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Mexico shelters migrants from Latin America to Africa to the Middle East

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The city of Tijuana has migrants from all over the world in its shelters, ranging from Central and South America to Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The shelters do the best they can with what they have, trying to accommodate all these different cultures. But for Muslim migrants and refugees wanting to adhere to their religious practices, being thrown together can make it tough to stay pious. So what options do they have in Tijuana? Well, up until late June, none - but now they have a place to stay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Allah.

MARTINEZ: This is prayer time at a shelter for Muslims in Tijuana run by the Latina Muslim Foundation. Sonia Garcia is the president, and recently she showed us around.

SONIA GARCIA: This place - it was a purpose of making parties every weekend, like quinceaneras, birthdays.

MARTINEZ: It's a two-story, 8,000-square-foot building that can house 150 people. It has a blue minaret on top that serves as a beacon for Muslims in Tijuana and also as a symbol for the presence of Islam.

GARCIA: And the musalla where we pray was a bar. It used to be a drinking place. So right now it's a worship place. We say, from haram to halal.

MARTINEZ: A few years ago, when Sonia was volunteering at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, she noticed women wearing hijab, and that got her thinking about creating a space for Muslims - one where they would not be served pork, one where they could pray five times a day, and where men and women would not have to sleep in the same room. The women she saw that day were from Somalia. But in the few months since her shelter opened, Sonia has welcomed in people from Yemen, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Russia. We spoke in her office where I asked her about what migrants in her shelter say about leaving their countries.

GARCIA: You know, when they leave the countries, a lot of them, they leave for many reasons. Like Latin America, many reasons - political persecution and war. So it's for many reason they leave, no? And we're here to support them, to help them.

MARTINEZ: And one of the common themes that we have heard so far in our trip here to Tijuana is that migrants aren't necessarily leaving their countries for a better life. They're leaving their countries for a life - just to have almost a life.

GARCIA: Yes. Yes. They don't want to leave. They leave very happy in where they are. But if there is something dangerous for them, and especially there is no more work, no life for the kids, they want to leave. They don't have a choice. They have to leave. And not only in Syria and Lebanon, I know they have - in many, many places right now, they start getting problems where they have to leave with the family.

For example, right now, what happened with Russia right now, Russia trying to take the mens (ph) to go to fight. They don't want to fight. They don't want to die. They don't want to put the family in risk. So mens are say, no, I'm going to leave. I'm not going to stay here. I don't want to be part of this. I don't want to kill people. I prefer to leave. And then I take my family out of there. This is just samples, what we hear from them.

MARTINEZ: In terms of helping the migrants that are here get asylum, what things are you able to do? What kind of help are you able to offer them?

GARCIA: We help them with legal assistant, with doctors, with psychologists as well. They have many issues. We give them some art, some classes, Koran classes, also. They have a lot of mental issue, especially (inaudible) care. For example, the families who have everyday war like afganos (ph), Afghanistan, Yemenis, especially the kids - the kids, when they come here to Mexico, they're so scared. They don't want to leave the room. We have kids that never - they never park. They just silence. They don't park. They have anger problems, issues - the kids. So we notice a lot that they have problems, mental problems, because what they went through.

Imagine hearing bombs, guns every day. So we have a girl, a little girl. She doesn't talk, and she doesn't go with anybody except the mom. Even she was living here for a while. It took us many, many months for her to trust us and to finally - to say a little word, that I want to have food. I want to eat in English. Maybe six months with the time she came - it took six months for that girl to experience a little bit opening on her. This is how the kids are when they come. That's dramatical for them.

MARTINEZ: Do you hear people tell you how much they appreciate it - because, I mean, I can't imagine for a second to be a migrant and be a Muslim, to come to a country where you probably don't expect to find another Muslim, but then you find this place - a place where they can be themselves in a way that lines up with how they want to live in their identity. I mean, do people tell you, like, I can't believe that this place is here?

GARCIA: Yes, they do. And they so appreciate so much. Few days ago, we have a brother that he didn't know the place. He didn't know there is a place for Muslims. He came by himself from Russia, so he stayed in a hotel. Somehow, someone in downtown told him that said - say, you are - are you Muslim? Somehow, he met another Muslim. He said, yes. He said, why are you not in the shelter? He said, What shelter? There is a shelter for Muslims. So he came right away, and he moved in. And the same way you see his eyes was like, wow, amazing. I could pray. I could halal food. I could stay safe because they feel safe even though there is nothing outside that want to be harm them.

But when they in the community, they be safe. The womens (ph), the childrens (ph) - little by little, the community or the - actually the religious who comes, they start knowing from social media, from another Muslim that they may be - they came, and they cross. They say, go to the shelter. There is a shelter for you. It's so satisfying for me to see the people - that this place has been safe for them by the sake of Allah. God make these for them, and they're so grateful for that.

MARTINEZ: That's Sonia Garcia. She's the president of the Latina Muslim Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.