Migrant and refugee shelter in east Austin is buckling under flood of families

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — At the end of a quiet east Austin road lined with homes, there are three brightly painted houses buzzing with activity. A sign outside one reads “Casa Marianella.”

Thursday afternoon, five families loaded their few personal belongings and their children into waiting pickup trucks. They were moving into hotel rooms where they will stay for the next month as they wait for something more permanent. The six hotel rooms were a donation from Catholic Charities of Central Texas.

Casa Marianella is one of the few shelters in the country for migrants and refugees after they’ve been processed through Customs and Border Patrol and the United States government has issued them documents, according to Executive Director Jennifer Long. It’s also the closest one to the U.S.-Mexico border. In the past few months, the shelter that typically accepts only adults has seen a surge of families with small children looking for help.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: List of organizations mobilizing to help immigrants crossing the border

“When the families come, we don’t even know they are coming. They just arrive on our doorstep and we are just trying to help them out temporarily until we can find a safer place for them to be,” Long said.

Down south, an unprecedented migrant surge has overwhelmed border patrol facilities and left processing centers strapped — leading to a fiery debate among advocates and lawmakers on how to best handle the problem, according to a report by KXAN media partner Texas Tribune.

More than 144,000 migrants were apprehended or denied entry into the U.S. last month — the largest number in 13 years. More than half of them were families with children and about 8% were unaccompanied minors. Last month, Texas facilities held more than 5,800 migrant children waiting to be processed.

Casa Marianella has operated in Austin for 33 years and since its inception, has expanded to 11 locations around the city. The shelter operated at full capacity all year and with more people showing up each day, resources are strained, Long said. This week, the east Austin location that can house 38 people had 86 residents before the group could relocate some of them.

In a cramped room that acts as an office for the shelter, former residents huddle over stacks of mail looking for anything with their name on it. Outside the door, a baby sleeps in a stroller and seven children huddle around a computer screen to watch cartoons on YouTube. Long told KXAN the baby was born prematurely in Mexico while his family was waiting for months to be granted asylum in the United States.

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Long says at present most of the people seeking shelter at Casa Marianella are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries. They typically travel to Brazil or Ecuador and make the perilous journey north through the jungles of Panama and Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. The journey can take months.

Former Casa Marianella resident and refugee from Somalia, Mohamed Elmi Ahmed shows off his shelter ID card. He now lives in an apartment, works as a Lyft driver and says he’s proud to pay his taxes. (Tulsi Kamath / KXAN)

One former resident of Casa Marianella is 28-year-old Somalian refugee, Mohamed Elmi Ahmed. Today, he works as a Lyft driver and lives in an apartment on Riverside Drive. But just six months ago, he was at the shelter, unsure of what the future would hold.

Elmi Ahmed says he fled terrible conditions in his country and made his way to our southern border like thousands of others, hoping for a better life.

“I passed through 11 countries — walking, bus, boat, whatever worked,” he said.

At the border, he says he was processed into a detention center and lived in custody for two years while fighting in court to be granted asylum. When he finally was granted asylum and got out, he says Casa Marianella took him in and two months later, he was able to start his life in the United States.

He plans to stay in Austin and hopes to get a law degree and become a prosecutor. After that, he told KXAN he plans to apply to become a U.S. citizen.

But though it worked out for him, Elmi Ahmed doesn’t recommend others follow suit, including his mother and two siblings he left behind.

“It’s a long way,” he said of the journey. “It’s tough. It’s dangerous. Then when you get (into America), it’s worse. You get deported or you stay in detention for unlimited time. Anyway, you are the loser.”

How you can help

A flyer outside the office at Casa Marianella lists the things the shelter can accept as donations. (Tulsi Kamath / KXAN)

“This isn’t just an issue of us, this is an issue of community and people who are coming to our community looking for help,” Long said. “So I’m really happy now that people in our community are stepping up to help out.”

Groups bring donated vegetables to the shelter or volunteer time to help clean out storage rooms, but while people are trying to help, it isn’t always enough. A laminated flyer tacked on the wall outside the office lists items the shelter accepts as donations.

You can get more information about Casa Marianella and how you can help others like Elmi Ahmed on the shelter’s website.

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