UT students volunteer at Casa Marianella shelter for immigrants

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Renee Frederick, Plan II and urban studies senior, teaches English classes at the Casa Marianella shelter in East Austin. The shelter provides resources that are often difficult for immigrants to the U.S. to access.
Photo Credit: Briana Vargas | Daily Texan Staff

In 1986, Austin civic leader Ed Wendler bought a house to provide refuge for people fleeing war in Central America. Today, the house, Casa Marianella, provides shelter and safety for immigrants from all over the world.

Casa Marianella, located in Southeast Austin, is an emergency shelter for immigrants and provides many services including English classes, housing and food. UT students volunteer at the shelter  through organizations such as Lions Club and the University Catholic Center and courses such as Architectures of Migration.  

Casa Marianella’s executive director Jennifer Long has been involved with the shelter for 27 years. Long said it’s important for immigrants and the roughly 200 UT volunteers to have the opportunity to work together.

“If you can imagine coming to a new country and spending time with people who are generally interested in you and interested in you as a human being, it bridges immigrants and the community,” Long said. “It’s important in shaping an understanding of the immigrant population and seeing what it’s like on a human level.”

Renee Frederick, Plan II and urban studies senior, teaches English classes at the shelter. She said she enjoys the opportunity to form relationships with the residents at Casa Marianella.

“It’s important to take care of the community, and Casa Marianella does this by providing resources that are often difficult for immigrants to the U.S. to receive,” Frederick said. “It’s important to take care of our city, and the more we take care of each other, the stronger we are. Everyone is important.”

The shelter hosts immigrants from 26 different countries, including Latin American and African countries. It shelters immigrants who have just arrived as well as those who are escaping homelessness. Priority is given to immigrants seeking refuge from war and persecution.  

“My favorite part of the job is the social stew of it all,” Long said. “Amazing interactions are happening all the time between immigrants, volunteers and staff. 60 million [people] are displaced in the world right now. The U.S. is one of the richest countries but has a small capacity to take people in.”

Many immigrants who once resided in detention centers now stay at Casa Marianella. Latin American studies graduate student Sara Zavaleta is part of professor Sarah Lopez’s Architectures of Migration class. The class collaborates with Casa Marianella and is developing a project with the The New School’s Humanities Action Lab in New York City. The project is a traveling exhibit allowing universities across the U.S. to present about architecture involved in both mass incarceration and detention centers.
Zavaleta said students compile information for the exhibit through cognitive mapping interviews which revolve around maps residents create of their memory of detention centers.

“We’re trying to make scaled representations of buildings so people can feel connected to the experience of what it’s like to inhabit these spaces within detention centers,” Zavaleta said. “People get a sense of what the experience is like by hearing the stories of people who have lived those experiences.”

Zavaleta said she has spoken to immigrants who have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles from their homes. She said they’re trying to understand how the architecture of a building affects more than just the physical experience but also the living experience.

“In the interviews I’ve done so far, what’s really struck me is the sense of relief [residents] feel in living at Casa Marianella,” Zavaleta said. “This feeling definitely has to do with the story of migration and how stressful that can be. Casa does a great job of supporting people who do come to the U.S., and [there are] few places that do so.”