By Casey Crow
Special to The SUN
A group of Beyond Words International (BWI) volunteers, myself included, recently returned from working with asylum seekers stranded on the United States’ southern border.
BWI is a nonpolitical, nonreligious organization based in Pagosa Springs that aims to support survivors of trauma through humanitarian aid, arts-based therapy and other psychosocial services.
Our team recently traveled to Matamoros, Mexico, to provide aid to nearly 1,500 asylum seekers awaiting processing at the border.
The majority of asylum seekers survived a harrowing journey from Central America to undertake the legal process of requesting asylum in the United States due to violence in their home countries. Previously, individuals applying for asylum were permitted to wait for their court date in the U.S.; however, the recent implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols last January resulted in asylum seekers being sent back to Mexico while they await processing.
In Matamoros, families live in an informal encampment next to the Gateway International Bridge connecting Mexico and Texas across the Rio Grande. Our group witnessed firsthand the terrible conditions of the settlement, where asylum seekers have severely limited access to clean water, medical care and proper sanitation. The families, many of whom have young children, live in constant terror due to the hundreds of cases of rape, kidnapping and extortion perpetrated against asylum seekers who are stuck in some of Mexico’s most dangerous border towns.
I’ve worked on the ground with refugees in Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and as a researcher for UNICEF and others; yet, I was personally shocked by the lack of support — government, nonprofit and humanitarian — for asylum seekers in Matamoros. The conditions of the camp are utterly inhumane.
According to BWI volunteer Paula Jo Miller, “Matamoros has nothing in place to help the asylum seekers stranded there. No international organizations and very little government support. It’s essentially up to those who cross the border and volunteer. While this lack of support is incredibly distressing, it enabled us to have direct contact with asylum seekers and find out what they needed. With the generous donations, we received before leaving, we were able to buy and fill an entire supply tent for those in the encampment.”
Our group partnered with Team Brownsville (TB), a local nonprofit based out of Brownsville, Texas, just opposite of Matamoros on the U.S. side of the border. The organization began as a small team of educators attempting to stifle the suffering of asylum seekers stuck in Mexico. Over the past year and a half, TB has grown and expanded its efforts, becoming the primary humanitarian actors in Matamoros. The group provides hot meals twice daily, necessary supplies such as tents and blankets, and weekly educational opportunities for children living in the settlement.
“Team Brownsville is an incredibly organized and focused organization. In the short time we were there, we were able to serve meals, teach at the Sunday morning school and provide healing art activities. In addition, we met with TB leaders and began to formulate a plan for how we can collaborate going forward. Our (BWI) mission is to return to the encampment to support these efforts, as well as create additional days of school, provide more supplies, teach more healing art activities and be a remote psychosocial resource for the TB volunteers,” Miller explained.
BWI will continue to send volunteers to the border in the coming months to expand educational and arts-based programming, provide legal aid and support those serving asylum seekers year round. We are also raising funds to restock the supply tent we set up with medicine, diapers, baby formula, hygiene products, tents and more. If you would like to support our work, you can make a tax-deductible donation by:
• Mailing a check to P.O. Box 2503, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147, or
• Donating on our website at www.bwintl.org.