Last November, a mix of activists headed to Nogales, Mexico, to work with a migrant shelter.
But the goal wasn’t just to provide necessities, like food and water. The group of creatives and designers, led by the Minneapolis-based global humanitarian nonprofit Alight, started collaborating with residents of the Casa de la Misericordia (“house of mercy”) shelter to build a horno—a traditional adobe oven.
They hoped the 7-foot oven would provide the kind of self-sufficiency that would contribute to the Alight team’s goal of bringing “more than just the basics” to three migrant shelters at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We believe in building a life beyond just basic services,” Alissa Jordan, Alight’s Global Activations Lead, says. “[The program] was part of a journey to providing beyond basic services, co-designing with refugee communities themselves to provide solutions that work best for them.”
A Little Piece of Home
Launched over 40 years ago, Alight (formerly the American Refugee Committee) works to bring healthcare, shelter, and other services to millions of people internationally each year.
With last year’s A Little Piece of Home program, the group set out to establish a sense of community and sustainability at the border. They intended to “build a place that evokes feelings of joy and inspiration while migrants await refuge,” according to a press release.
“Alight went above and beyond in saying, ‘How do we bring in joy, pleasure, and community?’ because all those things are fundamental, as well,” says renowned designer and architect Ronald Rael, a partner who designed the hornos and catalyzed the oven-building project. “You can’t discount those things from those environments, because those things are part of our day-to-day life, and they’re part of home.”
Alight took inspiration for the program from the growing migrant population and worsening shelter conditions for those awaiting asylum, according to the press release. At Casa de la Misericordia, about 200 migrants have sought refuge.
Other services provided by Alight through the program included healthcare, childcare spaces, practical education, gardens, computer labs, and recreation areas. Partnering with Alight on the project were Burners without Borders (Burning Man’s activist group) and Catholic Sisters—making it somewhat of a motley crew.
Construction of the adobe oven kicked off conversations right away, Rael recalls. “Someone from Guatemala might say, ‘We made these but they were bigger,’ or ‘We made these but they had a square base,’” he says. “All the different regional takes of this technology might come out in their stories.”
Transformation on Film
As part of the program, filmmakers Lina Plioplyte and Kai Schoenhals created the documentary film Pedacito de la Tierra (“A Little Piece of Home”), which debuted on February 6. It has been awarded by the Chicago Indie Film organization and is currently showing at the Venice Biennale through November 27. It is also available to view on YouTube.
The film reveals the human aspect of the story of migration by showcasing the stories of several long-term residents of Casa de la Misericordia. The migrants, from all over Central America and the Caribbean, share their journeys through violence and poverty.
The 10-minute short film features such stories as those of Shirley, an 8-year-old girl who had been living at the shelter for a year, and Juan Carlos, the son of a bread maker from Guatemala who took the lead with Rael in building the ovens. The film also shows Alight supplying lawyers, to educate migrants on the asylum process and teach them their legal rights.
Fresh from the Oven
By the time the Alight team finished, the horno was big enough to feed the 200 or so residents at the shelter, and it could bake about 100 small loaves of bread at a time.
The oven provided not only nourishment and a space for people to bring their traditions and cooking, but also a form of autonomy not always seen in refugee crises. “They started to produce so much bread that they either did, or they considered starting to, sell that bread outside of the walls of their own shelters, in turn feeding a larger community,” Rael says.
The film overall works similarly to the program in how it looks beyond politics and charity to the humanity at the border.
“I want people to understand that [the border] is not just a landscape where there are bad hombres doing bad things, but it’s a place where women and children live under the oppression of the wall,” Rael says. “It’s not just a desert where nothing happens; there are families and communities that live right up against that wall.”
“It doesn’t have to be politicized,” Jordan adds. “It’s just families trying to do better and seek better for their families, and seek safety and security in any way they can find it.”
According to Rael, most of the people who were in the shelter in November have crossed over to the U.S. “I’ve followed their stories, at least—some are in South Carolina, Ohio, North Carolina,” he says. “And they were just stuck there—children were born in that shelter, relationships were formed, loves were made, and now so many of them have crossed over because of the different political policies of this administration.”
Moving forward, Alight is setting its sights on other existing shelters in Matamoros and Tijuana. According to the project’s web page, Alight is striving to transform these spaces to reflect the “potential behind each family that comes through their doors.”