Rev. Ann Willever traveled with Borderlinks to the Arizona-Mexico border last month, part of a 23-person delegation that included nine youth and young adults, five ministers, and four seminarians. In this post, she shares some of her many stories from that trip. –Ed.
After spending the night in the Borderlinks dorm in Tucson, we set out the next morning in two vans with our first stop Green Valley, just south of Tucson. There we met Shura, a woman who volunteers with the Samaritans, whose mission is to prevent deaths in the southern AZ desert by providing water and first aid to migrants. Shura welcomed us into her home where she had arranged an array of items collected from the nearby desert on her dining room table – things that had been carried or worn by migrants…things left behind when they were either apprehended by border patrol or overcome by dehydration or sun stroke: clothing (including a small child’s Mickey Mouse sweater), shoes, children’s books, baby bottles, beautifully embroidered tortilla warmers. A pair of high heeled shoes – perhaps for the job interview a migrant might anticipate when reaching the US. She had many stories of encounters with migrants wandering in the desert over the years – one of the saddest had to be that of the 42 year old man suffering extreme edema who was searching for his son, who he hadn’t seen for two and half years.
Shura then guided us out onto the nearby desert. First we were warned to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas. To use a stick rather than a hand, if we wanted to investigate something lying on the ground. We carefully crept under the barbed wire fence and walked along for about 90 minutes, discovering abandoned back packs, water bottles, a tube of toothpaste, a blanket. Knowing that migrants had walked these paths, had hidden here, some dying here was sobering. Knowing that it would have taken them at least seven days to get this far north was unbelievable. I personally felt physically ill after only an hour – and I had plenty of water to drink and was in no danger of arrest.
The reality of young children dying in the desert, perhaps on their way to reunite with a family member, with hope in their hearts, is simply unconscionable. We can only imagine how desperate their families’ lives must be, to take this risk, for a new life, a better life for themselves and their children.
The Bus Station
On Saturday morning we spent time at a privately owned bus station in downtown Nogales meeting with and talking with migrants who were recently deported from the US. Those of us with some Spanish were encouraged to try speaking directly with those sitting and waiting – to hear their stories. With my six years of HS Spanish many years behind me, I was still able to initiate some basic conversation with the few of them.
Occasionally I had to turn to someone more fluent for help with vocabulary. It was the middle-aged man sitting at the end of the row who broke my heart. He had been hoping to see his sister, who lives in Colorado, where she is a florist. Como se llama tu hermana? As he spoke her name aloud, “Yolanda”, I saw his face fall…witnessed his great sadness. In that moment I was overcome by grief…and needed to go outside where I sobbed for several minutes before being able to return. At that moment, in that encounter, immigration was no longer political, it was personal.
This border had been permeable, allowing safe passage back and forth for many hundreds and thousands of years, for indigenous populations as well as European conquerors and descendents. Now it is solidly defined by an ugly 30 ft high barrier, known as “the wall” built at great expense with our tax dollars. The material poverty on the south side of the wall is tangible and has worsened, in part, as a result of policies like NAFTA. Currently 82% of the Mexican working population has less income than what is needed for basic subsistence life. As people of faith we are called to consider what our tradition teaches about being a guest or a trespasser; a host or a gate keeper/fence builder/border maker.
For me, good news and great hope, come from the young people I encountered – the high school and college age Unitarian Universalist youth who participated in the Borderlinks program. After all, they are the future! And what I witnessed in them over the four days was nothing short of transformational. Making me so proud that experiences like these are available to our UU youth. We crossed borders of race and class, of ethnicity and language, to be sure. And we also bridged generational divides as we shared deeply with one another and grew to trust one another.
Our final group activity invited us each to offer one simple action that we would commit to taking when we returned to home. Several sermons were promised; one 19 yr old hopes to preach his in Spanish. Having experienced it as a living breathing language, it now makes sense to him in a way his high school classes never did. Some committed to attending General Assembly in June and taking part in the justice activities planned; others to volunteering with local groups or the Occupy movement back home. But I’m guessing for many of us this experience of venturing into the unknown, of going outside our comfort zone, of meeting people who would never otherwise have been encountered will continue to impact us deeply and over a period of time. There’s no telling what seeds of justice were planted and are germinating now!
Have you had an experience that had made immigration “personal” rather than political? How have you shared that experience with others? We’d love to hear your stories! –Ed.
Rev. Ann Willever is Family Minister at the First Universalist Society in Franklin, MA.
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