Community reaches out to aid refugee children

Some Ellis County residents want others to know there’s nothing to fear, but fear itself when it comes to the 500 unaccompanied children expected to be housed inside Lakeview Camp and Retreat Center for the next 18 days.

As of noon Monday, about 400 refugee teenagers between 13-17 years of age had arrived at the camp from Central America, after surrendering themselves at the south Texas border, said Congressmen Joe Barton (R-Ennis/Arlington), after taking a tour of the facility. Barton was only one of several Ellis County people who visited the camp Monday morning. The others came from a local Boy Scout troop and church group. The children started arriving Friday afternoon, three days after state, county and local officials were informed of the situation.

Matt Authier, a Waxahachie ISD school board member and youth leader of Central Presbyterian Church in Waxahachie, said he and his pastor joined together Sunday morning in prayer, hoping for an opportunity to help the children. That night their prayers were answered after Nick Taylor with Boy Scout Troop 232 notified them that camp officials needed help assembling beds for the children, he said.

“Personally, dating back two months, aside from my relationship with my church, I had been trying to find a way with the IRC (International Rescue Committee) to help Syrian refugees in the Metroplex. When I heard of families resettled there, I emailed those folks and asked if I could help,” Authier said. “Mainly, I just wanted to be there when they stepped out of the car to see a smiling face, and hug. My Christianity has a huge role in that, but aside from that even, it’s just compassion for your fellow human being. We’re in a time that it seems politics has taken precedence over relationships within your church and your religion, and also with your neighbor. There’s a context of fear that prohibits you from going out and showing that compassion, and given those opportunities our church has a long history with refugees. With the Syrian refugees, that was tough, because a whole lot of politics play into those decisions. So, when these folks from Central America literally landed on our front doors, a couple miles from our houses, we just jumped all over that.”

When news first broke last Wednesday, residents flooded social media with reactions ranging from outrage and racism, philosophical and political discussion, to a call to help the teenagers and a call for more security within the county.

With security one of the biggest concerns, Barton reassured residents again Monday that the security of the county was under control and that children within the facility are “not a threat to the county,” he said during a press conference at the camp’s front gate. He toured the facility with camp and county officials after expressing concern that because the camp was wide open, it would be difficult to keep the location secure and keep the county safe.

“The problem is not a problem at this facility. The issue really is that our national policy in some ways encourages these young men and women to come into this country illegally, and then be allowed to stay, while their refugee status is being determined,” Barton said. “That’s an issue to be settled in Washington, and given the disagreement of people like myself, it’s not an issue that we’re going to settle anytime soon.”

For 21 days, as of last Friday, the camp will be closed to house the teenagers, 28 of which are female, Barton said. He stressed that the camp will not house the children beyond the contracted time frame.

“I am very appreciative of the way the camp is being run, of all the local personnel and the job of what Sheriff Brown — he and his deputies — are doing,” he said, adding he appreciated the efforts of the county commissioners and county judge Carol Bush. “In the history of these sites in Texas in the last several years, only three people have attempted to leave the camp. Initially, it was a serious concern, but after talking to the sheriff and to the operators of the camp, I don’t think there’s a problem with people trying to leave the camp and commit some sort of crime.”

He didn’t know whether the words appreciate and understand could be interchanged, but politically, he said he could appreciate the concern.

“The fear, and the amount of fear, and the amount of response from that fear has worried me with some of the comments I’ve read, which most people have seen by now,” Authier said, referencing reaction on social media sites. “My approach to life is that I serve a God who is far bigger than the boundaries of this country and so, if he’s telling me to love my neighbor as I love myself, and that neighbor is all of a sudden a lot closer than they have been before, I feel a need to serve that person. I don’t want the government to get in the way of me being able to serve that neighbor, but I understand there’s also laws we need to abide by and that folks coming into our country need to abide by. So, it’s an incredibly polarizing topic, and you can see that. You have seen that.”

About 16 people from Maypearl and Waxahachie churches and parent leaders with the Boy Scout Troop were ushered into a covered area to build bunk beds, he said. For the protection of the children inside the camp, no photography or videography or recording is allowed at this time, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials Saturday. The camp has about 1,000 beds, and about 800 are expected to be filled with the unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and the 200 workers expected to help them.

“On my way in, we were stopped by a line of children going from what I assume were their sleeping quarters to go have breakfast. It was about 8 a.m., and so we saw them marching in a single-file line. They looked like kids — smiles on their faces and they looked hungry. They probably had just gotten a good sleep for the first time in a while after being bussed up from no-telling-where,” Authier said, emphasizing the facility looked peaceful and calm and he wasn’t allowed to interact with any of the children. “Then on the way out, we saw about 80 kids playing soccer and further down toward the camp, you could see about 100-150 kids doing outdoor activities. It showed me humanity. I thank God it happened in Ellis County, and to see those kids have a place that’s out of the hustle and bustle of the downtown Waxahachie area or downtown Dallas area, they have room to move around and be free and be kids. It looked like recess at any junior high you drive by in Waxahachie, honestly. It gave me hope.”

Brown confirmed the observation by saying so far everything was running smoothly, and the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office continues to do 24-7 patrolling on the outer perimeter of the camp, he said.

For further coverage on the unaccompanied children housed at the Lakeview Camp, visit www.waxahachietx.com. Those interested in finding out what volunteer opportunities exist should email the North Texas District of Assemblies of God, which runs the camp.

“I know no matter what I saw or what the media publishes, or what churches say, there’s going to be a fear factor out there because it’s an unknown,” Authier said. “The best you can do as the general public as you drive by is look to your right or left and try to get a glimpse of what’s going on. It was quiet. It wasn’t chaotic. The one interesting thing is how well equipped they are from a professional view. There were adults almost every 100 yards. There were at least two people to a group that were watching what was going on. We drove through it pretty quickly, but you could see they were well-equipped. I’d like to tell the public to let these 21 days play out and this group that’s charged with doing what they’re supposed to do and what they’re called to do, they’re handling it very well.”