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Carmela Apolonio Hernández has sheltered in place 24/7 since December 13, 2017. So on April 1 at noon, she had plenty of wisdom to share with those watching online who might be struggling with staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2017, Apolonio Hernández and her four children — Fidel, Keyri, Yoselin and Edwin — lived in a couple of rooms at the Church of the Advocate on Diamond Street, then in 2019, moved into the Germantown Mennonite Church.
New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia (NSM) hosted the Zoom gathering so Apolonio Hernández could talk about how she has managed to survive more than two years under the constraints of sanctuary. Also among the other people in the video conference were Rev. Adán Mairena of West Kensington Ministry, and Angela Navarro, who from 2014-2015, spent 59 days living in the sanctuary of a room in Mairena’s church.
“Do you remember this?” Mairena asked Navarro, moving about so that the contours of the room he was sitting in — the room Navarro had shared with her two young children — became visible.
“Yes,” Navarro answered softly. “Yes, I remember.”
There is a quiet strength evident in both Navarro and Apolonio Hernández — even through the distancing screen — that makes you understand that when they talk about faith getting them through their sanctuary experience, it is more than easy piety.
There was a time, early after she entered sanctuary, when Apolonio Hernández couldn’t even get out of bed. God, she said, gave her the strength to get up and get to making a life.
After speaking a little bit about her faith, the status of her deportation case, her fears about COVID-19, and how the living situation has changed again now that the children cannot leave the house to go to school, Apolonio Hernández focused on the ways she’s learned to best survive her long shelter in place.
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Here are four takeaways about how to best survive an extended shelter in place:
1. Find a passion, relearn an old skill, or use YouTube to learn to do something new.
“I must say that one thing that really helped me was working with plants. I have a lot of plants,” Apolonio Hernández said. “You wouldn’t even imagine how much strength I get from my plants. I have a lime plant, I have an aloe plant … I have medicinal plants people have given me, and now that summer is coming I’m planting even more. I mean, when I leave here I’m going to leave a small jungle with all I have.”
Apolonio Hernández said when she first went into sanctuary and the stress was intense, she took up embroidery — a skill she had learned in childhood that she hadn’t plied in years. Along with Blanca Pacheco, the co-director of NSM, Apolonio Hernández was the recipient of a 2019 Leeway Foundation art and change grant to teach, from her rooms at the church, other women how to embroider a tapestry honoring immigrant families living in sanctuary and the community’s fight for social justice.
She also watched a lot of YouTube videos, she said, and from that she taught herself to crochet and make the earrings she sells.
2. Take advantage of technology.
“I’m happy about this part,” she said during the April 1 conversation, “that the technology is so advanced and we can make these video calls, and at least we can communicate this way.”
Apolonio Hernández said that during her years in sanctuary she has built robust communications. “On Tuesdays I have a group call with all the other people across the country who are in sanctuary,” she said. “We all talk to each other, we talk about how we are doing, what sort of strategy we are taking in our campaigns, how we’re passing our time, the skills we’re learning … that’s a really helpful group to be part of.”
She also mentioned speaking with some frequency to clergy members in one of her WhatsApp groups. They’ve been helpful to her work on her case, writing letters of support and more.
3. Let your children know you are feeling the same things they are.
Since schooling has moved online and the children no longer have the break from the rooms in the church that the school day provided, Apolonio Hernández said her eldest daughter has been feeling stressed by the confinement.
“We’ve had the help of therapy,” she said, “so the therapist has really helped me to answer, especially my oldest daughter’s, concerns. You know, when she says ‘Mami, I want to leave, I don’t want to stay anymore, I need to get out,’ one of the things I’ve learned to do is answer her with ‘You know, me too. I really understand.'”
She says she wants her daughter to know she has the same pressures and anxieties, and for each to be able to put themselves in each other’s shoes.
“And then there’s other things that we do,” she added, “trying to figure out how to distract ourselves by doing new things. Like, ‘OK, let’s make pizza. I mean, we don’t know how to make pizza but let’s try’ … it may take forever, it may come out kind of weird … and that’s how we’re doing it, spending time on projects and spending time together.”
4. The most difficult thing is the idea of being separated from your family.
Sometime during the year they lived in sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate, one of Apolonio Hernández’s sons became sick enough to be hospitalized. Because of her documentation status, she couldn’t be at the hospital with him.
Perhaps the memory of that separation is refreshed — for both mother and child — every time they see news about families separated by COVID-19, because Apolonio Hernández says her children have started making themselves a beet/carrot/orange drink to boost their immunity.
Living in sanctuary, being in the same few rooms all the time really takes it out of you, Apolonio Hernández said. And it can make you sick, she believes. She’s proud that her children are very health conscious in what they drink, and the meals they make for themselves when they don’t want to eat her typically Mexican dishes.
Health and family are at the heart of her message at the end.
“Take care of yourself. Stay at home,” she told the viewers as the video conference concluded. “Don’t leave home unless you have to get food, or if you are required to work. Take this time to draw closer to your family.”-30-
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