If you’re not a native Austinite, can you remember when you first moved to the city known for keeping it weird? During your initial explorations, were you perturbed by everyone’s obsession with bats, desperate for a breakfast that didn’t come wrapped in a tortilla, or so overcome by heat and humidity that all you wanted to do was throw yourself into one of our many bodies of water?
Obviously this unique city endeared itself to you. You are reading this, after all. But think about those first few weeks or maybe even months of learning to embrace the weirdness and navigate I-35. Now imagine doing this in a language that is not your first, in a place where you don’t know anyone, and after a journey not just across the country in a loaded U-Haul, but across the world with perhaps only a few prized possessions in hand.
Nestled in East Austin, along the elbow crease of a street called Gunter, sit three vibrantly painted houses that make up Casa Marianella, one of the only emergency homeless shelters for immigrants and asylees in the United States. The magic of Casa Marianella may go unnoticed by passersbys. But if you take a moment to park and walk through the front door of the main green house, you’ll find an oasis that feels local yet otherworldly at the same time.
Casa Marianella, fondly referred to as Casa by staff and residents, was originally founded in 1986 as a shelter for people fleeing turmoil in El Salvador. But over the years, it became a temporary home for individuals from all corners of the globe.
This history is literally splashed on the walls for all to see. Murals painted by residents grace the outside fence featuring the likes of Frida Kahlo, MLK, community members and civil rights lawyer and casa namesake, Marianella herself. Inside hang flags representing the countries of those who reside there, and in the front room hangs an enormous map with a spider web of threads that twist and turn over the surface, marking the journeys residents took to come to the United States.
At any given time, Casa Marianella houses 35-45 individuals. Currently, most residents are from countries in East Africa, namely Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, with sprinklings of people from Rwanda, the Congo, Mexico, Nepal and Iran.
Casa Marianella sits unassumingly on Austin’s east side, serving as perhaps the best microcosmic display of what is going on in the rest of the world. Most residents at Casa are asylees or asylum seekers who have chosen to immigrate to the United States to escape certain types of turmoil in their home countries. In order to get to the U.S., individuals embark on a seemingly endless journey. For many, it begins on one continent and continues on another, up through South and Central America by foot, bus or any means possible to arrive at the border of the United States and Mexico.
New Life Here
When asked what Casa Marianella means to them, current and former residents of the shelter will pause, a fond light crossing their eyes, and say that Casa will always be their home and their family.
One Ethiopian resident laughed when asked what he expected Casa to be like. “I expected it to be like a hostel, where we all had different rooms and went about figuring everything out on our own. I never thought that there would be people here who would support me or cook dinner for me. I didn’t expect a community.”
The staff jokes that no one truly believes that Casa Marianella is a homeless shelter. The office often gets calls mistaking it for a taco shop because of its name, and volunteers or people wanting to drop off donations will drive by in utter confusion looking for a cinder block building that is sterile and corporate. But that is certainly not the case.
When you walk through the doors of Casa after being greeted by hello sister (or brother), hola, bonjour or namaste, there is an immediate sense of familiarity–like coming home after a long trip away. In the living room, men check their Facebook and watch soap operas from the old booming TV sitting in the corner. In the kitchen under a brightly colored mural of fruits and vegetables, pots bubble and knifes chop in rhythm to laughter and the gossip of the day. The smells wafting from this kitchen are foreign, but so enticing that you’ll make any excuse to stay around so you can try a bite.
At Casa, most residents find stability they haven’t felt in months or even years. The Casa Marianella staff, a mix of yearlong AmeriCorps workers, full and part time staff members and handfuls of volunteers and mentors, work to help residents adjust to life in the incredibly foreign world of Austin, Texas. This involves everything from intense case management, medical care and legal consultations to an encouraging conversation, a trip to hunt for an apartment or a lesson in one of Casa’s nightly English classes. It is indeed a complicated new culture to adjust to, but Gunter Street seems to offer a haven from the chaos of acculturation.
When residents arrive at the shelter, they are welcomed into a community. They are welcomed to casa. They are welcomed home.
Casa Marianella is located at 821 Gunter St – Website
@theAustinot wants to know:
Have you ever been to Casa Marianella in east Austin?