PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A Discordant Melody That Refuses To Be Silenced

Today we crossed the border and entered into the reality of the struggles of those who live in Juarez, Mexico, and those who are forced to wait there as they seek asylum. It was a short trip across the river and a long journey into the depths of human pain.

It was hard to comprehend that the squalor in Juarez was a matter of a few miles from El Paso, Texas. El Paso is a beautiful metropolis and one of the safest cities in America.  Juarez has huge barrios, dirt streets and is one of the most dangerous cities in the world.  Truly there is a great divide broader than the river.

Our first stop was at the Biblioteca Infantil, a children’s library. There we met Christina Estrada, who began this place of learning after a terrible accident at the factory where she worked. There was an explosion that left her hands so burned that the lab gloves were melded to her flesh.

When she was rushed to the hospital, the general manager of the factory met her there. Before she was allowed to get help for her injuries he said she needed to sign a form. She was still in shock and overcome by pain so she could not read the paper, but he told her it said that the company would cover her medical bills, unemployment until she could return to work and that they would take care of her completely. She trusted him and signed it. However, when she got out of the hospital and went to collect unemployment, she was told that what she signed was a voluntary termination paper and she had no right to anything.

After this happened, she spiraled downward. When a priest came to try to get her to volunteer with children at the church because they couldn’t read, she said she would do it at her house but not at the church because she was angry at God. So the Children’s Library began.

She wanted to do more than help kids learn to read. Most of them came from homes where they had at best one or two books to read, if they were lucky  She dreamt of ways to educate the children, instill a love of reading and provide them a future with hope. So in the small house where we visited, she has classes set up to help kids read or get tutoring — two groups a day — as well as providing breakfast and  social services when possible.

She explained to us that getting an education in Mexico is hard. One of the challenges is getting a birth certificate. To go to school, you need to have one and to get one you need to first pay a fine that increases every year you didn’t have one. That is a challenge to people who have no money. She said she knew the project was blessed by God when the first group she tried to get birth certificates for didn’t have to pay a fine.

Beyond that, it is hard to convince parents that their children should go to school. Most parents, many of whom struggle with alcoholism and other addictions, want their kids to go to work at the factories as soon as they can to make money for the family. She has to convince them it is worthwhile and then help them find scholarships for their kids.

Although education is supposedly free in Mexico, all the government provides is a classroom and teachers. Kids must pay for the registration fees, uniforms and any materials they may need, which is $400 a year just for kindergarten. Christina so far has helped 374 kids with scholarships, through the work of her church, including 67 kids who have graduated from university, some of whom come back and help her with her program. It was an honor for our group to contribute $500 to her work from the funds we raised. She said she would use it to help three girls who cannot see to read get glasses.

She feels that God has worked through her every step of the way — from her accident to the program she continues to build. Christina is a powerful example of someone who took what others did for evil and used it for good. She refused to let the negativity define her life and said that every morning she wakes up and says the same thing to God. “God, you put me here and you will get me through.”

From the Children’s Library we crossed the street to the Clinica Santo Nino de Atocha, a special needs clinic operated by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. The sisters, whose motto is ‘Do What Presents Itself,” started the clinic 18 years ago after a parent came to them with a baby who had Down’s syndrome and they discovered that there was no care for special needs children. So they did what presented itself and tried to help. And the clinic was born.

As soon as you walked in, you could tell it was a place of joy. The mothers gathered there every day with their children who have special needs and no place to take them for an education. Most of them are single mothers, and they work together sharing their gifts, pitching in to help with the kids in any way possible. It felt like a large extended family, with some moms making dinner, others playing games or teaching the kids or helping with therapy. They firmly believe that you don’t look at what’s wrong but rather at what is possible. And what they have done is make it possible to find community and support for a group of women who were walking alone through life.

There was one child with Down’s syndrome named Raina who defined the joy of this special place. She came to the clinic when she was 1 week old, with a 15-year-old homeless mom, and the Sisters are now her extended family. I will never forget the joy she had as she came and read a book to us — she had just learned to read. And then she decided that all of the women needed lipstick, so she very adeptly applied lipstick on all of us. We left with bright pink lips and full hearts.

Our next stop was at the Casa de Largo Estancia, a long-term residency house that shelters refugee families. The home, which was a gift from one of the faith community members when he died, provides a safe space for women and children who are seeking asylum. Currently, there are 20,000 asylum seekers in Juarez and space for only 3,000 in shelters. That means the remaining 17,000 are vulnerable to narco cartels who are looking to either kidnap them to demand ransom from families in America or to traffic them as sex slaves.

Because of the new “remain in Mexico” policy invoked by the Trump administration, once people are released from the holding cells after they present themselves for asylum they are brought back to Mexico to await a hearing. They are dropped off and if they are lucky, they go to a shelter, or else they must live on the street. They await an uncertain future. Plan A is to get asylum in the U.S. and join relatives there. Plan B is to remain in Mexico. Plan C is to go back to their country, but as we learned, Plan C likely means certain death for many of the people.

In the past, they would present themselves for asylum, would get an ankle bracelet and be released to relatives in the U.S. They would get a court date at the closest immigration court to where they were going. But with the new Migrant Protection Protocol, a draconian policy, they are now forced to forge a way in Mexico, trying to avoid all of the perils of life on the streets in Juarez.

The six women in this home are fortunate — they have a place that is safe but they need to remain inside so the place is not identified as a refuge by the cartels so that it would become a target for attack. Women and children are literally grabbed and forced in vans while waiting to cross the street at a stoplight.

When we walked in, they greeted us with joy — hugs and kisses on the cheek for each person who entered. We came bearing fruit — one should never show up empty-handed — but they had made us lunch. We were the guests. They served us a soup with vegetables and meat as well as tortillas. While I initially felt uncomfortable being served, as I wanted to be serving them, I also know the power of hospitality. These women found a joy in serving and sharing what they made. It was grace to receive it.

After the meal, they shared their stories. I am not going to use their real names because of the risk to them, but because I want to humanize them I will create names because having a name matters — an identity. These are not stories in a book.  These are real people who have carried these loads.

Carmen’s story began when she saw a police officer kill someone in public. He knew that she saw  the murder and followed her and threatened her. The man he killed was connected to a cartel, so she knew she was caught between a rock and a hard place. She knew she needed to flee from Honduras or she would be killed, but she could only take one of her four children, leaving the others with her family.

She didn’t go into the details of the journey across Mexico because it was too fresh and raw, but she detailed what it was like in the “ice box,” the holding cell where she had to stay with her 17-month-old child for 30 days. It’s called the Ice box because the U.S. government deliberately keeps it cold to make it uncomfortable.

At the facility, 30 women and in some cases, their children, including babies, were held in a room that should only hold 12, and they were forced to sleep on the floor with only a Mylar blanket. And they all shared an open toilet with no privacy. No human dignity. They were given food two or three times a day — some water and a burrito, often still frozen when it was handed to them.

When she got out, she was dropped off in Juarez with no shoelaces, no personal care items, nothing. She was grateful the sisters found her and took her in.

Marisol fled Nicaragua because she had supported a group that was protesting the government for cutting the pensions of senior citizens. She said the government silenced people with bullets and her crime was supporting the protesters, providing them with food She was threatened and stayed but when her children were threatened, she had to flee with her two sons in tow.

She said that she wants to live freely in her country but she can’t. The most difficult decision she ever made was to make the journey. The walk from Nicaragua was hard. She left Nicaragua in June, not knowing where she and her children would sleep or where they would find food. She received many threats, but she also found angels along the way who helped her.

After three months, she arrived at the border Sept. 8, and she was told she had to wait to seek asylum. She was then deposited in Juarez, a dangerous city where she knew no one who she could trust. Thankfully, Christiana, the woman who helped find residents for the house, found her. Marisol could wait until her first court date Nov. 8, uncertain what the future held but knowing she could not go back or she and her kids would die.

Ximena was also from Nicaragua and was 17 when she took part in an anti-government march. She wasn’t allowed to continue to study, and so she didn’t graduate. She was considered a threat and she saw her friends killed. Government agents sat outside her house, waiting to kill her, just as they killed her grandfather in the 1970s.

Ximena traveled to the U.S. with her mom and her sister. They were released to  relatives in the U.S. but she was separated from them — put on a different bus and detained in the ice box until she was brought to Juarez. She has documents of what she was doing and the danger that she faces, but she is doubtful that will help her case, which will be decided Dec. 8.

Yolanda came from Honduras. She didn’t detail her story — the pain was too overwhelming to retell. But she told us she and her daughter were kidnapped when they were in Mexico and that now her daughter is afraid to be left alone, even if she goes to the restroom. Her daughter cannot leave her side because of the trauma.

After sharing their stories, they showed us the embroidery they were working on, with the hope to sell them and provide some means of making a living. They laughingly shared with us their new brand name — Niconsaua — from the letters of their countries: NICaragua, HONduras, El SAlavador and GUAemala. Unity in the midst of shared grief.

The joy they exuded, even after tearfully telling their stories, showed that they were still filled with light in the midst of darkness. By serving, caring and sharing, they reflected the light of God who offers hope in a hopeless place.

After the long return to Mexico, where we waited 1½ at the U.S. border, which we understood was not as bad as it could have been, we ended the evening at The Pizza Joint, sharing pizza and beer and reflecting on the power of the day.

One of the entertainers that night was a violinist who layered his music, playing a line, recording it and then adding to it, until it came together in the fullness of sound and harmony. It was a fitting ending to this day, a true juxtaposition.

Instead of a soaring melody, as we uncovered the layers upon layers of the humanitarian crisis, each building upon the other, it resulted in a cacophony of pain and suffering beyond human imagining.

Yet even in the midst of the discordant melody it revealed, there were still lines of joy that rose above the noise that refused to be silenced.

Leave a Reply