tensions emerge among and between refugee service infrastructures that are intended to respond to moments of crises, such as the Central American caravans and their exodus to the US-Mexico border. While humanitarian aid infrastructures, reproducing savior and charity complexes, might have good intentions, these experiences reflect the potentially damaging impacts that produce unaccountable solidarities across community contexts.
Logistics of Crossing: Central American Caravans at the US///Mexico Border; Leslie’s Legal Archive
On November 25, 2018, Border Patrol officers at the San Diego///Tijuana border shot tear gas canisters at Central Americans in Tijuana. Maria Meza and her two young children fled from tear gas and a journalist’s snapshot of this moment went viral.33 A triad of violence, or what I call the border-prison-military industrial complex, targeted Central Americans from the “caravana” that day as militarized border agents continuously threw tear gas from one side of the border to the other and helicopters roamed above the steel fences that divide Kumeyaay land onto the “US” side and “Mexico” side. For those migrants who dared confront the hypermasculine show of US hegemonic order at the border(s), they risked the possibility of capture and imprisonment. In this moment, hundreds of solidarity activists, organizations, and individuals stood on the US side of the border in critical witness to this triad of violence. As part of the San Diego Migrant and Refugee Solidarity Coalition, we had spent months building an infrastructure of support for the multiple arriving caravans from Central America while both the Mexican and US nation-states continued to abandon them. The US state in particular only created structures of disposability, incarceration, and deportation. As one of the members of this coalition involved in on-the-ground efforts to combat continued repression, I highlight a selection (by no means exhaustive) of the principled politics, mechanics, and relations of support within an autonomous infrastructure created by San Diego///Tijuana-based solidarity activists and organizations. Below, I interrogate my own involvement within a larger effort to support the April 2018 caravan in Tijuana in order to reflect, archive, and explore the multiple positionalities, power dynamics, and relationalities at play within solidarity work at the San Diego///Tijuana border.
The caravan arrived in Tijuana on April 29, 2018, and I put in work wherever my hands were needed. Tijuana’s Enclave Caracol, a place where workshops, events, and organizations such as Food Not Bombs exist, was transformed into a rascuache34 service space for newly arrived migrants. It became one of the centers of makeshift pro bono legal counsel, with lawyers, medical checkups by volunteer doctors and nurses, and an open closet for piles of donated clothes and shoes. Every day, handfuls of these volunteers circulated through the space to try to do what they could, from rearranging furniture; to making a medical corner, food corner, and sleeping corner; to cooking and offering legal counsel; to providing art and music for the caravan members.
The situation was different every day, and there was never a way of knowing what type of labor would be needed at Enclave Caracol. Through friends and text message threads, there was a recurring call for legal aid—so I took my laptop, printer, paper, and folders just in case, without knowing what role I would take on. “Just in case” was always the go-to motto for the ever-changing, day-to-day situation at the border industrial complex—a bureaucratic nightmare and site of military hypermasculinity.35 At Enclave, I started to “intake” families as a helper to Al Otro Lado’s legal team, where my role was to type parents’ and children’s birth certificate information into a form on my computer. I have no legal training, yet the need for specific services required us to step up and learn quickly.36 This particular form stated their right as noncitizens under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United States to not be separated from their children, wherein separation violates asylum statutes and the Administrative Procedure Act. As I sat on one side of the table and they on the other, I asked for their birth certificates. Some were worn from the journey, others were wrapped tightly in plastic baggies, and I imagined the extreme care they had taken to make these pieces of paper survive across borders. I told them that I myself am Central American and that my parents crossed all the borders from El Salvador to get to the United States in the 1980s. Most of them smiled and commented on the ease of crossing borders at that time, responding, “Ahora no es tan fácil” (Now it’s not that easy). It was not easy for my parents either, but I also know that the forty-year evolution of the militarized techno-securitization of walls, bureaucracies, border regimes, and detention warehousing made them respond with “Ahora no es tan fácil.”
When I spoke to mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and other relatives who brought children with them in hopes of entering the United States through asylum procedures, I heartbreakingly told them about the impending possibilities of family separation that had been the established pattern at the border.37 There was no amount of historic, geographic, cultural, or linguistic connection that I could try to make, as a second-generation Salvadoran daughter of refugees, that could erase the complicity I have with the US nation-state that is separating and caging Central American people. I have a US passport and I can cross those borders that, as of now, they cannot. I continued to print each statement on paper that stated their rights in both English and Spanish, and I told them to keep it on their person so that if and when Border Patrol, ICE, or detention center guards tried to take away their children, they could pull out this piece of paper as an assertion of their rights. This paper, typed with legal acknowledgments, does not protect them from the structures of border-prison-military regimes that have continued to commit crimes against humanity38—and yet, we still tried. I point to the notion of continuously “trying” to make a difference intergenerationally from the positionality as a second-generation Salvadoran who wishes my parents had had someone trying to help them when they were crossing.
Crossing borders is hard—it necessities sacrifice, risk, and tactical knowledge. To cross borders as a “caravan,” as a contingent of people, was an intentional strategy to create safety in numbers for Central Americans who left their home countries of Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As a collective of solidarity organizers working in coalition with each other, it was our principled politics of analysis and action that grounded our solidarity work with each other and with specific contextual crises in the border region. We understood that the contexts that push Central American migration include CAFTA-DR, postwar El Salvador, the US-backed Honduran coup, dollarization, US military aid, history of CIA intervention, as well as fear and trauma around being targets of gang violence. This knowledge emboldened my own sense of urgency to show up as a diasporic Salvadoran who is directly implicated in an intergenerational struggle for Central American life and dignity—my parents migrated so I could exist, and therefore I must show up to do work.
I mainly worked within the San Diego Migrant and Refugee Solidarity Coalition (SDMRSC) infrastructure that formed during emergency meetings at the Centro Cultural de la Raza. The Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego and the Enclave Caracol in Tijuana are spaces that have housed years of political, artistic, and cultural programming. This has allowed local relationships within and among organizations to deepen throughout the years. Among the organizations that have formed in recent years is a group of former refugee detainees who organize with established grassroots organizations to support asylum seekers and detainees at Otay Mesa Detention Center. In addition, many of these grassroots organizations continue to host panels, workshops, and teach-ins that include cross-border video calls with refugees in Tijuana in order to discuss best practices and solutions to aid in their journeys. This network of organizers and activists worked to create committees that would facilitate different types of aid to Central American migrants. For example, the “medics committee” organized doctors and nurses39 to take donated equipment and medicine to Tijuana; healers and therapists provided their own assistance to trauma-informed care work;40 the “kitchen committee” comprised community members who fundraised,41 collected donations, and cooked meals for refugees in Tijuana; and the “political committee” included direct action-based work that led to the “International Call to Action for the Refugee Caravan and Central American Exodus” and subsequent rally/march that witnessed the border military complex tear-gassing and firing at Central Americans on November 25, 2018.42
These networks and relationships continue to function as both proactive and reactive infrastructures that combat the border-prison-military industrial complexes that exist in our immediate proximity to the US///Mexico border walls and beyond. As part of the “International Call to Action,” SDMRSC published a political statement with an analysis that grounded the reasons why we were calling for international solidarity with the Central American caravan/exodus, including “the anniversary of the 2017 Honduran election stolen by the US government-backed, right-wing military dictator Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH). We are demonstrating on this day to acknowledge and draw attention to the current social and political crises driving the exodus from Central America. We understand that these crises—drug wars, military coups, destruction of indigenous lands for the benefit of corporations, and environmental catastrophe in the region—are all symptoms of US foreign policy, corporate profiteering and war-making.”43 The organizations and individuals within the SDMRSC that formulated this transnational analysis of US regimes that have been exported to the rest of Central America included diasporic communities that are based in San Diego///Tijuana, some of which have worked in joint struggle for years. These long-standing relationships include the cross-diasporic relationship between myself and the coauthor in this article, who have organized in joint struggle through a lens of anticolonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist stances throughout the years within our respective organizations. Within the context of this continuous relationship, which has emboldened us to learn from each other’s transhistoric and regional contexts, I note the importance of anti-Zionism as a central politic through which solidarity praxis has evolved in the San Diego///Tijuana border region. It is important to understand how the global Zionist project also oppresses Central Americans—for instance, when one thousand Israeli soldiers arrived at the Honduran military base Soto Cano to train Honduras’ police/military on how to stop further Central American migration to the United States, or when the Israeli-trained San Diego Police Department targets local communities of color.44 This is an important intersection of struggle that not only points to the reasons why Central Americans are connected to other migrants and refugees who are crossing borders but also underscores the necessity of border solidarity activists organizing in joint struggle against global Zionism in the US///Mexico border region. The translocal and multiregional analyses that undergird solidarity infrastructures and praxes to serve the Central American caravan are important examples of principled joint struggle and grounded organizing in the border region.
Facilitation Praxis and the Parachute Savior Industrial Complex: Leslie’s Co-coordination Archive
While the SDMRSC, its committees, political frameworks, principled commitments, and tangential hubs of people were organizing various political action efforts and organizing donation drives that included clothes, tents, and food, we were not the only groups of people who were organizing systems of support. There were other local and nonlocal organizations and people who traveled to San Diego///Tijuana to bring their versions of care and support, whether temporary or long-term. In this section, I am not addressing or analyzing those who enter a space, meeting, site, or context of struggle from a genuine process and intention to serve and not self-serve,45 to the best of their ability and capacity, whether in a momentary or long-term effort. While we are continuously building, structuring, and reflecting to restructure our spaces, labor practices, and relationships in order to create another world outside of oppression, I am cognizant that we need everyone to contribute to the movement in the manner they can. Yet moments of tensions and conflict do arise that push us to (re)learn; we must open these moments for analysis and reflection as important conjunctures for movement growth and expansion rather than succumb to old patterns of territorializing or gatekeeping maneuvers within movement spaces. Thus I analyze the important differences among differently coordinated groups of people and hubs that, while all aiming to support Central American refugees directly, experienced conflicting coordinated efforts stemming from tensions between our political frameworks, self-reflexive practices, differential power dynamics, and (un)grounded knowledges. In particular, I critique the role of the parachute activist, academic, or artist who centers their own desires, their profession/institution, their ego, and their public image as a leader or protagonist who feeds the abstract “them,” the writer who narrates “them,” or the documentarian who films “them.”
To “parachute” is an action verb that marks a particular spatial and temporal relationship among those who are involved in some sort of grounded movement organizing and those who come from an “elsewhere,” particularly from “above”; it is not an identity or a noun but rather a position in motion within relational power dynamics that shifts according to the space, place, relation, and time when coordinating aid, facilitating communication streams, or structuring events, discussions, and contact between people. While organizing in times of heightened crises, an organizer, volunteer, academic, or NGO group might “parachute” from one geography, community, or language into another place, community, language, or network of struggle while imposing, sometimes subtly, their frames and methods that usually lack deep relations with those who have collectively created and maintained localized community spaces of organizing. Those who “parachute” impose from above to those working from below in a hierarchical way. Sometimes parachuters enact their forms of imposed solidarity to the Caravan without intersectional political frames, performing an ungrounded effort that lacks important analyses of the sociopolitical, economic, and cultural-linguistic power dynamics that Central American refugees experience when crossing borders. Instances of intracommunal parachuting often occurred as well. While everyone is learning in process of solidarity organizing, however, moments of humble observing and reflecting in collectivity are usurped for moments of protagonism. Thus these moments might focalize movement work on specific leaders or organizers while dangerously abstracting “refugees” or “border crossing” as homogenous contingents or processes that necessitate “aid.” This abstraction further allows the savior complex to cement a nonabstract leader, who may or may not be a parachuter, at the center—the savior’s actions are exalted in public discourse above refugees’ own forms of self-organization and commitment to survival.
A prominent instance of a parachute and savior-centered approach46 within direct aid service at the US-Mexico border was a specific facilitator with whom I worked during the October/November/December 2018 caravan camps in Tijuana: a French documentary filmmaker named Sindbad Rumney-Guggenheim—one who also happens to come from a millionaire family47—who left France to join the caravans in transit throughout Mexico because he wanted to do something to help.48 He stationed himself outside of the Benito Juárez stadium while coordinating donations among different organizations and volunteers on both sides of the border. He would text in our massive WhatsApp chat threads about what the refugees needed in terms of clothes, food, or other general supplies. At first, he was a crucial point of contact for those of us who were not in Tijuana every day to see the changing situation for Central American refugees. Since he was there with them 24/7, able to take a break from his life to dedicate his time to cross-border donation coordination, we relied on his information to organize ourselves on the San Diego side. After a couple of trips and interacting with him closely, our suspicion about his intentions grew.
Most, though not all, refugees in that encampment went to him with their questions and requests, defaulting him as the point person and gatekeeper for direct service and donations. He selected refugees to be his assistants and assigned them specific tasks by referring to them as his “cooks” and “helpers.” He interpellated their roles with statements like the following, from a video interview he gave to Digital Smoke Signals: “I have people taking care of the cleaning of the streets; I have people taking care of the security all night, they’re up all night—they have a coffee machine, they have flashlights, they have guns. . . . No, just kidding!”49 In the interview, he speaks of himself as a manager who creates roles for refugees within the camp. On the days that I went to the Benito Juárez encampment, he designated helpers to unload donations and take them to the gated post where tents, clothes, shoes, sanitation supplies, and blankets were kept. He had a list that kept track of how many tents had been given out to specific people, with the intention that those who had not yet received either tents or other supplies would have priority for donations. While this might seem like a logistical facilitation strategy that made visible those members of the caravan who had yet to receive supplies, Rumney-Guggenheim made clear to me, other volunteers, and the interviewers from Digital Smoke Signals that he was aiming to dissuade those who wanted to take “advantage” of the donations—those refugees he constructed as “improper” because they decided to sell their tents, clothes, or other supplies for cash. As a gatekeeper, he kept crucial donated supplies behind a locked gate. His logistical facilitation strategy thus had dire consequences for the internal cohesion and internal strategies of self-facilitation within the caravan.
I witnessed a faction of the caravan confront him with their critique of his role in the encampment—his relationships, power, and facilitation of donation distribution. At that moment, I inferred that there was an internal split among those who supported having Rumney-Guggenheim as a leader and others who resisted him being involved in any way. The refugee critics of Rumney-Guggenheim reminded their caravan co-members that their agency was the reason why they were able to make it from their home countries all the way to the US-Mexico border—a self-organizational power they should not give up by allowing him to continue to facilitate the infrastructure of the encampment. I was able to gain more insight into these dynamics because I took one caravan member aside to ask if he could explain what was happening. He identified himself as not being a part of any organization, and I identified myself as a second-generation Central American living in the United States that he had every right to dislike and have antagonism toward. He responded that I was part of the problem, and I agreed with him. He said that if people stopped imposing what we, as outsiders, thought refugees needed, caravan members would still be working together and not fighting with each other over the relevance of his presence on their migratory journeys. Whether I disagreed with Rumney-Guggenheim or not, I was an outsider to the refugee community, whose internal dynamics had been fractured by the (dis)coordination efforts with which I was involved. That day, as our group was ready to leave the encampment to cross back into San Diego, one person from our nameless group confronted Rumney-Guggenheim about his positionality as a privileged, white, European filmmaker within the encampment. He responded by crying and victimizing himself, and we never worked with him again. While some of us aim to serve and others self-serve, our disparate, contentious, nonhorizontal, and ungrounded relations can affect the dynamics of refugees’ internal migratory politics in ways that I witnessed, and in other ways I may never know.
Upon reflecting on the urgent, makeshift, and sometimes frantic co-coordination efforts across intimate and trusted networks and with strangers alike that resulted in both sustained and fractured relations, I come back to one of the seven Zapatista principles that has guided much of my involvement in collective autonomous world building: servir y no servirse (to serve, not self-serve). The caravan members did not need to be aware of the particulars of every solidarity organizer, volunteer, or parachuter arriving at the encampment for them to accept the tents, food, or clothes—they do not need any of “us,” outsiders, to unload our methods of arrival onto them. What matters is how we navigate, how we act, what we say, how we walk, how we as “outsiders” interact with each other as “outsiders”—especially when we disagree with each other and when we’re aiming to support those under the most extreme conditions of duress. It is important to speculate about the kinds of solidarity relations that impact refugee journeys in ways that are not reducible to a dichotomy of “good” or “bad,” but relations that aim to serve, not self-serve, communities in struggle. While the urgency of meeting the caravan’s needs led some to miss out on important self-reflexive questions about positionality and power, the urgency does not sideline the longer process of creating and sustaining a new social fabric that does not reinforce power structures embedded in white supremacist, capitalist, and heteronormative colonial relations.
Individual and collective reflections on how we move with each other as outside facilitators, as in not part of the caravan itself, are an important part of organizing, and it takes time, intention, and commitment. The vortex of intense and emergency logistics that pulled my hub, other organizers, and me into different chat threads, text threads, Excel sheets, email lists, and committees cannot sideline the simultaneous importance of slowly building horizontal structures of autonomy without leaders, egos, or hierarchies. When building, not destroying50 new relations of care across, beyond, and without borders, we as organizers must be attentive to the long-term collective work that uplifts communities in struggle. Thus even in moments of immediate need, there must also be an infrastructure and process for critical self-reflection so that spaces like the caravan do not become egocentric testing sites of individual gratification—as they might have been for some parachute and savior activists, documentarians, academics, and artists. Action without reflection and reflection without action are both dangerous and should be proactively examined in collectivity.
In Support of Central American Autonomy: Leslie’s Family Archive
When talking to my own parents about going to Tijuana with my friends to support the Caravan, my father told me, “Delen el dinero directamente. Ellos saben lo que necesitan hacer.” The best way to help was just to give them money directly. He left El Salvador and migrated through Guatemala and Mexico, arriving in the United States as a young migrant without refugee status, as did the rest of my family. His advice to me, and to those with whom I was working, about aiding the new wave of Central American migrants was serious and direct. When I listen to his refugee wisdom and pass on this strategy to my network, I am doing what I wish someone could have done for both of my parents in support of their migration: to accompany and supply money or materials directly to refugees and migrants to use whenever and in whatever manner they choose. I think this model is the most useful one for solidarity organizers who are accompanying and working with people who are migrating—it allows those in transit to make decisions for their own journeys instead of having outside organizations influence their migration goals.
In this section, I honor the work that was not part of national headlines, nor elevated within a particular strand of “celebrity activism,”51 but that nonetheless exemplified critical, self-reflective, refugee-centered support at the San Diego///Tijuana border. The hubs of people working both within SDMRSC and tangentially to the organization were grounded in regional genealogies of activist organizing work that to this day remain autonomous and humble. They have never sought visibility because it has never been a goal or a necessity when the work is solely for those who are caught in the shadows of empire. There were also other individuals and groups that I respect immensely but with whom I did not work directly, such as the Kumeyaay elders who took donations to Enclave Caracol,52 Casa Arcoiris, and Bridge of Love Across the Border.53 The solidarity organizers I will outline here have been part of Zapatista-informed networks in the border region; they are artists, educators, and committed movement members with whom I have worked intimately for years across organizations, crises, and moments of celebration. While they have and can write, produce, and make public their own narratives and analyses of Caravan solidarity work, this is my own seed in the collective garden of public reflection.
One of the ways that local San Diego organizers centered refugee autonomy and a praxis of acompañar obedeciendo (to accompany while obeying) was through the creation of a makeshift “autonomous kitchen” under a tarp outside of the Benito Juárez stadium in the camp. As this nameless group organized fundraisers for food distribution at the encampments, there were other groups that were also organizing to establish a refugee-run kitchen space. This kitchen eventually evolved into Contra Viento y Marea Comedor, housed in a rented facility using donations. Organizers that enabled logistical support for Central American refugees independently running this kitchen shared a crucial political commitment while doing this work: creating an infrastructure in Tijuana that enabled refugees to have the autonomy and power to run their needs-based organizing by themselves and for themselves. This group fundraised money to buy a stove, tables, chairs, and other kitchen supplies. They also helped pay rent for the kitchen and provided some income to individual members of the Comedor. In a conversation reflecting on this moment, one San Diego organizer and filmmaker,54 Evan Apodaca, who fundraised for this space, explained,
There’s a power dynamic that is being created when you are a helper. People were in dire need of food and care and crossing the border to the US . . . you naturally confront that. But you also can’t avoid the reality that people can do these things on their own. It would be smarter to help people to do that and push to allow that to happen. That’s why we were supporting the group that was more politically outspoken [at Benito Juárez]. They were trying to make a space, so we stuck with that group. But for someone like the French guy [Sindbad Rumney-Guggenheim], he couldn’t see that there could be autonomy for them.55
This is an important distinction—between Rumney-Guggenheim, on the one hand, who created an explicit power dynamic that allowed him to consolidate logistical and communicative dynamics of aid, and that of politicized solidarity organizers, on the other hand, who have a principled commitment to decentering the ego and centering refugee autonomy. Similarly, in an interview, Maria Celleri, an educator and one of the organizers of the food fundraiser, also critiqued Rumney-Guggenheim as a “puppeteer” who maneuvered his communication role as the “go-to” encampment leader at Benito Juárez when San Diego and other nonlocal organizations and individuals needed a contact in Tijuana.56 She even went on to explain the problem of his defensiveness and white tears as she and another comrade confronted him about his lack of reflexive praxis as he formed his relationship to the Caravan members and other organizers. Celleri noted the importance of the confrontation having been initiated by our white comrade who understood the spatial power dynamics that enabled Rumney-Guggenheim’s consolidation of power—he went around the encampment, tent by tent, documenting everyone’s name and the supplies that were given to them, while he also retreated to “his” donation pile locked behind a fence. Our white comrade took on the emotional labor of confrontation to make visible these dynamics while the rest of us (people of color) were working on other tasks. Though Rumney-Guggenheim was only one of many parachute organizers, he is a symptom of a larger savior industrial complex that produces various egotistical dynamics at the border. Alexis Meza, an educator and solidarity organizer based in San Diego///Tijuana who comes from a diasporic Central American family, also observed that “there were hundreds of people [in Tijuana] capturing the moment with cameras. People needed food and people showed up with a camera—how does that make sense? So, there were people with thousand-dollar cameras and equipment. . . . Most of them weren’t involved in providing any material aid and wouldn’t even ask for consent to take pictures. People would put their heads down. The pictures were captured. And then they would just leave.”57 Through these conversations and collective analysis with Apodaca, Celleri, and Meza, it is clear that a main critique of refugee support work is that certain individuals and groups try to contribute to movement work just because it is linked to their professionally mediated lives. There are others, though, who continue to support refugees and who are not appropriating this work for professional gain. While any of us could be teachers, photographers, filmmakers, lawyers, or doctors, our method of solidarity organizing has been for our work to follow the struggle, rather than have the struggle follow our work. Food, medical, documentary, artistic, policy, and other work need to materialize based on the goals, wishes, and needs of refugees first.
These analyses from solidarity organizers, who reflected on contextual, spatial, and cross-border dynamics, were part of the few hubs that provided logistical support to the Caravan without the need for a public name or top-down facilitation. They/we aimed to center the power of Central American people themselves to continue building their autonomous infrastructures of care that started from their point of departure. Still today, there remain other collectives, coalitions, and individuals that continue to do the everyday, committed work of supporting refugee autonomy on both sides of the San Diego///Tijuana border.58 Refugees from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala now facilitate the kitchen in order to provide two hundred to five hundred migrants and refugees with free meals every day. Anyone can donate to this kitchen so that it continues to run, and making a cash donation is one of the most direct ways to support autonomous methods of survival within migration journeys.59
In Support of Palestinian-Syrian Autonomy: Jennifer’s Autonomous Comrade Archive
As part of imagining this piece, I spoke to my friend and comrade Samir, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus, Syria. I talked to him about ideas for this article, what would be productive, and whether he would like to share his story. We came up with a wide array of potential topics, and this article only reflects a portion of them. I asked about his comfort levels and whether he was sure he wanted to share his stories, as I did not intend to use anything that he did not want in this text. To my surprise, Samir insisted that I use his story and his voice in my work. Currently a student of the social sciences in Germany, he is frustrated by the amount of academic work produced that invisibilizes those about whom the authors write. He believes that those with direct experience are the real knowledge producers and that academics too often write about the things we, as the subjects of their writing, already know, say, and feel without attributing those ideas to the people who actually experience them. He was adamant that I don’t do the same. This sentiment is not new to me—it informs my methodological practices and roots my accountability in the communities, comrades, and interlocutors with whom I share political commitments. It is where I draw from my commitment to follow the struggle rather than have the struggle follow our work, as was previously noted as a critical methodological approach to the caravan support work.
In my interview with Samir, he discussed his decision to flee, the paths and crossings that followed, and other considerations that reflected his autonomy in his journey. In Yarmouk, prior to his escape, Samir participated in new media initiatives prior to and in light of the uprising. In a context where authoritarian rule with accompanying state-run media was the norm, Samir’s activity (and that of so many others) was perceived as a challenge and threat to the state and its narratives, ultimately factoring into his decision to cross the Mediterranean and make his way to Germany. Samir explained that he had been questioned by different people he encountered in Europe regarding his decision to cross the Mediterranean. The process of crossing was indeed challenging and filled with much anticipation. Samir situated our discussion within the context of the disposability of Palestinian refugees in various Arab countries. Whether in Kuwait, Iraq, or elsewhere in the Arab world, Palestinians at some point become expellable again. That lack of stability was not the kind of sustainable life he was looking to achieve. He described Turkey as a difficult option for two reasons. First, receiving documentation in Turkey as a Palestinian from Syria is challenging because the United Nations cannot serve Palestinian refugees outside of their host countries or offer them resettlement solutions. Second, Turkey does not provide access to the same state services that European countries could provide. These difficulties are rooted in the reality that if you are a Palestinian refugee, you are excluded from the protections and support that UN agencies typically provide because Palestinians are not covered by the United Nations Higher Council on Refugees (UNHCR), and the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) does not have jurisdiction in Turkey. Furthermore, Samir discussed the crackdowns on refugees flocking to Istanbul for economic opportunities and the risk of being deported back to Idlib, in northern Syria.
In the end, Samir’s determination was powerful. Rather than one of risk and death, he framed his decision of whether to cross the Mediterranean as a choice between sustained “hopelessness and hopes and dreams for the future of life.”60 He saw his decision to cross as a determination of his own destiny—one that could allow him to live a life of hopes and dreams, of dignity. This decision, regardless of the challenges it entailed, was his and his alone. He knew what he wanted and assumed that autonomy. His calculation was not one of defying death, but rather one of choosing life. This story is one instance that exemplifies the critical approach of supporting the facilitation of rebellious dignity. Refugees know what they want, and they know the implications of the decisions they are making, as we have learned from Leslie’s father. To engage in the work of supporting their decisiveness and autonomy in ways that assist in their achievement of those decisions is sometimes to engage in work that defies some of the more traditional and established aid models—it is to engage in a disruption of the status quo.
We began by reflecting on the connection between recently resettled refugees and border-based Indigenous communities who face both land and water struggles. As new arrivals and elders, they would not have been able to speak to each other because of linguistic barriers; however, we were able to play a role as organizational facilitators by providing linguistic translators that connected the communities. The ensuing trilingual conversation resulted in a mutual recognition of each other’s land, water, and political struggles, and they invited one another to their homes. This invitation to welcome each other to their respective lands is what we hope will happen once military and prison industrial complexes cease to exist and cease to mediate the (dis)connection among our people. Our reflection on the many infrastructures of support with which we have been involved points to the limits and possibilities of creating life and joy beyond the confines of borders.
We have detailed the specificities of Syrian, Palestinian-Syrian, and Central American border crossings with just a few examples. We know that there are many other stories and intricacies that exist beyond what we have written about here. The distinction between Palestinian-Syrian and Syrian refugeehood as it relates to passports, visas, and paperwork reflects the global bureaucratic mechanisms that limit mobility across lands that belong to Indigenous peoples. While limited, these papers are the ones that they have to carry on their bodies across sea and land with the hope of gaining the possibility of life. Whether talking to a refugee from Syria or a refugee from Central America, they all have the power to make us see that borders are obsolete and must be abolished, yet refugees remain a heightened value for the state and its dominating forces like the triad of violence: border-prison-military industrial complexes. We have commented on the reproduction of systems of domination through governmental and nongovernmental bureaucracies, including those power dynamics reinforced through aid and humanitarian efforts and even from those same communities as the refugees themselves. We have offered both critiques of these dynamics and examples of the ways we can do better.
This piece has addressed questions surrounding the savior complex and the ways in which humanitarianism serves to reinforce racist and orientalist tropes of conquest and cultural imposition—a practice not new to this moment but refashioned through the lens of liberal multiculturalism. These frameworks and other raced and classed elite social aspirations also reflect a politics of apolitics, which was discussed in the context of intercommunity service. The notion of apolitics assumes a particular type of politics that refuses to acknowledge complacency in reinforcing the powers that produce the crisis in which you intend to provide support. Instead of engaging in service work through a charity-oriented framework, we have proposed an engagement in service work that is grounded in a set of determined principles that are refugee-oriented. In turn, we have instead shown ways of upholding and accompanying refugee agency, knowledge production, and the practice of living in rebellious dignity through community practice and pedagogy that is founded in grassroots, relational, and justice-centered principles for transformative change for all—and especially for those vulnerable to the systems we, our communities, our organizations, and our fields continue to critique.
Within moments of crises in different geographies and different temporal spaces, there are lessons that push us to reflect on our own work and relationships so we can build maintenance processes to foster better versions of ourselves, collectives, and communities that serve, not self-serve. The continuous prioritization of grassroots maintenance work, to reflect and rebuild ourselves, constantly interrogating our politics of relation-building across various sectors, are crucial processes that aim to reweave the larger social fabric of communities of accompaniment beyond borders. While we (re)work our process of building slow, humble, and reflexive relationships of trust, we offer our seed of hope rather than explicit steps or protocols. This seed of hope can nourish us to maintain and remain grounded in grassroots, soil cultures that prioritize life over death.
Jennifer Mogannam is a UC President’s postdoctoral fellow at the University of California (UC) Davis and received her PhD in ethnic studies from UC San Diego. Jennifer is a critical, trans-disciplinary scholar and educator of 20th and 21st century Palestinian and Arab transnational movements, third world solidarities, gendered power in anti-colonial struggle, and violence, praxis, and revolution. She has organized in Palestinian and Arab American community spaces for over 15 years, including as former international executive board member for the Palestinian Youth Movement as well as currently with the Palestinian Feminist Collective. Her work, while often historical, is also always forward looking, toward the possibilities of decolonization and building a new world.
Leslie Quintanilla organizes for dignified autonomy beyond borders and seeks decolonial possibilities with a network of grassroots organizations at the US///Mexico border. She is an assistant professor of women and gender studies at San Francisco State University and received her PhD in ethnic studies from UC San Diego. As a Salvadoran activist and daughter of refugees, her research focuses on the intersections of transnational antiborder movements, climate justice, and feminist artivism. She is also the cofounder of the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice currently working alongside Indigenous communities in South America combatting lithium-mining extraction.
For our detailed analysis of the Break Down Borders 5K, see Leslie Quintanilla and Jennifer Mogannam, “Borders Are Obsolete: Relations beyond the ‘Borderlands’ of Palestine and US–Mexico,” American Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2015): 1039–46.
To mark the multiplicity of borders that currently exist in the San Diego///Tijuana border region, I (Leslie) take inspiration from Roberto D. Hernández’s work in Coloniality of the U.S./Mexico Border, in which he marks a visual protest against the “triple fence strategy” that started with Operation Gatekeeper in San Ysidro. I expand this protest to include the physical fencing that preceded Operation Gatekeeper to include the fences that my parents’ generation had to overcome in order to get to the United States. For more on this choice, see Roberto D. Hernández, Coloniality of the US/Mexico Border: Power, Violence, and the Decolonial Imperative (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018).
For more information on Yaqui resistance struggles that continue to this day, see Ben Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez, “La Lucha Yaqui: A Conversation with Mario Luna Romero,” Edge Effects, May 5, 2020, https://edgeeffects.net/la-lucha-yaqui-a-conversation-with-mario-luna-romero/.
As we wrote in our first article, “Borders Are Obsolete,” we imagined the space of the undercommons as a place for facilitating and engaging preexisting solidarities and shared experiences as a space for manifesting the new world that we envision. In this sense, we read our facilitation of this encounter as a facilitation of growing the undercommons, a concept we engage through Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 1.
“Where Are Refugees Being Resettled,” RRSC: Refugee Resettlement in Small Cities: University of Vermont & State Agricultural College, 2020, http://www.spatializingmigration.net/why-small-cities/where-are-refugees-being-resettled/; Elizabeth Aguilera, “San Diego Welcomes More Refugees Than Any Other California County,” CalMatters, June 23, 2020, https://calmatters.org/justice/2017/07/san-diego-welcomes-refugees-california-county/.
Lisa Lowe interviewing Angela Davis, in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, ed. Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 317.
Ignacio Ramonet and Marcos Subcomandante, Marcos la dignidad rebelde: Conversaciones con Ignacio Ramonet (n.p.: Cybermonde, 2001).
“Una historia para tratar de entender,” Enlace Zapatista, November 17, 2016, http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2016/11/17/una-historia-para-tratar-de-entender/.
Elio Henriquez, “EZLN crea siete nuevos caracoles,” La Jornada, August 18, 2019, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2019/08/18/politica/008n1pol.
Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1984), 19.
Alex Khasnabish, “‘They Are Our Brothers and Sisters’: Why Zapatismo Matters to Independent Labour in Mexico,” Anthropologica 47, no. 1 (2005): 101–14.
Jeanne Simonelli, Duncan Earle, and Elizabeth Story, “Acompanar Obediciendo: Learning to Help in Collaboration with Zapatista Communities,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 10, no. 3 (2004): 43–56.
Richa Nagar, Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014).
Fatima El-Tayeb, “The Archive, the Activist, and the Audience, or Black European Studies: A Comparative Interdisciplinary Study of Identities, Positionalities, and Differences,” Transit 1, no. 1 (2004).
“Below and to the left” is a popular Zapatista slogan that positions the work of autonomous movements as working in the “below,” those who are not at the top of power, and from the “left” in terms of revolutionary frames.
A shout-out to Dr. Loubna Qutami, with whom we’ve intimately worked in joint struggle for many years, and a shout-out to others who continue to put in work every day.
I formulate this definition of damage-centered solidarity based on my experiences as a transnational Palestinian movement organizer and researcher. Much of my research engages those with experience in the movement from various generations and Palestinian refugees from various backgrounds. During my study at the American University of Beirut, I sharpened my research methods and methodological critique with the guidance of professors who also relate to movements, like Rosemary Sayigh and Mayssun Succarieh. They in particular fostered my academic formulation of what I already felt as a movement and community member regarding damaging impacts of researchers as well as aid workers to Palestinian refugee populations in Lebanon and beyond. I also draw on Eve Tuck’s notion of damage-centered research here. See Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 3 (2009): 409–28.
Tuck. See also Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism, Anarchist Interventions 6 (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2013).
“Greece: SWANAconnect Dignity, Survival & Community for Refugees,” Palestinian Youth Movement, accessed June 30, 2020, https://www.pymusa.com/greece-project.
Linda Tabar, “Disrupting Development, Reclaiming Solidarity: The Anti-politics of Humanitarianism,” Journal of Palestine Studies 45, no. 4 (2016): 16–31. Here, I am specifically borrowing the concept of the Band-Aid (26), which has long been a colloquially used term to connote unsustainable support or practices in Palestinian organizing spaces, but for which Tabar elaborates and situates with much more detail.
Belen Fernandez, “Those Exotic Arabs, and Other Orientalist Fetishes,” Al Jazeera, August 24, 2013, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2013/8/24/those-exotic-arabs-and-other-orientalist-fetishes/. This article briefly reflects the various scales of orientalizing fetishism of Arab subjects that touch on the dynamics named here.
I am using this term to describe my observations of the internalized necessity for volunteers to come to Palestine and participate in resistance that Palestinians are already doing, and then to subsequently portray themselves to their American/European counterparts as martyrs. This positionality reinforces the Eurocentric self as the center of struggle and elides existing modes of ongoing resistance in Palestine. Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins similarly argues that while some acts of international solidarity can be productive, she notes through the notion of travel activism, and particularly in Palestine by Westerners, that the self as the one facing militarized oppression again becomes the center of the story. See Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, “The Jous and Dangers of Solidarity in Palestine: Prosthetic Engagement in an Age of Reparations,” CR: The New Centennial Review 8, no. 2 (2008): 135–39. I see voluntourism, or travel activism, as being motivated by an array of factors. In the case of Palestine, participation in resistance is a common trope (though men and women’s sexual interplay also exists). In the case of Greece, orientalist desires of the refugee are mobilized through service. In both scenarios, there is also a desire to play a role in saving the served through a top-down vision of how that saving should manifest. In addition to my personal observations over the past decade plus of Palestine solidarity in Palestine and the surrounding region as well as in the United States, including observing many “report backs” of the type that Stamatopoulou-Robbins discusses in her piece, I also locate these activist observations and critiques from the native as critiques that have also been taken up academically and more recently in popular culture. For example, I draw inspiration from Mary Mostafanezhad’s work on volunteer tourism. See Mary Mostafanezhad, “Volunteer Tourism and the Popular Humanitarian Gaze,” Geoforum 54 (2014): 111–18. I also appreciate social media accounts like @barbiesavior (Instagram and Twitter) that serve similar critiques on a broader scale, both of mission-style volunteer tourisms as well as the newer travel-blogger type.
Randall Williams, The Divided World: Human Rights and Its Violence (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xiv–xxii. I am using the term superiority to delineate this mindset of humanitarianism, for the sake of brevity. However, in the pages noted in Williams’s The Divided World, he more thoroughly sets up the frameworks for the overarching arguments of the book that reference how human rights frameworks reinforce “capitalist-democratic uneven relations of power by reinforcing imperialist hegemonic control” (xv). He also notes the discursive nature of rights as the language of the privileged (xv), and marks the development of postwar human rights praxis as antithetical to the quest for decolonization, marking human rights and decolonization as two postwar forms of political practice that come to dominate the scene, articulating human rights as “the privileged epistemic form of political violence” (xx) and as originating from the Global North, whereas anticolonial movements are the political form of the Global South.
Martin F. Manalansan IV, “Race, Violence, and Neoliberal Spatial Politics in the Global City,” Social Text 23, nos. 3–4 (2005): 84–85; Jasbir K. Puar, “Mapping US Homonormativities,” Gender, Place & Culture 13, no. 1 (2006): 67–88; Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is a Country (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); Chandan Reddy, Freedom with Violence (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 190; Sohail Daulatzai, Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). Each of these pieces has contributed to my understanding of the notion of liberal multiculturalism in this article.
Neda Atanasoski, introduction to Humanitarian Violence: The US Deployment of Diversity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), Kindle edition.
“Home,” IsraAID, accessed September 21, 2020, https://www.israaid.org.
“Greece,” IsraAID, accessed September 21, 2020, https://israaidgreece.org/en/home-page-english/.
@IsraAID, Twitter, October 1, 2020, 6:10AM, https://twitter.com/IsraAID/status/1311654598298361856.
Laleh Khalili, “‘Standing with My Brother’: Hizbullah, Palestinians, and the Limits of Solidarity,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 49, no. 2 (2007): 276–303. I draw specifically on Khalili here in this example of charity being produced through Syrian to Syrian or Arab to Arab relations, as Khalili says in this piece that while there is lots of literature on north-south solidarity relations, she is focusing on south-south, which is a fitting scenario here. Her argument connotes the complicated nature of what she terms solidarity as both genuine and at times assuming “a moral and material authority” (278).
Diamond Alexander and Connie Lu, “San Diego-Israel Connections,” Leichtag Foundation, June 3, 2019, https://leichtag.org/strategic-focus-and-grantmaking/san-diego-israel-connections/.
Megan Specia and Rick Gladstone, “Border Agents Shot Tear Gas into Mexico. Was It Legal?,” New York Times, November 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/28/world/americas/tear-gas-border.html.
Colloquial term for “makeshift.”
The arrival of this caravan prompted the stationing of troops at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the addition of barbed wire fencing, and the placement of slats on one of the border fences. This form of material power and borderfication is embedded in a performance of hypermasculine showcasing.
Martha Balaguera, “‘Would You Come with Me to the Line?’ Lawfare and Legal Accompaniment at the US-Mexico Border,” Association for Political and Legal Anthropology, September 16, 2020, https://politicalandlegalanthro.org/2020/09/15/would-you-come-with-me-to-the-line-lawfare-and-legal-accompaniment-at-the-us-mexico-border/?fbclid=IwAR3g5Q1DCe3NWwJ5RHgnioy91SMtzZT5nNC4-UcKefB04J_QJvqEk0DNzrE.
“Family Separation by the Numbers,” American Civil Liberties Union, October 2, 2018, https://www.aclu.org/issues/immigrants-rights/immigrants-rights-and-detention/family-separation.
Miranda Bryant, “Allegations of Unwanted ICE Hysterectomies Recall Grim Time in US History,” Guardian, September 21, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/21/unwanted-hysterectomy-allegations-ice-georgia-immigration.
“San Diego Doctors Head to Border to Offer Care for Migrants in Tijuana’s Overflowing Shelters,” California Healthline, November 30, 2018, https://californiahealthline.org/morning-breakout/san-diego-doctors-head-to-border-to-offer-care-for-migrants-in-tijuanas-overflowing-shelters/.
“Tijuana Refugee Healer/Therapist Volunteer Support,” Google document, accessed September 20, 2020, https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfZALO3V55jt4OZtPwL6ZdSWHk4cjnNhOUB8FImmxg567_f9w/viewform.
“Contra Viento Y Marea—Caravan-run Kitchen,” GoFundMe fundraiser organized by Alexis Nicole, accessed September 20, 2020, https://www.gofundme.com/f/food-for-migrant-caravancomida-para-la-caravana?fbclid=IwAR2oyjFyb9hxYUBmS7SrQDU1aYDYtWbvIdnA0C_4PYKzhi2C4HT-lWbLLMM.
“International Call to Action for the Refugee Caravan,” SDMRSC Google document, accessed September 20, 2020, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1PsPwJ2kORIefjU54OGdehxdzMAc7WMXNa3eGSKygess/edit?fbclid=IwAR27nv-jCadNGQz1slda349JH71OmPBAKMLRmHP-DRqLAH0RTJ6phAw-NTw#.
“International Call to Action.”
“1,000 Israeli Soldiers to Arrive in Honduras to Train Troops, Police on Border Protection,” Telesur English, May 6, 2019, https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/1000-Israeli-Soldiers-To-Arrive-in-Honduras-to-Train-Troops-Police-on-Border-Protection-20190506-0014.html.
“Servir y no servirse” (To serve and not self-serve) is one of the seven Zapatista principles.
Teju Cole, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” Atlantic, March 21, 2012.
John Lichfield, “Guggenheim: Family Sues Foundation over Legacy,” Independent, May 8, 2014, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/guggenheim-v-guggenheim-blood-canvas-family-sues-foundation-over-legacy-9340937.html.
Nicole De León, “Francés cruza Atlántico para apoyar la caravana de migrantes,” El Imparcial, Noticias De Sonora, México, April 24, 2019, https://www.elimparcial.com/sonora/hermosillo/Frances-cruza-Atlantico-para-apoyar-la-caravana-de-migrantes-20181124-0116.html.
“One of Many Kitchens at Tijuana Camp,” Digital Smoke Signals, Facebook Watch, December 10, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/DigitalSmokeSignals/videos/310817166197519/.
“Constructing, not destroying” is one of the Zapatista principles.
Nicole Acevedo, “America Ferrera Leads Tijuana Migrant Shelter Visit, Calls for Changes to U.S. Asylum Policy,” NBC News, March 11, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/america-ferrera-leads-tijuana-migrant-shelter-visit-calls-changes-u-n981686.
This information is from a Facebook post by comrade Bobby Wallace of the Barona Band of Mission Indians.
“Bridge of Love across the Border,” Facebook page, accessed September 20, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/BridgeofLoveAcrossTheBorder/.
Evan Apodaca is currently filming a documentary about San Diego’s military-industrial complex. For more information, visit https://www.evanmapodaca.com/ or @secretcityfilm.sd on Instagram.
Evan Apodaca, interview by Leslie Quintanilla, May 3, 2020.
Maria Celleri, interview by Leslie Quintanilla, May 10, 2020.
Alexis Meza, interview by Leslie Quintanilla, May 25, 2020.
Shout-out to Detention Resistance, Pueblos Sin Fronteras, Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate, everyone in Free Them All Coalition, Contra Viento y Marea Comedor, and so many more.
Contra Viento y Marea Comedor is accepting ongoing donations. As a reader, if you can, please donate to their GoFundMe campaign: https://www.gofundme.com/f/tijuana-kitchen.
Samir, Interview with Samir, interview by Jennifer Mogannam, June 25, 2020.
We dedicate this reflection to those currently trapped by the very material consequences of these border regimes. We also honor and value those who, despite everything, continue to put in the critical work in all meetings, assemblies, and community events for their/our communities.