Latina group building a shelter for Muslim migrants in Tijuana

The Islamic Center of Baja is located at Playas de Tijuana in Tijuana, Mexico.

TIJUANA, Mexico — Fridays are for prayer in Tijuana. Every week, Muslim migrants from Africa and the Middle East gather in the Playas de Tijuana neighborhood to worship in the city’s only mosque.

Asylum seekers from Syria pray alongside migrants from Togo, Somalia and Ghana. Among them are Bala, 33, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. The Ghanaian family has spent four months in Tijuana, and the mosque reminds them of their community back home in Accra.

“We all feel very happy to see each other,” said Bala, who declined to share his last name due to his immigration status in Mexico.

The mosque helps Tijuana’s Muslim migrants feel at home in a foreign land, he added. For some migrants – particularly women who wear a hijab – Mexico can be a confusing place. People often don’t understand why they cover their hair. Finding a place to pray five times a day can also be a challenge, especially for migrants living in shelters, said Sonia Garcia, founder of the Latina Muslim Foundation.

“They don’t know the food, the culture, the language,” Garcia said. “It is very difficult for them.”

To help, the Latina Muslim Foundation is raising money to build a shelter for Muslim migrants and deported women, Garcia said. She envisions the shelter as a community hub that will provide migrants and deportees with social services, medical care, and a space to pray. Garcia, who was born in Mexico, raised Catholic and converted to Islam, has been volunteering in Tijuana’s orphanages and migrant shelters for years. When she started, people would stare at her, see her hijab, and ask odd questions.

“People thought I was Arabic,” she said. “They asked why I was in Tijuana.”

Over time, she and Mayte Gutierrez, another convert to Islam, established relationships in Tijuana. They made a habit out of bringing donations from members of the Islamic Center of San Diego across the border.

Garcia and Gutierrez see themselves as uniquely suited to welcome Muslim migrants to Tijuana.

“There exists a big gap of misunderstanding, of ignorance,” Gutierrez said. “Being Latino, being Muslim, we can connect.”

Migrant shelters call Garcia whenever Muslim migrants arrive. If they don’t speak English or Spanish, she will bring volunteers from the Islamic Center of San Diego who speak Arabic to translate.

When there aren’t any translators, they find other methods – like using Google Translate to speak with a group of Somali women, Gutierrez said.

The original idea for the shelter was to serve deported mothers and their children. But after Garcia and Gutierrez realized there was a growing Muslim community in Tijuana, they decided to serve that population, as well.

Now, their plan is to buy a warehouse near the border and convert it into a shelter with offices for social workers and lawyers, a kitchen, medical space, and a prayer room stocked with copies of the Quran. The organization already has the location, plans designed by an architect, and a team of volunteers ready to provide legal and social services, Garcia said.

“The only thing we need is the money,” she added.

The Latina Muslim Foundation has raised $32,000 but said it needs a total of roughly $250,000 to complete their vision. They are currently raising money online.

As migrants continue to arrive in Tijuana, the need for a shelter intensifies, Garcia said. The existing shelters are struggling to house migrants heading north, deportees heading south and the hundreds of asylum seekers forced to return to Mexico under the Remain in Mexico policy. Bala, the Ghanaian migrant, and his family are an example of the difference stable housing can make. When they arrived in Tijuana in June, the family lived in a crowded shelter.

But Bala found work at a car wash and was able to save enough money to rent a one-bedroom apartment. The family now has privacy and is feeling more at home in Mexico, he said. Now they are deciding whether to stay in Mexico or request asylum in the U.S.

Although he and his family are in a better situation, there are Muslim migrants in Tijuana facing homelessness. And more migrants are heading north. Last week, Bala spoke with a group of Ghanaians who crossed the Mexico-Guatemala border heading for Tijuana.

Having gone through the experience of being a new migrant in Tijuana, Bala supports the Latina Muslim Foundation.

“It is a good thing because there are a lot of Muslims without a place to stay,” he said. “The shelters are full and the hotels are very expensive.”

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