by Lisa ‘Tiny’ Gray-Garcia
The rubber sides of the boat were like arms – thick, round, hard. “These are the boats refugees have to travel in. Men sit on the side, the women, children and elders in the middle, sometimes getting splashed and sick with the leaking gasoline from the engine because they are covering miles of ocean to go from one country to another.”
The tour guide from Médecins Sans Frontières, known in English as Doctors Without Borders, was narrating the “Forced From Home” traveling exhibit of removal, imperialist wars and NGO and government abuse of indigenous bodies across the Global South. As she spoke, she cut lines into my already broken heart, breaking it into even more pieces.
Our liberation school, Deecolonize Academy, was on a field trip to this exhibit, sitting together in a dull gray rubber raft on the black asphalt parking lot behind the Kaiser Auditorium in downtown Oakland. We were surrounded by everything that was allegedly modern and clean and part of this stolen Lisjan-Ohlone territory known as Oakland, California, United States.
As the guide took us through the literal experience of “refugees” across Mama Earth, destroyed, dismantled and exploited by the empire fueled wars and kkkorporate land grabs in Iraq, Lebanon, Mexico, Tanzania and South Sudan and more, directing us to “pick five things we could take with us with only a 10-second warning.” I stood there deciding between a laminated card with a water bottle, passport or money icons on it.
I began to get a pain in the pit of my stomach. I had been here before, so many times, the few-minutes-to-few-seconds warnings varying from situation to situation. This was my life as a houseless child.
Beginning at age 11, when I had to decide whether to take my favorite stuffed rabbit, my sixth grade class photo or one more pair of jeans in the hefty bag we were about to throw out of the third floor apartment window me and mama were being evicted from, the five-to-10-second warnings began. This was the first eviction we were faced with, our first in a long line of poverty and disability fueled displacements.
Then there were the cars that we were living in that were towed, giving me and my mama two to five seconds to grab “everything” before they were hitched onto the tow trucks and driven away, never to be seen again. We were towed over and over because we were parked overnight in neighborhoods that didn’t want “homeless” people and their hoopties (broken down cars) on their streets, so we would accumulate “illegal lodging” tickets, which we could never pay until they would tow our home away for good.
And then there were the five-minute warnings of police and Department of Public Works before all of our belongings were going to be thrown in the trash when we were sleeping in doorways, on benches and in parks, but by this time the deciding got easier. There was hardly anything left to decide on.
This was when the numbness of loss set in. This is when the poverty eats you up and you just become the move, the trash, the loss, the end. When the privilege of “belongings” is no longer yours to even consider. When the loss and trauma become normalized.
Our poor mama- and uncle-led liberation school Deecolonize Academy, located on the liberated Ohlone Lisjan land us landless peoples at POOR Magazine call Homefulness, went on a field trip to report and support for POOR Magazine’s revolutionary journalism class. All of us formerly houseless, currently houseless poverty mama and youth skolaz, whose Black, Brown, unhoused and disabled lives endlessly struggle with eviction, poverty, racism and different forms of Amerikkklan oppression, false borders and police terror and community violence, felt as if it was natural for us to make this series of horrible crisis decisions, as we rolled through each mock station.
“Imagine you are stateless,” the tour guide called out as she directed us to different sides of a tall erected fence in the installation. “You are an IDP, an international displaced person. No nation will claim you; no nation will protect you.”
“You mean like me, like Afro-Indigenous peoples here,” sis-star warrior, co-teacher at Deecolonize Academy and co-founder of Kiss My Black Arts, Tracey Bell-Borden, said to me under her breath. “Our Black and Brown bodies always under attack by the state, never protected, never respected.” Her voice trailed off and we both got quiet.
International displaced person or IDPs … as I stood behind that fake fence I thought wouldn’t this be a logical title for Black, Brown and Indigenous folks endlessly hunted by predatory police and the politricksters – people like Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat and Amilcar Perez Lopez and Jessica Nelson Williams [all murdered by SFPD]. They were unhoused, criminalized, displaced folks in this stolen Indigenous territory ruled over by the land-stealers, banksters and real estate snakes, who, thanks to their buying, selling and profiting off of Mother Earth, have made it impossible to afford the basic human right to safe, affordable housing in most cities in the United Snakes.
Consequently, families like me and my mama were permanently outside for over 10 years of my childhood and later when I was a single mama with my infant sun.
“Now you can only bring two things, and you have two seconds to decide,” said the tour guide. As she spoke, we all numbly dropped our cards, leaving things we would have needed to live, eat and survive – not because it made sense or was a good decision, but like so many of our brother and sister international refugees are constantly being told, we had to leave. Cards with food, coins, tools and IDs were dropped numbly by all of us into a barrel, and we all shuffled off to the next to last installations.
“This is one of the most important parts of what MSF provides in refugee camps; it’s the clean water and sanitation tent.” Our guide proceeded to show us an extremely simple shower and water station cobbled together with plastic water bottles and canvas that all derived from a large box of imported clean water that MSF brings to all the camps they support.
Again, this is exactly what unhoused folks here need. At every unhoused encampment, folks are criminalized for the sole act of relieving their bodily fluids. Every time a poverty skola is asked directly what they need, we always ask for a porta potty.
“Where can we pee?” As the tour guide spoke about the urgent need for sanitation to keep everyone in the camps healthy, my mind jumped to the endless attacks on unhoused, disabled Black elders in Aunti Frances’ Self-Help Hunger Program just because they wanted to have and keep one porta potty in a North Oakland “public” park in a neighborhood they all come from and are now displaced from, due to the high-speed land grabs all over Oakland and now reside in what my mama Dee used to call cardboard motels.
The installation of working and maintained porta potties is one of the things that made the self-determined Here/There encampment in Berkeley so beautiful and logical and insane for the Berkeley politricksters to remove.
And then we were directed to the last “station,” which was actually a tent. My heart heavy with me and mama’s own street housing and the extreme and non-stop police harassment and DPW removals (called “sweeps”) of tent encampments from Frisco to Berkeley to Oakland, I walked slowly into this station. All of us sat quietly in front of this, the last story as the tour guide spoke.
“This is the story of a young girl, a teenager, who was an IDP in Rohinga. She showed up at the gate of a refugee camp after having five minutes to flee her village out her uncle’s back window because she would have been killed after her parents had been killed.
When she arrived at the refugee camp, which she had run and walked all the way to with just the clothes on her back, they wouldn’t let her in. so she, having nowhere else to go … nowhere else to go, nowhere else to go – my mind stuck here, as that is what we houseless, displaced, evicted elders and families always say, feel and face – slept outside the gate, unsheltered, in the mud and rain. For weeks. Until she became seriously ill with cholera and almost died. Then they let her in. Then they let her in. Then they let her in.
“After getting treatment and healing several weeks later, she woke up one morning and decided to try to get her life back together. She had been going to culinary school in her village before her family was murdered and she was forced to flee.
“So one morning, after getting all her books and things ready, she got dressed, got her hair fixed, her shoes and socks on and walked toward the door of the tent. And then she stopped, paralyzed by fear and trauma, and turned around. She could not leave. Paralyzed by fear and trauma, she could not leave.
At this point, my chest tensed up, my head started to pound, my heart started to race and I couldn’t breathe. Tears streamed down my face. I began violently shaking. I couldn’t move in my metal chair. My son and the other youth skolaz at our small school surrounded me, holding my hand and repeating, “It’s going to be OK, Mama Tiny.”
My mama, a torture survivor, whose own teenage immigrant, abused mama had tried to kill her, and who barely survived extreme abuse in foster homes and orphanages, could not leave the house, even when we had no house. I was her sole caregiver. I held her through that torture, that terror, every day as her daughter, until the day she transitioned.
It was why she could no longer work after being laid off. “One more little murder of the soul, Lisa,” she would whisper, and then grip my arm and then just sit down. She tried so hard, just like this young warrior. She tried so many times. And yet she could never overcome that terror. She could never leave the car, the doorway, the tent, and then eventually the apartment once we were finally re-housed.
“The MSF offers mental health treatment to folks in the camps as well. We are still working with this young woman, and she is still trying.”
As the tour guide wound down, the stories of 100-year-old evicted elder Iris Canada, who died within two days of being forced from her home, of Elaine Turner, Ron Likkers and so many more elders whose lives are destroyed, whose bodies and lives are abused by the violence of Ellis Act evictions that plague the Bay Area and cause so many of us poor and working class families, elders and folks to become unhoused.
“Have you ever considered the ‘refugees’ right here, right around your installation?” we asked the tour guide at the end of the tour, pointing to several tents across the street near the state building.
She didn’t really have anything to say. She nodded her head as we explained the situation of so many people in poverty right here.
As we all walked away slowly, in a daze, I pondered our own state of being IDPs. The connections between the original people’s colonization and genocide. The way that those same settler colonizer laws inform police culture that terrorizes Black and Brown people, that endlessly removes and displaces and criminalizes poor and houseless elders and families from their communities of origin and legislates the so-called public land so it’s never for the public good. And how this same empire and stolen state supports wealth hoarders and starts and funds wars all across Mama Earth so peoples from Yemen to Palestine are always “forced to move.”
by Deecolonize Academy Youth Skola Tiburcio Garcia
Since 1951, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been working to provide free healthcare for refugees and internally displaced people. I had just learned this today when myself, along with my class, went to a workshop created by MSF to inform the city and community of Oakland what they do around the world.
They had us go through a mock simulation of what it would be like to go on these journeys that these refugees go through, having to discard certain items and make hard decisions. Toward the end of the tour, MSF showed more of what they provide to help along the way.
One of the stops was explaining what it was like, crossing the Mediterranean into Greece on a boat made for 15 and holding 150. Another station told us what it was like for people to have to be forced out of their house and have to choose five things to bring in a matter of seconds. I could relate to that one because I was in that experience many times in my life when my mother and I were forcefully evicted from apartments and houses.
In the beginning of the workshop, they gave us a passport type of thing that told us where we came from. I was from Honduras. The main reason why most people are migrating from Honduras is the high murder and homicide rate from the cartels and gangs.
Tiny – or Lisa Gray-Garcia – is co-founder with her Mama Dee of POOR Magazine and its many projects and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America,” published by City Lights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit POOR at www.poormagazine.org. Tiburcio Garcia is her son.