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A Home for the Homeless, ABBA House

by Kami Kanetsuka

ABBA House in Celaya is a bright cheery place and a safe, communal home for migrants. It has housed thousands of migrants on their dangerous journey, either to the U.S.A. or their return to homes they have had to flee due to corruption, violence and poverty. All north/south trains pass through Celaya. Many migrants ride the train, nicknamed La Bestia. Often the migrants find their way to ABBA House for a few days of refuge.

Those who are still able bodied can stay for three days. They receive nurturing care. The sick and injured are cared for until they are able to resume their journey, a journey full of obstacles and dangers. All who arrive have experienced hardships. Many arrive with injuries, including amputations, sometimes after falling off the train and sustaining horrendous injuries. Many have infected blisters from walking many miles. All arrive red-eyed, traumatized and exhausted.

I had the privilege of spending a day at ABBA House recently, traveling with Stan Allen and Ellen Coburn. Stan has been visiting the house twice a week for two and a half years. Ellen, a doctor whom I have known for many years, has accompanied him since the beginning of this year to administer medications and check other medical needs. Stan, who was once a Peace Corps worker in Venezuela, speaks fluent Spanish, as does Ellen. So I was in good hands to find out what goes on in this nurturing home.

The front doors are metal and are always kept locked. When we arrived ever-exuberant Stan took me around introducing me to the mostly volunteer staff. I met Angie, who registers new arrivals, while she was sorting through a pile of clothes. (ABBA provides shoes, backpacks, socks, underwear, other items of new and used clothing, medications and personal hygiene products.) I met the kitchen staff and other volunteer workers. Stan then introduced me to the migrants he was familiar with. (People come and leave on a daily basis.) Even with my notebook it was impossible to get all of the names of the people to whom I was introduced. At the time of my visit the majority of the migrants were Hondurans.

It had been established why I was visiting, and I had worked out what I could photograph without endangering anyone. Because of my limited Spanish I was able to talk with only one migrant. As an amputee Alan had been at the house for some months, waiting for his prosthesis. He had lost part of one leg, falling off the train. He happily spoke with me to practice his English and he proudly told me that it was his daughter who taught him. Most of his family are still back in Honduras. It was a friendly chat and he also was curious about me. This man who must have suffered terribly, while we talked kept smiling and had a twinkle in his eye. Later Stan told me that he had not told his family about losing part of his leg.

Ellen, meanwhile, had disappeared into the infirmary, to administer to all the medical needs. When she reappeared Stan said it was time to shop for a week's groceries. With Magali, one of the cooks, the now four of us went off to a nearby supermarket. With a list and a quick wander around the aisles we soon filled up four carts. Ellen bought more medical supplies. Angie had a birthday coming up in a couple of days, so four large cakes sat on the top of one of the carts. When we arrived back, Stan called for volunteers to help unpack the groceries. A train of young men quickly carried everything into the house.

ABBA House is the brainchild of Pastor Ignacio Martinez Ramirez, a truly compassionate man. In the beautiful film by Judy Jackson, Walk With Us, Pastor Ignacio is seen bathing the blistered feet of a migrant. He tells how he and his family originally started by taking food to the migrants on the trains, but with the strong feeling that they were not doing enough. With time and much work they raised money to rent a place, which is the present ABBA House. Pastor Ignacio's mission, and that of the team he has built, is to provide each of these wandering people with 3 nights of safe, fear-free rest, healthy food, showers, fresh clothes, emotional support, legal assistance and medical attention.

When I was introduced to Pastor Ignacio he greeted me warmly. I could feel this was a man who treats all as equals. He happily posed for a photograph. As I left his office with Stan, we ran into Austen a 17 year old migrant from Honduras. He gave me a very warm hug (something I would not experience in Canada with a 17 year old boy). Stan told me his story. When he was 14 years old Austen, whose father was already in the U.S., was traveling there with his uncle and two cousins, When they reached the border, his uncle told him that he could not be responsible for him. As a strong, attractive teenager the dangers at the border were so great that he decided to turn back. On his journey back he auspiciously found ABBA House. Pastor Ignacio was impressed with Austen's demeanor. When trying to help, he and his family decided to adopt him. When I met him he had just returned from school. As a friendly teenager he is very much part of the communal house.

On his visits Stan always brings games: word puzzles, coloring crayons, jigsaw puzzles and sometimes ping-pong or soccer balls. On this visit he put down the word game and the mandala coloring sheets on the long table. I joined the group of mostly men who gathered around. The men found the words in the jumble of letters as I struggled to do the same. A young girl sat next to me, more curious to see my results than to play herself. Then we went to the mandalas, which were more my style.

As I sat coloring surrounded by these men, I was aware of my privilege. I was aware that if I were born in their country, I would most likely be completely in their position. As Stan said, "They are all good people, just wanting to make a better life for themselves and their families." My visit to ABBA House, with its community spirit and resilient people, will remain with me for a long time. I feel a sadness that I will never know the fate of those I connected with even if only for a short time. They represent for me the millions of migrants world wide who are forced to leave their homes due to corruption, violence, environmental devastation and poverty.

ABBA House relies on the big hearts of those who respond to the need of this vulnerable population and understand the complete random chance of where you happen to be born. If moved please make financial gifts to assist with the mission of ABBA House at the following link:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/abba-house-shoes-for-immigrants

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Kami Kanetsuka during the sixties lived and worked in Tel Aviv, Rome and Bangkok before settling down in Kathmandu for five years after traveling overland from London.. During that time she cut her writing teeth withThe Rising Nepal and the Bangkok Post newspapers. Her travel articles have appeared in international and inflight magazines and two stories are in travel anthologies. She has been a part time resident of San Miguel and also resides on a little island in British Columbia, Canada where she is working on a memoir on her 50 year relationship with Nepal.

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