How to even begin to synthesize the vast amounts of information, stories, and tragedies that I have digested in the last month… I can’t even say that I have digested any of this. I am still processing it. The people I met and the testimonials I heard during my elective rotation with Community for Children in the Rio Grande Valley are too inspirational and too heart-wrenching to even describe. I met incredible activists, such as Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer and human rights activist that has dedicated her life to unveiling the CIA’s complicity in human rights abuses in countries like Guatemala. My mentors were vivacious and enlightening women: Dr. Marsha Griffin, Dr. Catherine Monserrat, and Dr. Minnette Son. I spent countless nights discussing human rights violations, the prevalence of torture and violence in Central America, and media’s pathetic attempts to expose the truths of the border. I partnered with medical students from around the country to plan and carry out projects in various sectors of the community, in order to better serve the immigrant population. So much happened in a short span of four weeks and I’m still not sure how it all got done.
This elective was my first attempt at true grassroots activism. I have participated in community projects and global health missions in the past, but have never been at the forefront, as the leaders of a ground-level project. I partnered with a medical student from Iowa, Melissa Palma. We spent our time in the colonias around Pharr, Texas. Colonias are communities along the border, where plots of agriculturally worthless land, usually floodplains, were sold to poorer families, with little to no infrastructure. Many of these communities have no running water, sewage or electricity. Just take a minute to ponder this. We are talking about developing country//third world//whatever you want to call it level infrastructure.Yes, this is in the United States. Yes, this is in Texas. Thanks to dedicated community members, conditions are improving at a slow pace, with no help from the Texas government.
Our project involved working with ARISE, a grassroots organization led by women of a few colonias in the area. ARISE was created by Sister Gerrie Naughton, of the Sisters of Mercy order, in 1987. It empowers women of the community to become leaders, forming various programs and workshops for the community. Programs include after school English classes for elementary school children and youth volunteering and leadership development programs. For adults, classes include alternative health, English, driving school, and other classes.
With ARISE leaders, we gave presentations about mental health to the group classes in the morning, and to individual families in the afternoon when we did home visits. Our presentation highlighted the causes and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic stress, and ways to alleviate these issues within the community. We also taught the after school English class to first and second graders once per week. With the little munchkins, we read the children’s book, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, by Duncan Tonatiuh. It is an allegory about a migrant family. Afterwords, we did a vocabulary exercise with picture drawings. Lastly, we presented to the adolescents of the program, ages 12-17. We discussed mental health and future goals, and were incredibly surprised by the level of participation and involvement from the group.
I was consistently impressed with the community’s support and dedication to their own improvement. From scratch, with basically no resources, they build sustainable programs that empower everyone in the community, from the three-year-olds in the early childhood development classes, to the 85-year-old women who is learning to read for the first time. It highlighted the desperate need for local level, grassroots organizations to build and better communities from the ground up. Throwing money down from the top or attempting to help a community by giving hand-outs or carrying out projects based on what you think they need doesn’t help, and can potentially do harm.
The obstacles they continually face and the resilience of these families is astounding. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience to work alongside these strong women and to hear their stories. I cried on many occasions during this elective, and afterwords. I cried for these families, who have been separated by border patrol, by drug cartels, by violence of their home countries. It only takes one story of beheading, rapes, or arbitrary killing of innocent people to understand why people leave their home countries. Like Warsan Shire said, “no one leaves home, unless home is like the mouth of a shark.”
Interesting side note: the following is Article 22 from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child from 1989.
1. States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee in accordance with applicable international or domestic law and procedures shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or by any other person, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the present Convention and in other international human rights or humanitarian instruments to which the said States are Parties.
According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a refugee is anyone who is located outside the US and demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or member of a particular social group. I do believe that murdering political opponents, killing//torturing young boys who refuse to join gangs, and the estimate of 26,000 people who have disappeared in Mexico’s drug wars warrants fear of persecution. I’m glad that our government has said that they will grant asylum status to 4,000 children from Latin America and the Caribbean next year, but then what happens to the other children? There was an estimated 52,000-66,000 children who were detained since October of 2013. That leaves a lot of children back in the hands of violence and torture.
As I said before, I am still processing this deeply moving experience. It taught me how to be a better advocate, how to better communicate and lead projects, and how vast the disparities are in regard to immigrant populations. It taught me how to continue advocacy work in my future career as a physician, and how to listen. It taught me about politics, human rights, and the interplay between countries’ policies. Most importantly, it taught me how to be a better healer, without pharmaceuticals or lab tests, but with my heart. I will forever be changed by this Community for Children experience and am so thankful to have participated in this fiercely educational rotation. I am still learning how to incorporate this new aspect into my everyday life, and have been overwhelmed emotionally with frustration at people’s lack of heart and ignorance. I am still learning how to communicate this information to make positive change in my community and abroad. It is a work in progress, but I guess that’s like all of life.. a work in progress.