Matamoros Witness Report, Part 2

14 mins read
Photo originally posted on Witness at the Border.

Part 2 of 4
Part One

Greetings all,

This is my second update and it centers around the observations of an early Sunday morning walk around the encampment at Matamoros, MX.  I’ve now spent a full week embedded at the camp and in the courts and I’ve learned a lot, but with each day I see more deeply. 

Today I went to the encampment in Matamoros, MX. Early and alone to feel the camp awaken. There are about 2,500 people in the camp as a result of the Remain in Mexico (MPP) program with NO meaningful services or support provided by the US or Mexican Government. Volunteer groups do herculean work every day and night to provide some basic medical, food, hygiene and humanitarian support, and the residents themselves are beginning to self-govern. Groups by country are being forms and leadership within and across groups is coalescing. It is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. 

Today it was cloudy, much colder and very windy, feels like around 50F. As I crossed the bridge and Rio Grande under leaden skies into Matamoros the norther lanes were already backed up. It’s Sunday, a day of family, and the crossings would be heavy today as many families are joined by birth, but not by country. Matamoros is a US level 4 risk, the same as Afghanistan and Syria. It is obvious from the stories I’ve heard over the week that I’ve been embedded here from asylum seekers and resident humanitarian workers, including doctors and lawyers, that kidnapping, beatings and rapes are everyday occurrences here and along the border. That said, as soon as I entered the encampment I felt safe and calm in an embrace to true community.

I began walking south along the dirt levy with tents, some other battered tarps to protect from rains, on both sides. It was quiet. People were waking and resting in their tents to resist the biting wind outside. Among the hacking sounds of the grackle birds you could hear children in their tents talking to parents, in one a radio played softly and I could hear what sounded like a mother and her daughter singing. Fathers were walking with their children, hand in hand.  I walked about 4 city blocks to what is now the end of the camp, and what was a park now continues to stretch into the distance. At the end of the camp as the park grows vacant I begin to felt vulnerable and turned around to the safety of the camp and return down another dirt lane in the camp.

 People were coming outside to brush their teeth, and some braving the chill to come to the clothes washing station in hopes of getting one of the 10 sinks in which to wash their cloths. There is no running water in the camp and water is provided in tanks (estimated 1000 gallons?) that are located around the camp. Water is collected from these tanks in buckets and taken back to the living tents. It is potable, but many residents don’t trust that and rely on bottled water to drink. An NGO is working to educate that it is potable. I’m not sure who provided the tanks or who fills them and if they are ever empty. Ten sinks are not many for the size of the camp so some people still wash their cloths in the river. The cloths lines are about 300 feet, again, for the size of the camp not adequate so throughout the camp you see makeshift lines. No one was braving the cold in one of the 40 outside concrete showers stalls open to the air access only shielded by a plastic curtain.  Then I passed by the charging station with 40 outlets. There were a handful of people standing there but every outlet was utilized with people trusting enough to leave their phones unattended. I’m pretty sure none of us would do that in an airport of park.

Next came the medical trailer and facility operated by the NGO Global Response Management which was opening around 8:30, because people still get sick on Sunday. I’ll discuss more about their difficult and amazing work in my 3rd and last update in a few days. Then I walked past the new cafeteria tent where volunteer Team Brownsville will serve meals with preparation assistance from World Central Kitchens, chef Jose Andres’s incredible disaster food machine who saved lives feeding Puerto Rico and the Bahamas when governments could or would not do their part. A sense of permanence it taking hold, not a good thing in the long run, but the need now is crucial.

As I continued down the dirt path the pitch of the slope is severe and I wonder when the rain comes how many inches of water will flow through the tents. It cannot be avoided. Almost all the camp is below the top of the levy and I consider when the big rains come, as they will, how far the river will rise. If water reaches only half way up the levy it’s likely it will engulf more than a third of the camp. The residents are doing what they can. They have carved drainage channels and even deep holes to capture run off water from washing dishes and heavy rains.

I saw a group huddled around a speaker. It is the daily huddle of people who will clean the camp – sweep the dirt lanes, pick up any trash, clean the 60 porta potties (not sure who pumps them out), clean the cloths washing station, etc. Each day, one geographic group is responsible for cleaning. Today the Hondurans cleaned. The camp is as clean as any park you will find. They take great pride in that. The day the Mexicans cleaned we talked to the leader. He told us that he does it to educate the asylum seekers because the US is clean and so they will be prepared and to keep it clean and healthy, especially for all the children. I don’t know how many children are in the camp but I would guess there are over 500 children in the camp. The only cleaning services in the camp are from residents. The US or Mexico provides no cleaning services in the camp.

Smoke began to rise in the camp as campfires were lighted and breakfast is started. Most of the residents have sculpted clay stoves using the clay on which the camp lies or dug firepits. There is no other means to cook or heat. Wood is harvested along the river, no one provides firewood, certainly not the US or Mexican Governments. Rice is cooking at one tent, meat and squash boiling at another, and oatmeal and coffee at another (with a bible next to the stove for reading since it is Sunday). I saw a man buy a stringer of fish that were caught in the Rio Grande, a very polluted river. Meals are based on what they have available, and they make the most of what they have. No food is provided by the US or Mexico, it is all provided by NGOs or purchased by residents. There are 4 free stores on the site. Many donations are dropped at these stores and they are inventoried, managed and distributed by the residents. People get what is available and what they need and are respectful and frugal to ensure supplies cover as many residents as possible.

Children began to come out of their tents now and some are now familiar with me and I with them.  They share a smile and laugh with me. Parents greet me with a smile and happily show me the meals they are cooking. I stopped by the round raised flower garden that was abandoned and now grows with more flora each day.  The families living around the garden and planting and tending to it are immensely proud to show me their progress.

What I didn’t see is a place to play for the children. The soccer field has been covered by tents. There is no playground. Yet we are often kicking a soccer ball and laughing with the kids down the dirt lane. Volunteers bring toys and books. There is a free library of donated children’s that is on the honor system. The books just sit in the open for the taking. Again, the residents, including the kids are respectful and frugal to share what little they have. All that said, there is no one gathering place with a playground or soccer field. This is not right, and conversations are underway with an NGO to see if it can be funded, and if it will be approved by the Mexican Government, which is likely if it is left behind if this travesty ever ends.

I hope I’ve done some justice to the remarkable resilience and determination in the spirit of these asylum seekers. There resourcefulness and industriousness can only be appreciated by witnessing in the camp for an extended period of time.

As I walked out of the camp for a bit, the calm and serenity of my walk evaporates and anger and sorrow fill the void. The policies of this administration, including MPP (Remain in Mexico), the severe lack of court due process as evidenced by the fact that only 4% of asylum seekers in MPP can secure legal and virtually no one is successful with non-refoulement claims are decimating the legal right to seek asylum in this country. As of November, only 11 cases were successful out of 10,000 cases completed. And the new stealth policies of PACR and HARP will ensure that decimation becomes the annihilation of asylum as asylum seekers will be (are now) herded onto planes and whisked to Honduras or Guatemala without even a shred of due process.

 What has drained the compassion and empathy from our pool of humanity and replaced it with rancor and injustice? When did we decide as a country that we would slam the door on deserving people, many of who are children, and abandon them to face a world of dark danger? I know these people. I have walked with them, I have played with the children, I have eaten at their table, I have walked to the line of the border on the bridge with Mexican babies and Moms and special needs children and have faced and argued with DHS and have seen them denied access.

I challenge anyone who agrees with these policies to come here. And spend days in the camp here and in the court. Not in staged visits and not as a fly by photo opportunity as some Members of Congress do.

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