Every morning, Leonor Garcia wakes in a little apartment on the second floor of Forest Hill Presbyterian Church. She goes downstairs at about 8 a.m. to a bathroom in the basement, showers and then makes breakfast in a kitchen down a hall painted like a biblical bazaar.
When I meet Leonor for the first time, she is cooking eggs.
Her determined round face, punctuated by eyebrows like thick dashes, hardens as she works them around the pan. Her hair is clipped up to keep it out of her way as she cooks.
As I sit at the large kitchen table, she offers a glass of water with ice from the refrigerator labeled with a paper sign: “This is Leonor’s refrigerator. Please do NOT help yourself to her food. Thank you!”
“The first time I was coming over here, they go to the store and give me food and everything, and give me the sign,” she says in broken English about her first days at the church. “Everybody is very nice.”
Volunteers shop for Leonor’s groceries. They transport her four children, ages 4 to 19, to visit from their home in Akron. They donate clothes and furniture and birthday presents. They cook her meals or bring cakes and salads in a kind of weeklong potluck. They eat with her and spend nights with her. One asked to give her a haircut.
To coordinate the more than 70 helpers, they keep a schedule in an elaborate Google document. She returns the charity by cooking them meals and cleaning their church.
She would repay the debt at their homes if she could. But they must come to her, because Leonor cannot leave.
Now 41, she crossed the border illegally from Mexico as a 15-year-old and has lived in the United States for more than 25 years. She worked at McDonald’s, got a better job, found love, moved to Florida then Ohio, bought a house in Akron, paid her taxes and raised her children. With barely a third-grade education, Leonor gritted out a little slice of the American pie in the rubber capital of the world.
Then, in 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement came for her partner, Jose. She suspects he may have been mixed up in something illegal, but doesn’t know much more.
They were looking for her too.
In an instant, her happy life crumbled. Jose was deported. Their children were distraught. Leonor thought she might have to go too. She was given an order of removal. But as the primary caretaker of her children, she was allowed to stay in the United States.
For six years she budgeted her life in tenuous three- to six-month chunks between ICE check-ins. Then during an August appointment, Leonor was given just two weeks.
They put a GPS monitor on her ankle. They told her to buy a plane ticket to Mexico. She had 14 days to leave the country.
If she didn’t go willingly, ICE would arrest her. Either way, Leonor would be forced to leave her four children, all U.S. citizens. Her choice seemed like no choice at all.
So three days before the deadline, Leonor fled to the one place ICE could not get her. She came to the Cleveland Heights church on the hill with help from local activists.
Now she only sees her children on weekends. Her 19-year-old daughter, Margaret, cares for the boys in Akron during the week.
This Friday in mid-October, however, the children are off from school. Her two youngest — 6-year-old Luis Mario and almost-4-year-old Adan — climb into chairs at the kitchen table. Luis Mario, an exuberant troublemaker, shakes my hand. Adan, dimpled and shy, does not.
“Mommy, I’m hungry,” the older boy says.
Leonor rummages in the fridge and cooks up huevos and sausage. Thirteen-year-old Erik, a late riser with a barbershop fade, shows up 10 minutes later. Leonor makes herself a plate but barely touches it, drinking coffee loaded to the brim with milk and sugar like in her home country.
After breakfast, she washes the dishes by hand and offers a tour of the white-steepled church that has been her home for the last 23 days. She shows me her 20-by-20 room with its gray institutional carpet and donated bed, couch and easy chair. She guides me down the hall to the chapel where she prays when she needs strength, then downstairs to the warren of rooms that make up the day care center, where she sometimes helps out.
We go up a staircase to the church’s front lobby, past a purple fabric sculpture. At the front, she heaves open one of the doors.
I wander out onto the steps, which look out on the intersection of Monticello and Lee boulevards. Across the street is Forest Hill Park. Along the walking paths the leaves will soon turn, wilting crimson and amber.
Leonor lingers on the threshold with the door open. I ask if she can go to the park. She shakes her head.
“It’s hard, because all the time, people come [to the church] and work. Everybody leave,” Leonor says. “Everybody coming, and go back.” I walk back inside, and she lets the door fall shut.
“All the day, me stay here,” she says.