UT students volunteer at immigrant shelter

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Anju Dhital fled to Austin almost one year ago after a bloody civil war in Nepal tore apart her country and her family. A former teacher, she was forced to leave her country when members of the communist Maoist party threatened her for selling newspapers that criticized the uprising. They told her to leave or be killed, she said. “I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Dhital said. The revolutionaries hit her husband on the head so badly that he is now brain damaged, she said. Her mother fled to India, where she is now caring for Dhital’s 8- and 14-year-old sons. She had a very difficult journey getting here, paying smugglers high prices while they threatened her life along the way. All of her possessions were stolen, and she arrived with absolutely nothing, she said. After being held in an immigration detention facility for two months, she was referred to Casa Marianella — an East Austin shelter for asylum-seekers and homeless immigrants — and has been living there off and on for a total of four months. Dhital is one of about 25 immigrants who UT students helped at Casa Marianella on Saturday. Student volunteers from campus group Hunger and Homelessness Outreach sorted clothes and toiletries and hauled trash at Casa Marianella, while another group of students went to Posada Esperanza, a smaller house for single mothers and their children, and made Valentine’s Day cards with the children. Volunteers from the group gather every Saturday to work at shelters, soup kitchens and food and clothing banks in the Austin community. “Everyone does a small part and that contributes to the bigger picture,” said Mandara Gabriel, economics sophomore and first-time volunteer. About half of Casa Marianella’s residents are asylum-seekers, the other half are recently arrived immigrants, most from Mexico or Central America, who may be ineligible for asylum or who left their home country for a better life in the United States. Many of the residents at the shelter came from detention facilities, where immigrants and asylum-seekers often stay many months or years at a time in a prison-like setting before being called in for court dates, deported, or referred to a “casa de migrante,” a migrant house like Casa Marianella or Posada Esperanza. “The majority of our residents have presented themselves at the U.S. border and are fleeing from their home countries based on persecution of race, religion, ethnicity or belonging to a social or political group,” said Pamela Larson, Casa Marianella operations coordinator. These asylum seekers stay at the shelter often up to a year, while they receive help through the legal process. “The laws are so complex, it’s hard for anyone to work their way through,” said Melissa Buhrt, Casa Marianella assistant director. At the East Austin shelters, immigrants and asylum-seekers take advantage of ESL classes, job locating services, lawyer referrals, food and shelter while they await their court dates. “We offer case management helping them to get medical care for the long journey they’ve undergone, to counseling, because many of our individuals have been victims of human trafficking or abuse in their home nation, and so we are trying to help them recover as holistically as possible,” Larson said.