I Visited Tijuana’s Refugee Shelters – Juan Lopez


We woke up way too early on a Saturday morning to meet a group of doctors, nurses, psychologists, medical students and translators at a Coffee Bean directly across from the U.S. — Mexico Border.

30 volunteers in scrubs and heavy boots were huddled beneath umbrellas trading stories of humanitarian missions that took them from the jungles of Central America to remote villages in Southeast Asia. I walked over and introduced myself as a translator and quickly realized what I’d gotten myself into. These were consummate professionals and were laser-focused on the mission at hand — they were the real deal.

We followed signs toward the pedestrian border crossing and were stopped by U.S. Border Patrol agents. One agent spoke up and asked us who we were and what was in our suitcases. One of the doctors pulled out a medical license and explained that we were volunteer medical professionals and translators making our way to 6 different Tijuana migrant shelters to provide medical assistance to refugees. A volunteer unzipped a large suitcase full of gallon-size baggies filled with bottles of syrups, pills, and blood pressure monitors. The agent paused and took a long look at the group of volunteers, stuffed his hands in his vest and cautioned the group to be careful on the other side.

We followed the lead coordinator, a young pre-med student, on a short walk to the Refugee Health Alliance’s local clinic known as Enclave Caracol near the Tijuana Arch on Avenida Revolución.

The founder of the Refugee Health Alliance welcomed us and described how he and a group of friends banded together to provide medical assistance to refugees. He talked about the months of work they’d put in to open their free clinic and the speed in which they’re scrappy operation took off. The Refugee Health Alliance isn’t a 501c3, there are no forms or bureaucracy, it’s just a group of young people that give a shit and want to get things done. The small group of core volunteers had been able to wrangle up medical supplies, medications, cash, and a steady stream of medical professionals exclusively through word of mouth — no fancy galas, no big fundraisers, and no social media ads.

We were broken up into groups and assigned a coordinator that would stick with us throughout the day. My group was made up of a pediatrician, a nurse practitioner, an MD completing their residency, a 3rd-year medical student, two pre-med students, one EMT, and me, a translator and policy nerd.

Our first assignment was a shelter for families in a neighborhood about 25 minutes from the border in one of the hill colonias that dot the Tijuana skyline. Our Uber dropped us off in front of a shelter that was once a pentecostal church. The interior had rooms with end-to-end beds and a restroom. But the majority of the refugees were on the rooftop patio that was divided by large tarps, One area was sectioned off with cots, blankets, and mattresses. The rest of the rooftop was used as a large common area with a makeshift kitchen and seating area. Showers and restrooms lined the back wall and a television aired Saturday morning cartoons in front of dozens of children that sat crisscrossed on the floor.

We set up tables in the center of the common area and organized an intake table where volunteers took vitals and noted symptoms. We also set up a makeshift pharmacy with everything we’d need to treat patients: antibiotics, pain meds, cough and cold medicines, wound care, gastrointestinal meds, and plenty of other hard-to-pronounce medications that we lugged around just in case. Before we finished setting up, mothers and their children had already formed a long line and were eager to see a doctor.

I was asked to translate for a little girl who couldn’t have been older than 7. Her mother was worried and explained how her daughter was experiencing extreme fevers since they’d arrived in Tijuana. She quickly explained how her family escaped southern Mexico and were stuck at the border awaiting their asylum interview with USCIS. But, the mother was full of guilt. She told us that her daughter had been diagnosed more than two weeks ago with a disease that she couldn’t remember. The family fled across Mexico so quickly and the journey was so difficult, they’d left the little girl’s condition untreated. The mother and daughter described high fevers, bloody diarrhea, and debilitating stomach pain that had been getting progressively worse over the last 15 days.

The little girl had Typhoid Fever.

We prescribed and provided the child with antibiotics and explained the disease and treatment in detail to her mother. The doctor said she’d make a full recovery within days.

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