Julie Schwietert doesn’t look like a superhero. For one thing, she’s not wearing a cape.
Short in stature and soft in voice, she’s standing firm in the courtyard of her apartment building, dressed modestly in a lime-green skirt and a bold floral-patterned blouse that don’t look as though they’ve ever flown through the air.
Her hair, no-nonsense straight and long, is pulled back, and her sunglasses are perched solidly atop her head instead of sheltering her big, brown eyes.
But don’t let the innocent soccer-mom look fool you: Julie has accomplished extraordinary feats that the rest of us mere mortals will never come close to achieving.
Julie’s transformation to rescuer all started two years ago during Trump’s draconian “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that separated families and kept kids locked in cages crying for their mothers.
Julie, like so many others in the world, was outraged and frustrated that she was standing on the other side of the bars unable to help.
Then, she heard the story of Yeni Gonzalez Garcia, a Guatemalan refugee, who, like Julie, has three children under the age of 12.
“She was being held in Arizona, and her kids were in New York,” Julie says. “I heard her lawyer on the radio, and he said she needed money to post bond so she could join them. It struck me immediately that doing this was a really concrete thing we could do in the midst of the crisis.”
She started a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $7,500 bond and was astounded when she not only surpassed that goal but also ended up inspiring thousands of people around the nation to join her in the fight for social justice for immigrants.
Since then, Julie’s nonprofit, Immigrant Families Together, has raised over $3 million and has helped not only Yeti, who is living in North Carolina with her children while she’s appealing her denial of asylum, but also 119 others.
“These families are traumatized by being separated and by the process,” she says, adding that over $1 million of the money raised has been used to pay bonds of $1,500 to $40,000. “My goal is to not only provide bond money but also to take care of their comprehensive needs, which include everything from housing and food to legal representation and medical issues.”
Julie, who had earned her living as a freelance writer up until she started Immigrant Families Together, was in a perfect position to embrace her new role.
She grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where her family’s farm produced food for their own table. The property was, she says, “falling off the edge of the county map.”
With dreams of becoming an English professor, she earned a degree from Emory University in Atlanta.
While she was there, Julie, who speaks Spanish and English, became interested in art therapy. Being a longtime writer, she wanted to create a program that embraced the written word.
After graduation, an internship at the creative arts therapy program at the nonprofit Housing Works brought Julie to New York City.
That job – helping adults with HIV – eventually became full time, and Julie went back to school, earning a master’s degree in social work from New York University. During the same time, she also earned a certification as a creative arts therapist.
Next, she became the assistant director of the day treatment program at the Astoria branch of Goodwill Industries.
Burned out by the bureaucracy, she quit, and after “foundering and floundering,” moved to Puerto Rico, where she served as a tour guide. Then, she worked two years in Mexico City, writing freelance travel and social justice articles.
In 2009, she and her husband, who is a Cuban immigrant, returned to New York City, where she continued her writing career until she heard that 2018 radio interview.
“I was not planning to do this for more than one person,” she says. “But the money kept coming and coming and coming, and soon I had established nonprofits calling me asking me how I was raising so much money in so little time.”
Although Julie spends almost all of her time helping immigrants, she does, occasionally, still find time to write. This year, she co-authored, with one of the refugees she helped, “The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border.”
Julie has no plans to expand Immigrant Families Together; she is committed to continuously supporting the 120 she has taken under her wing.
“A lot of the families we support describe us as family,” she says. “We are a lifeline to them; my phone rings constantly every single day.”
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling