A boisterous crowd of 300 people — children with parents and caretakers — lined up in the cold Sunday afternoon on San Antonio’s Northwest Side, eagerly awaiting the chance to choose from an assortment of toys brought to them by the Bring Joy SA Toy Drive.

The annual holiday toy drive distributes free toys, bicycles, and H-E-B gift cards to low-income families, primarily refugees from war-torn areas around the globe.

Organizer Carlos de Leon, who originally arrived with his family in San Antonio as a refugee from the decades-long civil war in Guatemala, relates closely to the situation of the families his charitable organization now serves. He said it’s been a tough year for donations for various reasons and that, judging by the line of families he hoped to provide with toys, need in the community is overwhelming.

The toy drive is one way “to bring to light” the situation of refugee families “and be able to really give them a warm welcome, [to show] that, in San Antonio, they’re welcome here, they’re not strangers or foreigners you should be afraid of but, rather, they are part of our strong community fabric.”

Eleven-year-old Esan arrived in San Antonio four years ago from Afghanistan and had his eyes on a bicycle.

In line behind him were 11-year-olds Fatima and Mirah, who arrived in San Antonio five years ago from Baghdad. With them was 7-year-old Marina, who also hoped to get a bike, though she promised to share it with her siblings since each family group was allotted one bicycle.

The bicycles are provided by the Earn-a-Bike nonprofit, one among several contributors to the Bring Joy SA Toy Drive. When the toy drive started eight years ago, Earn-a-Bike founder Cristian Sandoval recognized an opportunity to donate used bicycles to the cause. He said they started with 10, then brought more the following year and now distribute 50 bikes, along with pumps and tools to fix, adjust and maintain the bicycles.

Children play with bicycles during the 9th annual Bring Joy SA toy drive benefitting refugee children resettling in San Antonio Sunday.
Children play with bicycles Sunday during the Bring Joy SA Toy Drive. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Sandoval said he recognized himself in the line of eager children. “When I was a kid, I lived in an apartment complex like this,” he said, gesturing to the buildings of Wurzback Manor apartments.

Growing up with his single mother in Guatemala, he said, “I remember … how I loved my bicycle, because it was the only thing that would allow me to be out of the apartment.”

Toy donor Christina Mireles also saw a reflection of herself in the kids swarming around her to select from the foam footballs, Star Wars and Marvel comics figurines, glittery hula hoops, light-up scooters, board games from Yahtzee to Candy Land and the array of Barbie Loves the Ocean dolls on her table.

Mireles said she grew up in poverty in South Texas. “I didn’t have a lot growing up and often was on the receiving end of a lot of the food drives and the toy drives. And so I know what a difference it could make to not feel so forgotten.”

Mireles wore a red sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a medical degree and now practices as a doctor with UT Health San Antonio. Once she discovered the Bring Joy SA Toy Drive through her friend and fellow volunteer Alicia Conde, it became natural for her to contribute.

“It means a lot to me to see the kids light up when they get to pick their toys. It’s become a tradition for me,” Mireles said.

Several refugees expressed personal hopes and ambitions for their new lives in San Antonio. When prodded, Fatima said her favorite subject at Rudder Middle School was math, and she hoped one day to become an attorney. Having shepherded his 3-year-old daughter, Babi, through the line and awaiting his other kids, Hadia and Muhammed, 34-year-old Khan Kakar said he is studying toward a master’s degree in construction management and hopes to become a civil engineer.

Still in line awaiting her toys, asked what she likes about life in San Antonio, Mirah spoke without hesitation: “Freedom.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...