COHI's COO, Leah Little, shares her personal thoughts on our work with refugees in the Rio Grande Valley, providing quiet and solemn insight to the tough reality refugees and healthcare providers endure, and the pivotal, compassionate moment when they first meet.

"For the past few days I’ve been in the Rio Grande Valley again. McAllen, TX is one of the U.S. border towns just across the Rio Grande river from Mexico. It is uniquely situated geographically, and it has become a special place for COHI and the work we do. Thousands of refugees cross the border near there each year. A percentage of them cross illegally, are detained, and are then released while they file for asylum. Upon release they come to our partners Sacred Heart Catholic Church for clean clothes, a few meals, medical care if needed, a night’s sleep, and then they are off to their final U.S. destination. It is quite a moment when they first walk through the doors of Sacred Heart. The staff and volunteers clap enthusiastically as the group gets off the bus and walks through the doors. A welcome committee of sorts telling them, “We are glad you are here.”

The medical care piece is where COHI comes in. For us, that has meant staffing a clinic on site at Sacred Heart. We see and treat all kinds of minor illnesses and injuries. People need help with everything from colds and sore throats to mental illness and pregnancy issues. During my last visit I spoke with a woman who had walked for miles on a swollen ankle. She was in obvious pain and it was hard to imagine how she was able to walk so far with such an injury. Another woman had a high fever and flank pain. After a few tests it was determined that she had a kidney infection and had likely traveled with that illness for a long time. 

For all of the refugees, this is their first respite in a long time. Most of them are coming from violence in Central America. Then they have walked or have been transported in different ways for months before they arrive at the border. The trip is rough. Their detention at the border is further stress. Strangers in uniforms determine their fate. Many of the refugees are sick and most are traumatized.

The colds and stomach bugs are the easy ones to treat. Physical injury often heals quickly. But the emotional shock that comes with fleeing for one’s life is often less obvious at first glance. It certainly has a more lasting impact and affects the ability to do the hard work of rebuilding one’s life in the United States. It is important that the refugees’ trauma is recognized alongside their scraped knees and upset stomachs. That’s why, even though we are treating the obvious wounds and seeing these clients for such a short period of time, our providers are trained in trauma care. For us it is an essential level of care that we hope will serve our clients as they continue to build a new life. 

At such a pivotal point in the refugees’ lives, we provide quality healthcare while at the same time acknowledging their worth, their work, and their journey to a safer life. It’s an honor to applaud them."

-Leah Little