Beyond the Wall: A Better Life

close up of mother's hand holding baby's foot


On a rainy Saturday afternoon in San Diego’s Normal Heights, a church courtyard is empty but for puddles and a rotating digital sign that offers up notices of upcoming services. Once inside the doors, through a corridor, around the corner, here and there, pockets of people are gathered, some talking around tables, a few clustered in pews, another group of adults and children chatting and cooking in a kitchen area.

Down yet another corridor, a group of nursing students are clustered just inside a crowded room, talking in low voices.

“How long has she been coughing?” asks Professor Jodi Barnes. “This baby is having a hard time breathing. That’s concerning.” After some back-and-forth, it’s decided that a trip to the E.R. is in order for the wheezing infant.

This building is part of the Safe Harbors Network, which provides shelter for refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers. Every Saturday, students from USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Sciences come here to address the immediate needs of the mothers and children who are temporarily housed here.

“They’re all here legally,” Barnes says. “Once they’re released from detention centers by ICE, these people are distributed to various churches in the network. Mental health assessment is a big part of what we do. Most of these mothers have suffered severe trauma, and they tend not to get the care they need for themselves since they’re afraid of being deported.”

Bunk beds crowd the room. Refugees and asylum seekers from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Central and South American and Russia are currently in residence. Since many languages are spoken, a complicated back-and-forth is necessary to get questions and answers translated so that everybody understands what’s happening.

USD MEPN students interact with the children, cuddle the babies and take the time that’s needed to establish trust with a group that’s vulnerable to trauma, toxic stress, anxiety and depression.

“We talk with the kids and their moms about where they’re from, how their health is, find out how they’re feeling,” says O’Brien. “We’ve fast-tracked this as a clinical site and have developed a validated mental health screening tool for these people.” Those efforts helped them to earn second-place honors in USD’s Fall 2018 Changemaker Challenge.

USD students find the experience of interacting with the refugees and hearing their stories to be personally impactful. Second-year MEPN student Lihini Keenawinna said this in a recent blog post about the project: “I keep coming back to this idea that they went through such immense traumas, but are incredibly resilient in their desire to have a better life. It’s the most fulfilling feeling to be able to help, even in the tiniest of ways.” — Julene Snyder

Read our complete border story package, Beyond the Wall

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