Silvana de Leon, Co-Chair of the Young Tejano Democrats, with you girls from Myanmar, who spent the majority of their lives in a refugee camp in Thailand. Credit: Courtesy / Bruno de Leon

When I think of San Antonio the first images that come to my mind are those of a city with a rich Mexican and Tejano heritage highlighted by its traditional food, music, and cultura. Yet, these past years something special has been happening in our town: an influx of new people, cultures, and languages have made their way to South Texas, and we are rapidly becoming an even more diverse city with greater cultural texture and depth.

Recent media reports have drawn increased attention to local and national refugee communities. While volunteers have been instrumental in accommodating migrants, much more can be done to make them feel welcome and at home.

I am an immigrant who now calls San Antonio home. My family is originally from Guatemala. My father had a thriving vehicle and bus importation company and would frequently travel to San Antonio for business purposes in the late 1970s and 80s. My mother comes from a family with deep political roots in Guatemala: her grandfather served as a judge and her uncle ascended the ranks of national Guatemalan politics to serve as an assemblyman in Congress and as president of the Christian Democratic Party in the late 1970s.

Unfortunately, Guatemala became engulfed in a lengthy and bloody civil war that lasted 36 years. The 1980s and early 90s were some of the worst years in Guatemalan history and the war’s effects are still visible to this day. One of the many victims of this war was my mother’s uncle who was assassinated due to his vocal political stance against the government’s human rights violations, scorched earth campaign, and the military coup and political repression that dominated this era.

As a result, my parents made the difficult decision to leave our home, my father’s business, and everything we owned in Guatemala in 1993 and move to Canada to pursue stability and peace to raise me and my siblings. As fate would have it, we never made that final leg of our trip to Canada, and now proudly call San Antonio and the United States our home. We share an unconditional love for the city and country that welcomed us.

I vividly remember the struggles and sacrifices my parents made to give us better opportunities, but I also remember the numerous individuals who lent us a helping hand and, most importantly, believed in us. As I reflect on my own personal journey, I realize that it wasn’t something I did on my own; rather it has been a collective effort.

My first encounter with San Antonio’s growing refugee community occurred during my junior year at the University of the Incarnate Word when one of my sisters – an accounting graduate student at UIW at the time – volunteered with the VITA program.

University of the Incarnate Word. Photo by Nan Palmero.
University of the Incarnate Word. Credit: Nan Palmero / Creative Commons

She was helping a family from Myanmar who was having tax issues, but struggled to communicate with the parents due to language barriers. She ended up relying on the family’s youngest child to serve as the designated interpreter in the process, and was reminded of how we were when we were kids growing up. My family and I connected with the family from Myanmar and supplied them with furniture and clothing as they had only been living in San Antonio for one year and were in great need.

During my senior year I took a special topic course taught by Dr. Lopita Nath that focused on San Antonio’s refugee community. I had the opportunity to work with a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a semester-long project documenting his story in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, as well as the resettlement process when he came to the U.S.

My desire to learn and engage more with our new neighbors inspired me to recruit my family and a core group of like-minded friends and classmates to help organize a back to school clothes drive for refugee children alongside the newly formed Bexar County Young Tejano Democrats and the Brown Berets of San Antonio. The number of children that came out to pick up clothes was astonishing, as was the broad spectrum of languages and cultures of the many people who came together to prepare for the new school year.

The stories of adversity that the children told – some of them lived their entire lives in refugee camps and one child was forced into slavery in a diamond field in Eastern Africa – pushed our organization to find better ways to fill the void in these children’s lives. After brainstorming and reflecting on the work we had done, we knew that these children were in need of a renewed sense of innocence, and made it our mission to help them celebrate Christmas – a first for many.

A young girl from Myanmar looks through her stocking.
A young girl from Myanmar looks through her stocking. Credit: Courtesy / Carlos de Leon

A simple toy, something so many of us took for granted growing up, can make a tremendous impact on the lives of children who have endured more hardship than most Americans encounter in their entire life. It helps them understand the importance of giving, community, having hope, understanding, and, most importantly, of welcoming others. Our first drive was tremendously successful as we were able to give toys to more than 300 families. We are proud to say that over the past three years we have donated toys to more than 1,000 families who now call San Antonio home. We have grown our partners to include University of the Incarnate Word and Trinity University professors, local elected officials, community organizations, and Santa’s Cruisers, an initiative spearheaded by Mystic Knights Car Club.

Unfortunately, the U.S.’s current political climate has made our collection efforts more difficult. The rise of xenophobic sentiments is alarming, even at the local level, but the people who have pareticipated in this project these past four years understand its importance. In many ways my story reflects the story of these children, and the story of these children is the collective story of Americans with a shared immigrant background and identity that has built the foundation of our great nation.

I am constantly reminded of the words of an Iraqi father of three whom we spoke to interviewed during our first toy giveaway. When we asked him what the giveaway meant for him, he said that while he was a Muslim, the joy we had brought his children made him understand and appreciate Christianity and Christmas more. Most importantly, he said he felt truly felt American that day because we had made his family feel like they were a part of our community.

We hope you can join us in helping us make this year’s toy drive the most successful one yet and continuing to build these important relationships with our new neighbors.

The Bring Joy to a Refugee Child in SA Toy distribution will take place on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 at Auburn Creek and Wurzbach Manor apartments.

Toy Drive Collection sites between Nov. 14 to Dec. 18:

  • SA Pops (3420 N. Saint Mary’s. St, San Antonio, Texas 7821):
    • Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from 2- 6 p.m.
    • Saturday from 12-7 p.m.
  • ReBath Showroom @ H-E-B Plus! (17460 I-35, Schertz, TX 78154)
    • Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
    • Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • La Joyeria Internacional (6996 S. Zarzamora St., San Antonio, Texas 78224)
    • Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    • Sunday 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.

You can also donate online via our Amazon Wishlist here. 

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Carlos de Leon

Carlos de Leon recent graduated from UIW graduate with his MBA in Finance and currently works for County Commissioner Tommy Calvert. He has previously worked for organizations such as Mexicans and Americans...