Fifteen hundred neatly organized sandwiches are assembled by 10 local volunteers as the smell of 30-plus pounds of sizzling beef wafts across the World Central Kitchen (WCK) headquarters in Tijuana, Mexico. The non-profit, founded by chef Jose Andres, has been feeding between 1,400 and 1,600 Central American refugees two to three times a day on the U.S.–Mexico border since their arrival on December 5. On December 18, WCK surpassed 50,000 total meals served in Tijuana border camps.

The recent influx in caravan activity has drawn mass media attention, but contrary to popular belief, refugees from Central America have been arriving in Tijuana for over a decade. There is a pre-established network of support systems already in place, and though the local government wasn’t prepared for the large numbers of Central Americans arriving all at once, their ability to manage, ID, and provide basic resources to the new refugees (without any assistance from the U.S.) has been effective, to say the least.

While the Mexican government has provided a great deal of aid, it’s the smaller nonprofits, church groups, and independent volunteers that are making the biggest difference in these refugees’ everyday lives. I spent five days in border camps working alongside World Central Kitchen. My goal was to document the incredible grass-roots and non-profit relief effort taking place despite immense push-back from the U.S. government. While embedded with World Central Kitchen, I saw Tijuana locals handing out toys and supplies, volunteer lawyers discussing asylum processes with refugees, and individuals donating weeks of their time to manage the family section of the Barretal compound. Larger organizations like UNICEF, the Red Cross, and FEMA often get most of the credit, but without independent volunteers and smaller nonprofits like WCK, the relief effort at the border would crumble.  

What is happening in Tijuana?

Local relief organizations became overwhelmed when more than 7,000 Central Americans made the grueling journey to the Tijuana border in a series of organized caravans throughout November and early December. The refugees arrived with hopes of claiming asylum, but many were misled into thinking the process of entering the United States would be streamlined, according to camp manager Nate Dennison. “Organizers made it seem like they would be able to cross with no problem,” Dennison said. “Many seemed surprised when they were turned away and forced to wait months for their papers to be processed.” Only 40 to 100 people are being processed by immigration officials each day.

When the caravans first reached the border, local officials were completely unprepared and were forced to pack more than 6,000 refugees into the Benito Juarez sports complex. After torrential rains in early December rendered the facility uninhabitable, it was dissolved, and refugees had to be dispersed between 16 shelters in the Tijuana area.

The majority (over 3,000 refugees) were moved to the Barretal complex, located roughly 14 miles southeast of Tijuana. The camp now sits in the area’s low-income suburban community — far from the wealthy and tourist-centric city center. “Out of sight, out of mind,” Dennison said. “The city wanted them out.”

Who is World Central Kitchen and what do they hope to accomplish?

World Central Kitchen was founded by celebrity chef and philanthropist José Andrés after the 2010 Haiti earthquake in an effort to combat hunger and provide on-the-ground relief in crisis zones that need it most. Since then, the organization has provided aid in Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Zambia, and the United States.

Most recently, WCK has focused its efforts in Tijuana, setting up a headquarters and sending two to three west coast chefs to oversee their work at the border camps. With no end to the flow of asylum-seekers in sight, the initiative aims to empower refugees to create a self-sustaining food-based relief effort, establish a formal food service certification program, and continue providing for those who need it most. “Our goal is to integrate [the refugees] into the food-making process,” said WCK project manager Sam Bloch. “Right now, we’re attempting to hire shuttles to transport them from the camps to the kitchen. This way, we can teach them how to properly run and organize the kitchen, creating a sustainable food service moving forward.”

A day in Barretal Refugee Camp

Each day begins at 7 a.m. Lunch is prepped, and at 11, two or three volunteers pack up a large box truck with enough to feed the 1,400 to 1,600 refugees. Entering Barretal through a rusted, graffiti-covered back entrance, Nate Dennison ushers the van toward a set of makeshift tents next to the family section of the camp. The compound is split into two areas: an indoor facility for families, children, and the elderly, and an outdoor section for single men.

Upon arrival, children from every section of the camp rush to the truck to unload and begin setting up. There is no need for instruction, as many refugees have been helping every day for several weeks. With little else to keep them occupied, children wait with excitement to serve the day’s lunch and dinner. After putting on gloves, masks, and aprons, they begin as several World Central Kitchen volunteers oversee the process.

Women, children, and the elderly are served first as a line of between 200 and 300 men begins to form at the gate separating the two sections of the camp. After the families are served, the men are let in 10 to 20 at a time. Two hours later, 1,500 meals have been dispersed, and the children help WCK workers pack up the truck. Volunteers then return to Tijuana where dinner is waiting in hot packs. The truck is packed for a second time, and the process is repeated for dinner around 5 p.m. Thanks to the combined effort of volunteers, eager refugees, and camp management, the nonprofit is well on its way to creating a sustainable refugee-run kitchen that will last for months (or possibly years) to come.

Who are the major players in the crisis?

There are four major players involved in the U.S.–Mexico border crisis: the Mexican government, the United States government, local Tijuana and San Diego residents, and non-profit organizations providing aid.

The Mexican government immediately pledged its support, providing food, water, shelter, and job facilitation for refugees in Tijuana. Local churches and non-profit organizations also stepped in to assist with food and shelter. It was estimated that the city was spending about $27,119 every day on services and supplies during the month of November, according to Tijuana’s Government Secretary Leopoldo Guerrero.

The U.S. government, however, immediately condemned the caravans, bolstered security, and sent 5,600 troops to the border. Additionally, President Trump has since continued his aggressive campaign to secure $5 billion in funding for his long-promised border wall (despite Democrats offer to compromise at $1.3 billion). This also comes at a time when border apprehensions are at nearly half of what they used to be, with roughly 400,000 people being detained in 2018, compared to over 800,000 in 2007, and over 1,600,000 in 2000.

This polarizing debate culminated recently with the second-longest (so far) government shutdown in U.S. history. Before Trump gave his direct address to the American people on January 8, a Politico poll found that 47 percent of voters blame Trump for the shutdown, while 33 percent blame Democrats. Today, the debate continues, as the U.S. government remains in a gridlocked shutdown, and an estimated 800,000 government workers miss their first paycheck.

Local San Diego and Tijuana residents are split into two groups: those who oppose the refugee presence and those who feel it is their duty to help. “The sentiment in the local community is very negative,” local Tijuana volunteer Beatrix Berger said. “Mexicans always support other Mexicans illegally crossing the border. They used to say ‘no human being is illegal’ — but now they say the Central Americans are illegally here.”

“The biggest concern is the possibility of the border closing again,” she went on to say. “Families in Tijuana who work or send their children to school in San Diego are very worried.” She went on to cite the refugee street presence, and financial strain on the government, as reason for concern among her friends who oppose the support efforts.

Others feel that education and job opportunities are the key to integrating Central American refugees into Mexican society. “If we show them positivity, they will be positive. If we [treat] them badly, they will [respond] badly,” Tijuana pastor and volunteer Leopold Perez said. “I think it all depends on the education we give them.”

Tijuana’s collegiate community also views the refugee presence as an opportunity to help those in need. “I don’t care if they are from down South; I’m going to help them either way,” said student and volunteer Oscar Montana, who has been volunteering with World Central Kitchen three times a week since mid-December through a collegiate volunteer program. “It doesn’t matter why they came here, or what I think, they need to eat.”

The final players in this polarizing crisis are non-profits like World Central Kitchen, Border Angels, local church groups, and community shelters. While initiating relief efforts in Tijuana was challenging at first, nonprofits have received immense support from community members, fellow non-profits, students, and refugees. “You don’t see a lot of negativity down here,” said WCK project manager Sam Bloch. “Most of that comes from the media sensationalizing a few bad incidents. We have received a great deal of support for our work here.”

The situation at the border is rife with complexity and compounded by political commentary, but the need for immediate action is undeniable. If you’d like to support chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen you can donate here.

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Mike Schwarz
Michael Schwarz is a freelance photojournalist residing in Brooklyn, NY. He specializes in a wide array of photo and video work, as well as written journalism, investigative reporting, and spot news coverage. His work has been published by the Associated Press, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and Fodor's Travel.