Families fleeing violence and persecution travel to the United States border because they are absolutely desperate and must escape, despite the dangers of the journey.

“I did it for my children’s safety. I was so scared, I had no choice,” says Marta, whose family was threatened by dangerous gangs that controlled their hometown in Mexico.

Marta fled with her husband and three young children to the United States for safety. There, they were detained at the border and later released and taken to a welcome center in Phoenix run by the International Rescue Committee.

Here’s a closer look at how we help asylum-seeking families like Marta’s:

Asylum seeking family from Mexico in Phoenix. Arizona

It was a Saturday when gang members broke into Marta’s home. They stole some electronics and left a machete on a table. Later, she received threatening [text messages]. She and her family packed just the essentials and left on a bus to Tijuana where they waited for three months before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Asylum seeking family from Mexico in Phoenix. Arizona

At the welcome center, the IRC helps Marta and her husband Julio get in touch with their sponsor in the U.S. IRC asylum-seeking family specialist Alex Cruz records their basic information and U.S. contacts in order to facilitate travel arrangements. Alex also tells them what they need to know about  court dates and interview appointments with U.S. authorities, and provides additional information about the asylum process.

Asylum seeking family from Mexico in Phoenix. Arizona

Marta visits the nurse’s office at the welcome center, where she and her children, Maria, Miguel and Luna receive a check-up and medication to treat mild colds. For urgent medical needs, the IRC takes asylum seekers to a local hospital.

Asylum seeking family from Mexico in Phoenix. Arizona

Maria, 7, looks for a warmer jacket in the ropa (clothing) room at the welcome center. The ropa room is where families can find new clothes and shoes, as well as toiletries, baby supplies, and other essential items--and even books to read “It was overwhelming and it really meant so much to us,” Marta said of the opportunity for her family to pick out whatever they needed, for free. “We are so thankful."

Asylum seeking family from Mexico in Phoenix. Arizona

Marta’s one-year-old daughter, Luna, colors at the IRC welcome center. Many children have experienced emotional and psychological trauma from growing up amid violence and fleeing their homes. Marta recalls how her seven-year-old daughter, Maria, had difficulties coping with the situation. “She cried every night,” Marta said after Maria found out about the threats. “She couldn’t sleep because she was scared.”

Asylum seeking family from Mexico in Phoenix. Arizona

Julio plays with Luna before putting her to bed. Families waiting to receive their bus or plane tickets are able to stay overnight at the welcome center, where they are given a bed, warm blankets and snacks. The IRC then provides transportation to bus stations and the airport.

Asylum seeking children reading

Miguel, 10, and his sister Maria read Spanish-language books with IRC asylum- seeking family specialist Nico Valachovic. Marta says the children missed a few years of school because of the violence in their hometown. “They are really smart kids,” Marta says. “I want them to go back to school.”

Asylum seeking family from Mexico in Phoenix. Arizona

People arriving at the U.S. border have the right to request asylum without being criminalized, turned back, or separated from their children. They are fleeing their homes and often have already sought safety elsewhere within their countries, moving multiple times to no avail.

Photos by Andrew Oberstadt

*Names and ages were changed for protection reasons 

How you can help asylum seekers

In Phoenix, Arizona, the IRC and its local partners are providing food, water, basic medical assistance, legal counseling, clothing and overnight shelter to people who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to seek safety. Since its opening last summer, the IRC center has helped more than 600 asylum seekers. Here are six ways you can help.