A Sad Reality
On Friday, Nov. 8, I, along with two friends and 11 strangers, headed to Brownsville, to work with asylum-seeking families living in a tent camp on the Mexican border in Matamoros.
I took with me two Walmart gift cards and a box of teaching materials to be donated to the host organization, Team Brownsville. We would feed dinner to over 1,000 people on Friday and Saturday nights and teach at a “sidewalk school” in the camp on Sunday morning.
This is all I knew as we made our way south.
I’m not new to mission work, but none of my previous experiences prepared me for what I witnessed in the tent camp in Matamoros. Here, I met families fleeing terrible violence and famine in their home countries, only to be literally stuck at the border, stopped by forces far beyond their control. I saw people patiently waiting in line after line to get their most basic needs met. And in some cases, I saw people finally get to the front of the line only the find that there was nothing left for them. I saw a pitiful number of porta potties.
On Friday night, my team supported a group from Colorado as they tried to feed 1,000. They ran out of food with about 100 people left to feed. The next night, my team served pasta and cured meat, bread, oranges and grapefruits to the same people. We were able to feed them all, and the children returned for plates of fresh fruit, something that they don’t get enough of.
On Sunday morning, we broke up into pairs to teach at the “sidewalk school.” This school, started by a professor of education in Brownsville, literally happens on tarps on the ground, the same ground on which we’d served food the two nights before.
The sidewalk runs between collections of tents that make up the residents’ homes. In some tents, I could see that families had found materials, usually cardboard, to fashion shelves and nooks.
My teaching partner and I had created a math lesson to be used with a range of ages. The children were grouped roughly by age and were seated in small groups on the tarps. We teachers moved from one group to the next every 15 minutes. Other lessons focused on English, science, music and art.
Sunday morning is the only school time for these children. The Mexican government, for reasons that were never explained to me, won’t let them have school during the week. So they get about an hour of school per week … and they love it.
Before I left for the border and since I’ve been back, I’ve seen a variety of reactions to my work there. Most people have been incredibly supportive and curious. Others have posed (mostly) legitimate questions.
Here’s what I want people to understand about what I saw at the border: These families, many from Honduras and Guatemala and as far away as Africa, are not drug dealers and rapists. In fact, many of the people living in the camp were professionals — lawyers, doctors, engineers — in their own countries. I never felt unsafe, and I never saw any hints of violence or even rancor.
These families are doing everything the “right” way. They are not “illegals.” They have not been deported. They are seeking asylum, something that is still legal, but our government’s “stay in Mexico” policy, or MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols), means that they must wait in Mexico for many months for their legal proceedings to run their course. Honestly, I don’t know how lawyers can even find their clients in the tent camp.
The children are well taken care of and loved. While we taught the children, many of their parents joined in the lessons to help them or watched quietly from the sidelines. They held their children close while waiting in lines and made sure that they were fed first.
The children seem to be making the most of a very bad situation. They smiled and laughed and enjoyed practicing their growing English skills. They were quick to hug us and kiss our cheeks and wanted to help carry our supplies. It was in the faces of the parents that I saw great sadness and worry.
The camp itself is clean, though basic sanitation is an issue. The organization we worked with recently provided additional porta potties, but there are still too few. The fences around the camp are draped with clothes that people clean in the river.
I returned home on Sunday night and spent most of Monday morning crying. I cried because I was exhausted and sad. I cried because a cold front was arriving at the border soon and the people I met have too few clothes and blankets. I cried because so many people would rather blame and mischaracterize these asylum seekers than love and care for them. I cried because in 2019 we haven’t figured out a way to end the kind of suffering I witnessed.
I’ll be returning to the border in January, and I hope that I don’t see the same families there. I hope that they will have moved on to a safer and more secure place. But I imagine that they’ll still be there.
Eidson, who holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology, is the founder of re-dress and is on the board of directors for the Hill Country University Center Foundation.