This past September I traveled to McAllen, TX with the NGO Circle of Health International, where I am the Communications Director. I went to take pictures and gather stories of the women and children we came there to serve. What I like about what I do is experiencing what's being covered in the news myself – no media machine, no politics, no agenda. We are involved because we are humanitarians. COHI provides health care to women and children desperately in need – who are fleeing violence, who have endured an arduous journey, and who have left everything behind.
It's hard to imagine this situation, I think. It's difficult to sit in our offices, inside of our comfortable bubble. We care, we care deeply, but it's just hard to viscerally connect. So let me take you right in, right away. I sat with a woman and her child, a young boy who is 8 years old. Her name was Mrythla and she was angelic looking – sweet, beautiful, with a soft gaze. All of those qualities were reflected in her son's face, so I sensed that she is a great mother. She showed no visual signs of what she'd been through. But just a few minutes after she began to talk to me, tears welled up in her eyes as she shared the details of her journey.
Mrythla is from Guatemala and is 30 years old. Her son's name is Frisly and he's eight years old. She shared with me that she could only have one child because she is a cancer survivor. Mrythla left her country because she said there is no work and she is seeking a better life. Her journey from Guatemala to McAllen lasted 15 days and they had to cross a river at night. During her 12-day journey, she had very little food, and the people who brought her didn't feed them for days a time. She remembers eating once. Then, she spent three days at Border Patrol. She cried when she shared that she was heading to North Carolina to see her sister.
The next woman I spoke with was Besy. She had traveled with her daughter Yeneli who is 10 years old. They are from Honduras. They traveled for 15 days and then were held at Border Patrol in Mexico for four weeks. Besy said the Mexican police took all of her money or they wouldn't let them out of the country. Then they were held at Border Patrol in the U.S. for 10 days. Besy said that she left Honduras because she said "they were harassing my daughter because she's pretty." She is a single mom whose husband abandoned her and her three children. She left two sons, ages 12 and 14, behind with their grandmother, as she couldn't afford to pay for them to come too. She felt that her sons could survive but that her daughter wouldn't. Besy's face was drawn and sickly as she talked about her sons. She said that she regretted leaving them and not having the money to bring them. The fear and sadness emanating from her for having to leave her sons behind was palpable.
Each of these women, each with one child in tow, had walked for weeks. They have no money whatsoever – it has all been stolen. They were held at Border Patrol in a room full of other people, sleeping on a cement floor. In some cases people don't have enough room to lay down and they sleep standing up.
The atmosphere in McAllen is one of calm dedication. At the time I visited, Dr. Garza was the lead physician of the clinic. He and his wife, who did a lot of behind the scenes work, were the most generous-spirited people. They worked tirelessly and showed their concern and love for the people and their work every single day, with every action they took.
The community of McAllen seemed well represented by the number of volunteers I saw working, as well as the amount of donations filling up the huge building. The health care volunteers were forthcoming and eager to share their stories and experiences. We also visited the McAllen food bank to deliver $10,000 of donated Clif Bars, and I found the place inspiring. It was enormous and full of provisions, a visual reminder of the safety and comfort that we enjoy in the U.S.
The health care provided at this critical moment in these refugees' journeys is very much needed. There is simply no one else to do it. The donations that COHI receives are directly helping these women and their children. They truly need to receive this health care. It is the first moment of human compassion extended to these weary and worn travelers.
Read more about the border crisis in this New York Times article.
It takes $8,000 a month to run the clinic, including the costs of volunteer travel and accomodations. Join us.
Communications Director, Circle of Health International