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JHM and Paisanos Unidos offer legal advice and food to immigrant community

Groceries for distribution to the immigrant community are set outside the Jewish History Museum, June 7. (Courtesy Laurie Melrood)

Paisanos Unidos (Citizens United) is an immigrant self-defense organization that works to inform members of the immigrant community about their rights while living and working in the United States.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jewish History Museum has partnered with the organization to provide an outdoor space in which it can practice social distancing but continue to offer help to the community.

Laurie Melrood, a JHM member and one of the organizers for the Paisanos Unidos events, reached out to the museum when the health situation in the county took a turn for the worse. “They were very excited about being able to help,” Melrood said. “Overall this has been a supportive collaboration.”

The museum’s executive director, Sol Davis, had been looking for a way to take action in the Tucson community, and this opportunity was the perfect fit. “We want to take our ideas as a museum beyond representation to action,” Davis says. “And that’s not a traditional or conventional move for a museum.”

“The commandment to welcome and embrace the stranger is a bedrock element of our tradition, one that the JHM takes seriously in our programming and partnerships,” says Guguletho Moyo, JHM director of operations. “Our values call on us to view others as created B’tzelem Elohim, made in God’s image.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the museum to close to the public. However, its main exhibit, Asylum/Asilo, shared ideas that can now be seen in real time during these biweekly meetings. Providing support for migrant communities is an important goal of the museum, Davis says.

“Their enthusiastic support enabled us to get the project off the ground,” Melrood says. “For me the museum is like a big Abrahamic tent — open and welcoming and attentive to the needs of their visitors. I like this Yiddish saying: “Di gantse velt iz eyn shtot” — The whole world is one town. I’m grateful the museum sees it that way too.”

Every other Sunday, Melrood and the Paisanos Unidos organizers bring in lawyers to speak on a pro bono basis to the attendees about different issues they might be facing. The group has covered power of attorney, notaries, health services access, and this week, Ivelisse Bonilla discussed labor rights.

Bonilla has a private practice but says she is always glad to help when an opportunity like this comes her way.

“Knowledge is power,” Bonilla says. “It is important for people to know their rights, if not, then what is the law here for?”

Bonilla is a native of Puerto Rico and conducted the meeting completely in Spanish — twice.

During each event the organizers have to split the group of attendees in two, letting only a certain number of people into the museum courtyard at a time because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Apart from offering legal advice, Paisanos Unidos also is providing much-needed groceries to the families that attend.

On Sunday, each group consisted of about 15 people, all sitting in chairs spaced at least six feet apart, and all wearing face masks.

“Face masks are required to enter the meeting and it is mandatory to wear gloves when they pick up the food,” Melrood says.

Monica Belsco, one of the main organizers for these events, knows that her community needs help now more than ever.

“This help we are providing is important because there is a big part of our community that is afraid to be in organizations,” Belsco says. “They have to know that it’s okay to ask for help.”

At each meeting, the families get a box with beans, rice, tortilla flour, and anything they might have specifically requested from the organization.

Members from Paisanos Unidos and another organization, the Guatemala Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project, buy the groceries the day before the meetings with money donated by faith groups and individual donors.

The organizations plan to continue offering legal advice and food for as long as funding allows. To donate, visit www.guamap.net.

Sofia Moraga is a student at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.