Jean Sicurella in her Arlington home with boxes of donations. / Marjorie Howard photoJean Sicurella in her Arlington home with boxes of donations headed for border-wall migrants, right. / Photo by Marjorie Howard  / MORE PHOTOS >> 

Arlington plays part in aid effort

Jean Sicurella sits in her Arlington home at a table adjacent to piles of boxes filled with toothpaste, toothbrushes, kids’ clothing covered in hearts or “Star Wars” characters, as well as  books and backpacks. All are destined for families in Mexican towns on the borders of California and Arizona. Here is where Sicurella witnessed a heartbreaking sight: homeless families, waiting for months to enter the United States to seek asylum.

Sicurella, 53, is an energetic woman who manages to earn awards at her full-time job while taking care of her family of five children, volunteering at a homeless shelter and learning Spanish. So when a pastor she knew in Mexico said people needed help, she was there.

Sicurella and Pastor Francisco Ortega are cofounders of Mision de Caridad, whose goal is to build a facility for 60 women and children that will provide them not only with shelter but with educational and social support as well as job training. The two met when Sicurella was in Mexico as a leader on a youth mission from Arlington’s Highrock Covenant Church, where she is a member. The hope is to help families become self-sufficient so that they will be successful if they make it to the United States or remain in Mexico.

Migrants at border wall.Jean Sicurella photo

In the past, people seeking asylum in the United States could wait in this country while their requests were being reviewed. Last year, the Trump administration changed the rules about our southern border. All asylum seekers must wait to request asylum, some for as many as four to six months. Then, depending on where they are from, the waiting begins while asylum requests are processed – some do so in the U.S.; some are returned to their home countries; and others, mostly from Central America, are returned to Mexico. The current waits are longer than a year.

No provisions made

Yet no provisions have been made to house or feed them or keep them safe. An estimated 8,000 people are homeless in San Luis Rio Colorado and Mexicali, the two towns in which Sicurella has spent most of her time, while some 58,000 more are stuck waiting at all ports of entry combined.

“Last year at this time, picture people tying up tarps or blankets against a wall and then imagine families living beneath them,” Sicurella said. “It’s in the desert but gets cold at night in the winter and burning hot in the summer. But after so many families were waiting, and it was a publicity nightmare, the Border Patrol forced all of the families to move their tents, but there was no place for them to go."

Once forced to leave, she said, people lost the protection of the U.S. Border Patrol, which had kept an eye on them, so they were then exposed to the kind of gang violence they had fled. It is not easy to find shelter they can afford, and when they do, it’s nearly uninhabitable. A family of seven managed to find a small place to live and invited another dislocated family to join them. There are now 24 people somehow getting by in two small rooms with broken plumbing and no kitchen, just a hotplate. 

It's sad to see that they have nothing to do all day and nowhere to go.”

-- Jean Sicurella

“Last month on the border, many of the people I saw were wearing random clothes they have found, so I saw a little girl wearing snow boots and a child next to her wearing flip flops.” she said. “It's sad to see that they have nothing to do all day and nowhere to go.”

The conditions at each border crossing is different, but one thing is certain: Regardless of where they are waiting, women and children are vulnerable as they are at risk of sexual assault, trafficking, kidnapping and a host of other crimes.

GoFundMe campaign

Last January, Ortega was so alarmed at the sight of people living in the streets that he contacted Sicurella and said he was going to start a GoFundMe campaign to help. He sent her photos of the families, and the two had what she describes as “endless conversations” about how they could be most helpful, who they would be serving, how they would do it and what it would look like. They decided to start a nonprofit organization and formed a board of directors made up of both Americans and Mexicans. 

Sicurella is familiar with these Mexican towns as well as ways to make a contribution. She helped raise $16,000 for a 12-passenger van to take people to church and to conferences; later, she helped start a bookstore. These days, she goes to Mexico about once every few months, still working full time. 

While in Mexico, she gets up between 4 and 5 a.m. to work for four hours at her job as a regional sales executive for Benefit Resource Inc., which administers tax-free benefits. She’ll then work periodically throughout the day, sending emails and maybe work late at night. “I don’t get a lot of sleep; I have to burn both ends,” she said.  “I’m exhausted when I get home.” Despite the grueling schedule, she said she was No. 1 in sales this year at her company. 

Raised so far 

While home, she does fund-raising. So far, her organization has raised $110,000, with a goal of  $300,000, with the hope of opening the facility next year. “Most people want to do something, but they don’t know how to help,” she said. “People are making donations because they know we are helping refugees and we are trusted. They want to know their money is going somewhere that’s going to make a difference.” 

Sicurella pays for her own travel and other expenses as well as many of the organization’s expenses. Liberty Square Group, a Boston public relations firm is providing pro bono assistance, as are both a Mexican law firm (Santamarina + Steta)and a lawyer in the U.S. GianCarlo Greco, an architectural designer from Medford, is assisting a,long with a Mexican architect.

At times, Sicurella’s whole family pitches in. She credits her husband, David Upton, as well as her children for their support: Olivia, 18, a student at Brandeis, is on the board of directors. She has three other children by birth: Victoria, 21, in Los Angeles; Everett, 17, and Ella, 15. Antonio, 25, is from Mexico and joined the family as a teenager.

“I feel fortunate that I'm able to help,” said Sicurella. “God has given me the energy, he’s made the connections and put all the resources in place so that we can help. I would be negligent not to.”

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This news feature by YourArlington co-owner Marjorie Howard was published Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019.