Hannah and Lashlee in Spain

Richter Research Fellows Hannah and Lashlee are studying the quality of health care for African immigrants in the south of Spain. They plan to visit refugee centers and clinics, and interview experts. Lashlee is a junior President’s Scholar majoring in biology and Spanish in Dedman College. Hannah is a junior President’s Scholar majoring in accounting in Cox School of Business and political science, with a minor in Spanish, in Dedman College.

One last adventure

Lashlee boarding the plane to Santander

After a short time back in Madrid (following an incredible but exhausting week in Valencia), we are happy to report that we are experiencing one final adventure before we cross the Atlantic on Friday.

Admittedly, this short-2 day trip did not fall into our research itinerary, but after having graced two thirds of Spain’s coastline (Algeciras in the South and Valencia in the East) we decided to complete the circuit by heading north to the beaches of Santander. Initially, we hoped to find a cheap destination in which we could gather final thoughts on the trip and potentially work on our research paper, but what we encountered in Santander has been much more.

A view from the hotel

Our plane ride (only a one-hour jump from Madrid to the Northwestern coast) was short and sweet, and then we made our way to the center of town to find our small hotel.

Here comes the best surprise of the trip: our room, located on the top floor of Hotel Central, provides an absolutely stunning view of the Santander Bay (one of the top ten most beautiful bays, according to the hotel staff) as well as a comfy terrace.

Hannah on the dock

We only had a few rushed days here in the city, so we tried to make the most of our time. We spent the first night exploring the area around our hotel and enjoyed a very unique meal at Zacaria’s restaurant … the menu was plenty confusing and we courageously pointed to a few random entrees to try.

The next day, we boarded yet another ferry across the bay to El Puntal, a quaint extension of shoreline with few people and lots of sunshine (we have the sunburn to prove it). After returning very hungry, we stopped for a quick pre-dinner snack of ice cream before finding our way to a wonderful Mexican restaurant (we miss Tex-Mex!) and filling our bellies.

Lashlee with the cow at the Cantabria government center

Our final morning arrived far too soon, but we enjoyed the sights of Santander by visiting the local Cathedral and neighborhood shops. It was a phenomenal way to close our trip, and we are excited to spend one last evening in Madrid before boarding our flight home.

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Dolphins, lions and a Ferris wheel

Hannah excited about the day ahead

While the work in Valencia was going great and keeping us very busy, we could not deny ourselves the many sights and opportunities available in the bustling city. We decided to take a few afternoons to devote to getting to know our location for the week, and our adventures began at the architectural masterpiece of the City of Arts and Sciences, constructed by world-famous architect Santiago Calatrava. Little fun fact: he’s the same architect who designed the wave statue outside SMU’s Meadows Museum of Art!

We walked down the beautiful Turia Riverbed park to arrive at the glittering, white city and were amazed by the many colossal (and somewhat strange) structures we found. The city contains everything from a Dino Park to one of the world’s most impressive aquariums. In addition to its large aquariums, art collections, and science exhibits, it also is home to an opera house, event hall, and IMAX theatre.

Hannah at the aquarium

We tried our best to take full advantage of each of these attractions and filled the day with an IMAX film about the Hubble telescope, a journey through shark tunnels, a quick sweep through some exhibits in the science museum, and finally – the most exciting part of the day – a dolphin show! It’s part of a summer series in the Oceanographic (the aquarium) that has dolphins, trainers, synchronized swimmers, and a band performing under the moonlight. Needless to say, our first day of full-on tourist exploration left us tired but very, very satisfied. But, there was still one thing missing (for Hannah at least).

Lashlee on the Ferris wheel

A few days prior, while walking across town to one of our office destinations, Hannah spotted the set up for a carnival. Complete with bumper cars, cotton candy, games, and bright lights, she was instantly determined to return at nighttime when we could see the activity shining from inside the riverbed park. Therefore, on the long trek back at 12 A.M. from the City of Arts and Sciences, Hannah spotted the rotating Ferris wheel and demanded we ride. So ride we did. While exhausted and also paired with a father and daughter in the same tiny car, we rode the ride, taking in the sights of the city from above. By the time we reached out hostel and crashed on the bed, we knew that we had truly witnessed the city from an entirely new and fun perspective.

Lashlee at Bioparc

The next day, we journeyed to the opposite end of the riverbed to the newly installed Bioparc, a zoo with revolutionary design and appeal. The park’s attraction was not only its exotic array of animals, but its claim to have “no boundaries.” Would we be running amuck with lemurs and lions? We had no idea. So we decided to check it out. The park was filled with families, friends, and couples from all over the world. While there WERE boundaries between us and the animals, the park’s design was truly unique in that several animals cohabitated just as they would in the wild, and oftentimes, you could stand very close to the action of their daily lives.

We made the loop around the complex while taking pictures and stopping for a couple of snacks (including Lashlee’s favorite: Horchata). As dusk fell, and our stomachs grumbled, we made our way back to the city center and stopped in for a quick meal of tapas before heading home, catching up on some work, and sleeping.

Lashlee at the beach

We especially enjoyed our time in Valencia, and we are thankful to experience not only the nonprofit organizations but also some of the culture of Spain’s third-largest metropolis. It truly was a very welcoming place  and we will definitely miss its beach and paella as well as the friendly and helpful people we met. Now, we sit with only three days left in Spain and cannot believe how the time has flown. The next few days will be mainly for collecting: our thoughts, our memories, and our information in preparation for when we return back home. We cannot wait to gather all we’ve learned and share it, for this is a trip that we have worked toward for a very long time. See you soon in the States!

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Connections in Valencia

Ministry of Immigration

Once again, our research in Valencia met both success and failure as we searched daily for offices and interviews, painstakingly following our (now very tattered) map through the tiny, winding and always name-changing streets. On Wednesday, we made our way over the Turia riverbed, once a flowing water source that encircles the majority of the city center, to the office of the ever-elusive ACCEM organization.

ACCEM, a Catholic commission that works with refugees and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, is a great example of a grass-roots approach to immigration policy. In both Madrid and Ceuta, we were unable to make contact with this organization, often finding that its open-door policy for migrants in all situations requires a certain level of secrecy and invisibility to the general public. Obviously, this was quite a challenge to the American tourist.

Nevertheless, we wandered through a residential area of Valencia on the north side of town. Again, we lost all sight of fellow travelers, winning strange glances from the locals sitting outside cafes and shops as we walked by. Always, this is a good sign we are going in the right direction. With the ACCEM logo shining like a beacon of hope in the distance, we rejoiced at the opportunity of finding another interview. We were not disappointed by the friendly staff as we were ushered into the small office of Marta, an employee of ACCEM who we took to be a kind of policy expert for the organization.

Hannah at the hostel

A little unprepared (we never seem to master the art of combining informal conversation with strategically placed research questions) we began to learn not only about the organization’s tasks in the refugee community, but also a bit about the daily experience of a migrant in Valencia. What was most notable about this visit, in comparison to our interview at CEAR in Madrid, was that we encountered more realism than optimism.

Lashlee enjoying paella

We found Valencia to be a vibrant city and it is obvious that many men and women care a lot about the people. Whether a social worker behind the scenes, or a migrant selling trinkets and hair braids at the beach, there’s a greater sense of tolerance and community that was evident in our daily travels. Observing this attitude was encouraging and humbling as we move into our final days in Spain.

We look forward to the next few days, hoping they hold just as many adventures, learning opportunities, and laughs as the past two weeks!

– Lashlee and Hannah

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Encounters in Valencia

Lashlee at Mercat Central

Hola from Valencia! We are currently sitting in our newest home away from home: Hostal Bisbal, located in the historic center of Valencia. We are very fortunate to be just a few steps  from the Mercat Central, Europe’s oldest and largest market. Although we have only been here in the city for a short two days, we have already made two morning visits to this market for some fresh fruit and people watching. I guess we should start from the beginning, though.

Our first evening here was spent wandering through the main plazas and searching out some new Mediterranean food options. First stop: the Ginger Loft. This modern, international-style restaurant was both satisfying to our hungry stomachs and to our college student wallets. After a bit more exploring, we made it back to the hostal to rest up for our first day of work.

We are beginning to master the process of packing up the backpack and navigating the streets as early as possible to attempt to visit the nonprofit offices before they close. As we have mentioned in a few earlier posts, however, this task is proving to be rather difficult. Sometimes we wonder if the addresses listed on the websites for these organizations even truly exist.

Our first attempt in Valencia was the Rescate office, an organization that provides relief to international refugees here in Valencia. We ventured across the city to find the exact location, but instead found a residential apartment building where no one seemed to recognize the name of our destination. It can be a bit frustrating to continually find ourselves in this situation, but we find that many of our most interesting and important experiences come in rather unexpected places. Tired, but not completely discouraged, we decided to walk back to the hostal to regroup and plan for the rest of the week.

Valencia's Cathedral

This morning we started again, but this time decided to spend a little time taking in the sights of the city before attempting another office visit. We made our way to the Plaza de la Reina to see the Catedral de Valencia, a beautiful cathedral that offers the best bird’s-eye view of the town from its bell tower.

Atop the belltower

The march to the top included about 207 steps, but the view was definitely worth the hike. The impressive artwork and craftsmanship of the church was extremely impressive, but we were most intrigued by the 16th-century human arm on display behind the main altar. The limb belongs to Saint Vincent the martyr – the patron saint of Valencia – and sits as a quite shocking reminder of the sacrifices of the early church.


After our cathedral tour, we made our way to the metro station and headed toward the beach! We were searching, yet again, for food. However, we had a more definite goal in mind this time: La Pepica, Valencia’s oldest and most renowned beach-front restaurant known for its scrumptious paella (large pans of rice, vegetables, seafood, and chicken). It was here that we ate lunch and indulged quite shamelessly in the steaming pan of paella while observing the bustling activity just a few feet away on the beach.

Hoping to walk off a bit of our lunch, we strolled down to the waves and walked among the crowds of people swimming and sunbathing along the Mediterranean. On our way back, we walked alongside multiple vendors selling every imaginable tourist item, from children’s toys and beach towels to hookahs and jewelry. What caught our eye were the women offering to braid hair to anyone who passed by. Eventually, we were convinced and stopped for hair wraps. To our surprise, this encounter turned out to be one of our most rewarding contacts for our project thus far.

Hannah getting braids

While braiding our hair, the women spoke to one another in a language we could not understand and appeared to be of African descent. During small talk, one woman inquired about our home and purpose in Valencia. We explained that we were from the United States and asked about her origins. She told us she was from Guinea Bissau, and then asked if we had ever heard of her nation. We continued to ask a few questions about her family and her time in Spain, and soon found ourselves being introduced to another man working at the table behind us.

He, too, seemed intrigued by the American girls willing to ask about his life and his homeland. After we asked about his heritage, he began to explain (in very clear Spanish) that he had moved with his mother and sister to Valencia from Senegal, where his father still resides. When asked if he visits his country, he responded with excitement and enthusiasm. He visits quite frequently and is obviously very passionate about his roots and his family in Senegal.

We walked away from the beach once again astonished by the sheer luck of our encounters. How humbly to speak in a language not our own to a man from another continent and a completely different culture. It seems a person’s pride in his or her home cannot be overcome by language barriers or social constructs such as economic status. We were so grateful for the stories we heard, and the people telling the stories seemed just as grateful for an opportunity to share them.

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Journey to the North African coast

Lashlee on the train to Algeciras

On Wednesday morning, Hannah and I left from Atocha station in Madrid for Algeciras, Spain. This port city is located on the southernmost tip of Spain, about an hour-long ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco. For us, this area is of incredible importance: oftentimes, migrants, desperate to gain access to Spanish soil, either swim or boat across this strip of water to escape famine, war, or poverty in their homelands.

The view from our hotel in Algeciras

We spent Wednesday night right on the water – out of our window were hundreds of ships ranging from barges full of cargo to sailboats and tourist ferries. Our greatest problem has been the severe absence of restaurants, shops, or cafes where we can walk, do work, and grab a bite to eat. I suppose the urban life in Madrid has spoiled us a bit… Nevertheless, we have made excellent use of the local grocery store and have shared many fun hours watching soccer games while munching on baguettes and cheese.

The ferry

Yesterday, Thursday, we boarded a ferry to Ceuta, a Spanish exclave right across the strait from Algeciras on the African coast. Typically, Ceuta is the lesser-known city near Tanger, a resort town that appeals to tourists with its beaches, lavish shopping, and exotic culture. Ceuta, while also offering these things, has a much darker side. This small town is the primary destination for African migrants moving north toward Spain. It is here these individuals find a middle ground from which it is hard to escape: turning back would mean returning often to a life of strife and hardship; moving north they face deportation, alienation, and slim chances of assimilation into Spanish culture.


We found it fitting that the city’s motto, often seen on government buildings and signs throughout Ceuta, is “Todo por la Patria,” or “Everything for the Homeland.” To the majority of Ceuta’s residents, the very concept of “homeland” is a melting pot of cultures where race, religion, and socioeconomic differences collide.

A building between Morocco and Ceuta

After settling in our hotel (and taking a brief nap) we began our walking tour of Ceuta in search of the few offices we had written on a sheet of paper. Addresses, contacts, and phone numbers were practically nonexistent. We had at our disposal a small map and our limited ability to communicate in Spanish with the people we encountered. It is important to note that Ceuta, since it’s situated in Morocco, has a very significant Arabic population. Linguistically, the mixture of Spanish and Arabic was unlike anything we have encountered. But, that is for another research project!

We traveled between pizza parlors, hospitals, government buildings, grocery stores, and police stations. We walked through residential areas, marketplaces, and fairs along beaches, marinas, and military fortresses. Finally, after being unsuccessful in finding our first two offices, encountering a severe septic breakage at the Cruz Roja (or Red Cross), and being sent in a million different directions, we were blessed to find a police station and a taxi driver who knew exactly where we wanted to go. So, Hannah and Lashlee, sweaty, thirsty, and tired, traveled 20 minutes outside of Ceuta proper to our most significant challenge thus far: the Centro de Estancia Temporal de los Inmigrantes (Temporary Shelter for Immigrants), also known to locals as CETI.

The minute we turned off the main road, it became very clear that the CETI office was not located on any map or tourist guide. It was isolated on a hill above a beach on the outskirts of town, appearing more like a military facility than a shelter. The shocked look from the main guard upon seeing our taxi was our first sign… maybe we were in a little over our heads. But the driver continued on. We began to see groups of African men walking up and down the small road leading to the facility. Some carried groceries, others were just passing time. Hannah turned to Lashlee and said, “Lash… I don’t know how I feel about this.” Lashlee didn’t say anything. This hesitation paid off as soon as we arrived at the main gate – Hannah pleaded with our taxi driver to wait for us. “15 minutes?” she asked. He replied, “10.”

Ten minutes turned out to be more than enough. We walked to the steel gate where, on the other side, a larger group of refugees slowly turned from their conversation to watch us approach. A female guard stood up from her post, looked at us, and said nothing. Lashlee began to explain who we were, what we were doing, why we were there. The woman yelled into the guard station and out came a man, who gruffly addressed us and Hannah quickly began to explain, again, why we had come.

The hardest part about this moment was seeing the very people, whom we have been researching at a distance for months, standing right on the other side of the guards, watching us and listening to what we had to say. Two young college girls… and we had come to research their lives. Looking back, we wonder how that statement may have made them feel. It’s so difficult to convey compassion and empathy while still proving our official purpose. We had to convince them (in only 10 minutes) that we are worthy to hear their stories. The task is difficult enough on its own, but the Spanish government’s red tape makes it completely unrealistic. The guards sent us on our way with instructions to obtain “authorization.” We are finding more and more that this may not even exist.

Although our interviews have not occurred quite as we predicted, we have learned more through simple observation and, quite frankly, failure, than we imagined. We continue to see that this issue remains something hidden and unspoken within Spanish culture. Tomorrow, we begin our journey to Valencia, where we hope to see yet another city’s treatment of African migration into Spain. Our project is beginning to transform into something much greater than just healthcare provisions and immigration statistics. It is a deeply personal project that affects all aspects of life. We cannot be sure what to expect, but we know that it will be something quite new and, most likely, another adventure.

Gracias por leer y todo su apoyo.

Hasta pronto!
Hannah y Lashlee

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A weekend of sightseeing

Well, after a pretty successful and very busy first week here in Madrid, we finally got a chance to explore some of the city and all that it has to offer. This weekend started off with a great dinner of tapas – small Spanish dishes such as jamon iberico and Lashlee’s favorite: croquetas – in the beautiful Plaza Santa Ana. We had an early morning on Saturday as we made our way to the train station in Atocha for a day trip to Toledo, one of Spain’s most historic locations and only a 30-minute train ride outside of Madrid. After a few minor difficulties with train tickets and such, we were able to make our way to the city for a wonderful day of sightseeing.

At the Toledo Cathedral

We started off our trip to Toledo with a picnic after purchasing a few items from a small grocery store and then made our way to the city’s famous – and absolutely gorgeous – cathedral. The Catedral de Toledo is one of the top 5 cathedrals in Europe and took over 260 years to construct. It offers some of the most beautiful and ornate artwork of its time, including an incredible display of art from El Greco and Goya. The works were all stunning, and we were amazed by the detail and obvious devotion of the people who dedicated their lives to the church. After the cathedral, we also toured an art museum and synagogue before making our way back to the train station.

When we arrived back in Madrid around 10, we were definitely pleased with the trip. But starving. We tried to find a place to grab a quick bite to eat, but luckily found a place that turned out to be our best meal in Madrid thus far. Our waiter was extremely helpful and patiently described several items on the menu – very little of which we could understand. We had some incredible lomo and all sorts of delicious tapas before heading back to the apartment for some much needed sleep.

Sunday also provided some exciting tourist opportunities, but this time in the city of Madrid itself. We are fortunate to know several other students from SMU who are currently studying abroad in Europe through various programs, and last night we were able to meet up with a few friends to attend our first bullfight in Ventas.

The show featured six bullfights, and it was a spectacular event rich in history and Spanish tradition. The crowd was so passionate about the fights, and the matadors were obviously very dedicated to their style and trade.

Hannah enjoying churros

To finish off an incredible evening, we enjoyed dinner at El Museo de Jamon (We have never encountered so much ham as we have in this country. It’s everywhere.), and then a trip to the Chocolateria de San Gines. San Gines is quickly becoming one of our favorite destinations – it serves some of the city’s best churros and hot drinking chocolate. So good!

Well, I think that’s all for now. Tomorrow is our last day in Madrid before we leave for Algeciras, so we hope to send another update about our research and work in the city tomorrow. Hasta luego!

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Diving in to Spanish culture

Puerta del Sol

Just two days ago, we got off the long flight to Madrid a little hungry and a little tired… but beyond excited for what is ahead! If these first few days are in indicator of what is to come, we could not be more grateful for the amazing learning experience our time in Spain will become.

To give a short overview of what our first few days here have involved, well, would naturally include many stories of acquainting ourselves: figuring out subways, getting a little lost, and practicing our Spanish as we ask for directions. We are staying in the Northwest side of Madrid above the city’s main park, El Parque de Retiro. Trying to dive right in to Spanish culture, we ordered quite the spread of tapas on our first night. Along with our (then very severe) jet lag, it was the perfect combination for a very, very good first night of sleep.

Lashlee with map

The next day involved lots of map studying as we really explored Madrid, scoping out the organizations and locations we hoped to visit during our time in Madrid. Naturally, we topped off a long day of walking and Metro-riding with a batch of churros con chocolate and great conversation … needless to say, our stomachs have yet to be disappointed!

Today, Friday, our work really gained momentum. Just as a brief aside, our Richter grant allows us to pursue field research on the topic of our choice; for us, this is, generally, studying the lives of African migrants and refugees living in Spain. We are taking what we call a “dual approach” based on our different areas of study. Lashlee, a pre-medicine student, is looking into the medical care provided to immigrants coming into Spain. Hannah, a political science major, is analyzing individual access to jobs, trends of migration and motives for those that seek asylum in Spain.

Two main encounters today proved amazingly rewarding – it was our first contact with individuals from Africa (or whose families are from Africa) and their stories were fascinating. Our first “interview” was more of a conversation that occurred by  chance, as we asked directions to one of our locations from a Catholic church in North Madrid. The man we stopped was from Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. Incredibly passionate about his native country and amazingly open in talking about his story with two American strangers, we saw this as a good omen for the day ahead.

The door to an office we visited

Our second main visit was an interview with an employee of CEAR, the largest refugee aid organization in the region. We spoke with a woman named Sonia, a tiny woman with a bright and amiable personality. The staff patiently and thoroughly answered virtually every question we could throw their way, giving us the firsthand information we came to Madrid to find! Although both mentally and physically tired from the day, we returned home to rest up and go over what we had heard.

Needless to say, ending the day with notebooks full of new ink… that has been the most rewarding feeling thus far.

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