That night in April 2019, the two families gathered around the Seder table. Roslyn and David Zinner had set out eggs, horseradish and matzo for the Jewish holiday, symbolizing new life, tears and traveling in haste. With them were a mother and son from Honduras who barely understood English, much less the religious tradition. But the pair followed along as the Haggada, the story of Passover, was read aloud.
By candlelight, and through a Spanish interpreter, the Honduran mother recounted how she had managed to make it to Maryland. She and her 5-year-old son had fled gang and domestic violence, traveling by truck and bus across four countries. It reminded the Zinners of a precarious moment in their own family history, when David Zinner’s relatives were able to escape the Holocaust and settle in the United States.
It was the first of many dinners between the two families.
The Howard County couple are among a small network of families across the country who are welcoming asylum-seekers like the Honduran family into their homes for long-term stays. That enables the immigrants to avoid being separated from family members or sent back to countries they were desperate to leave. They also can escape being held in detention for long periods.
Along the way, the journey of the immigrants to find their place here winds up becoming a journey for their hosts as well. Both sides find themselves sharing food, religions, cultures and more.
“We’ve been through some crises together,” said Roslyn Zinner, 68. “You bond, and they’re family now. Whatever happens and wherever they go to live, they’ll always be part of our family.”
Said Stephanie, the 28-year-old Honduran mother, “When someone asks me, ‘Who do you live with?’’ I always say, ‘They’re my family.’ They’re not my blood family, but all the people who have supported me since I arrived have become the family I need here.”
Stephanie requested that she and her son Samir not be identified by last name because of the violence in Honduras, and the fear that they could be in danger if their names are published.
She said she originally hoped to stay in Mexico with friends. But when she realized that it, too, was dangerous, she pushed on her with her son. When they made it to the U.S./Mexico border, they were able to stay for three months at a Jesuit-run nonprofit shelter. It was there, at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonara, that Stephanie learned about the program that matches asylum-seekers with American host families. Traveling with her son — and pregnant, the result of an assault while in Mexico — she felt desperate to find a safe path.
For the Zinners, it began by asking what they could do in the fight for immigrant justice. They had already been protesting federal actions like the family separation policy with the community action group Indivisible Howard County.
“We thought, well, we have a big house,” said Roslyn Zinner, a social worker at a private psychotherapy practice.Her husband David, 70, is executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, Hebrew for honor and comfort, a national organization that promotes traditional Jewish funeral practices.
The Zinners have lived in Columbia, a Maryland suburb founded on values of tolerance and inclusion, since 1979. Their daughter noted that they’ve long welcomed exchange students into their Long Reach Village home.
“We’re not legislators. We don’t have the powers in other ways,” Roslyn Zinner said. “But here’s something we personally could do.”
The two families were connected by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network focused on racial justice organizing efforts. The group and its successor, the Asylum-seekers Sponsorship Project, have found sponsors across the country for more than 400 asylum-seekers over the past three years. With more than 96,000 people filing for asylum in the United States in 2019, advocates said the need is urgent. The federal government allows host families to take in asylum-seekers, as long as the sponsors provide food and housing, and receive mail regarding court dates and other legal proceedings.
Soon enough, the Zinners were introduced to Stephanie and Samir over a video call. For the mother and son, it had been seven months and over 2,000 miles on the road and in shelters. Now, they had a destination. Their final three nights of the journey were spent in three different detention centers in Arizona. Then the pair climbed aboard the first plane they’d ever been on.
“When I was traveling on the plane, I was scared,” Stephanie said. “I was saying to myself, ‘How am I going to do this, and how long am I going to live there? And what is my life going to be like here in a new country?’”
On Stephanie’s second day here, neighbors showed up to donate clothes, tutor Samir in English, and offer to drive her to the doctor since she was by now four months pregnant.
At first, her young son didn’t understand why they left Honduras, their family, and his friends from kindergarten.
“When we got here, and no one spoke Spanish and no one understood him, he got frustrated,” Stephanie said, adding he refused to respond in English. Confused and homesick, he asked her, “Why didn’t we stay with Grandma? We were fine there.”
For awhile, the families had to communicate using Google translate. Stephanie began to feel more at home when her English started to improve. David Zinner taught Samir his first words in English: “Do you want to play with me?” and then encouraged him to go outside, to meet the neighborhood children. The kids played together even though they couldn’t understand each other.
As the months went on, the Zinners and Stephanie became closer as they alternated preparing meals. The guests’ favorites, like rice, beans and plantains, became staples in the kitchen. Stephanie shared recipes from Honduras: pollo con tajadas, pan de coco and casamiento.
“It’s totally sensitized us to how privileged we are, how lucky we are to have a house, the fact that we live in a safe neighborhood,” said Roslyn Zinner. And because Stephanie met so many kind people in the United States, she needed to be reminded that there is still crime here.
“As soon as they came, they stopped worrying about people coming after them,” Zinner said. “Sometimes, I have to remind [Stephanie] to lock the front door.”
Free libraries and a postal service were happy surprises for the Hondurans. Stephanie and her son are Mormon, and they started to make friends at the Mormon church in Columbia. Stephanie has a social worker and mental health counselor who oversee her case.
The community also stepped in during Stephanie’s darkest days.
In August 2019, two days after having a routine ultrasound, Stephanie woke up in bed and realized she was bleeding. She was eight months pregnant. Roslyn took her to the hospital.
“When we arrived at the doctor, there was no longer any sign of a heart beat,” Stephanie said. “Then we realized that the baby had already died.” She named her daughter Raquel Esmeralda.
In the days that followed neighbors offered encouragement, asking her to take a walk or join in a Zumba class.
“That feeling that I wasn’t alone helped me so much,” Stephanie said. “But many people made sure that I didn’t fall into a depression, that sadness didn’t sink me.”
The Zinners’ adult daughter, Naomi, has also become close to Stephanie, and their two sons now play together. Samir started learning about American traditions, like decorating pumpkins for Halloween. At Christmas, Stephanie was surprised by how many presents her son received from the community. And with the Zinners, she and Samir have experienced Jewish rituals. On Friday evenings, Samir helps light the candles to usher in the Sabbath.
“It’s been very satisfying to see the family that came with one suitcase, no English, and to see them flourish,” said Roslyn Zinner.
The Zinners have fundraised so they could hire an immigration attorney for Stephanie and her son, but they anticipate a long wait for any resolution. Asylum cases can take years to process and be approved.
Stephanie did have some good fortune. She and Samir entered the U.S. mere days before the US Migrant Protection Protocols, known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, was implemented two years ago.The pair could have been among the over 69,000 asylum-seekers that U.S. authorities sent back to Mexico to await immigration court hearings.
In the meantime, Stephanie has been part of the informal economy in Columbia, working as a babysitter and cleaning houses. She takes English classes on Saturday mornings and is completing an evening course to get certified as a pharmacist technician, the job she held in Honduras.
During the week of Christmas, Stephanie got news she has yearned for: her work permit was approved, a big step toward making a home of her own. Her son is making his own strides.
Samir is 8 now, fluent in English and flourishing at school.
“Now I see and realize that it was worth being brave,” Stephanie said, “that it was worth striving so hard and enduring the cold, hunger, difficult situations, and everything was worth it.”
Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.