Stories from the Desert: The Power of Human Resilience

Story by Jon Dillon, Casework and Outreach Associate, Washington, DC

In the hearts and minds of many, the desert serves as a symbol of solitude and self-discovery, of isolation and peace. But for thousands of people, the desert signifies opportunity and hope, while also hostility and possibly, death. Each year, thousands of migrants risk their lives crossing the deserts in the border regions of the United States and Mexico. While they journey for various reasons – violence, poverty, family reunification, etc. – they all deserve protection.

Over the past couple years, the Red Cross Movement has joined many other organizations and government partners in meeting the needs of migrants. Given migration’s complexities, this work is extremely varied, from providing information about the dangers of migration; to ensuring migrants have access to water in the desert; to facilitating the ability for families to find closure regarding missing loved ones. Collectively, this work aims at strengthening the human dignity of migrants while honoring their rights and decisions to migrate.

I have had the privilege of being a part of this work with the American Red Cross for the past two years, specifically around maintaining family communication for migrants through phone calls along the US-Mexico border. These phone calls provide a vital link between migrants and their loved ones – letting families know the migrant’s wellbeing and whereabouts and giving migrants the opportunity to receive support and trusted opinions concerning possibly dangerous decisions. This work would not be possible without the dedication and humanitarian spirit of partners such as No Mas Muertes, Catholic Charities, and Ozanam to name a few.

It is unusual for us to get an up-close visit to partner organizations in another country, but we had the good fortune to do so, with the help of our colleagues from the Mexican Red Cross. Grupo Beta, is a service of the National Institute of Migration that provides shelter and relief for returned migrants in Mexico as well as basic first aid and information on migration to travelers before attempting to cross the border. During our Binational Restoring Family Links for Migrants Meeting between the American and Mexican Red Cross, we met with them and got to see their work first hand.

Outside Nogales, Sonora with Grupo Beta.

Outside Nogales, Sonora with Grupo Beta.

Our team, a group of almost 20 Red Crossers from across Mexico and the Unites States, packed into Grupo Beta’s SUVs to traverse the rough terrain just outside of Nogales, Sonora. Because of the recent monsoons, the landscape was lush and green, making it (almost) easy to forget its dangers – thorny underbrush, sharp rocks, scarce water, searing hot days, freezing cold nights, coyotes, traffickers, not to mention that most movements take place in the dark of night, making these obstacles all the more dangerous.

As we drove west along the border wall, up and down ravines, sometimes at what felt like a 90 degree angle, it seemed that no person could be found. Eventually, we reached a clearing where a group of around 20 migrants were resting. Grupo Beta immediately went to work distributing food and providing information about the dangers of migration. Throughout their interaction with the migrants, it was clear that this assistance, whether first aid knowledge or water to stay hydrated, is crucial for saving lives.

We were able to ask the group how long it had been since they were able to contact their families. Answers ranged from days to weeks, and we let them know that the Red Cross is there to help them maintain communication with their loved ones if needed.

The following day, we were able to visit No Mas Muertes desert aid camp outside of Arivaca, Arizona. At their camp, they provide a space for migrants to rest, recuperate and receive any medical attention they need, as well as a phone for them to call their loved ones.

The process of migration can often be a dehumanizing, disempowering experience. From the difficulties of the routes, to the possibilities of exploitation by coyotes and traffickers, to the anti-immigration sentiments and narratives they encounter, there are few opportunities allotted to the migrant person to reaffirm their humanity, to say and feel, I am a human deserving of rights and respect; I have control over my life. By providing a phone call, a bottle of water, a bandage, the Red Cross and our partner organizations place needed tools in their hands so that they can make empowered decisions for themselves and their families. These seemingly small, discrete forms of support engage the power of human resilience.

As we left the desert, I was left with a new understanding of the power of human resilience.  The depth of human desperation, the lack of safe, legal and orderly migration and the seemingly insurmountable number of obstacles that lay ahead are all a testament to that resilience. The work of organizations and groups like Grupo Beta and No Mas Muertes is an unfortunate necessity to limit the human toll. 

Far too often, the desert is a tombstone. We must stand up for migrant lives and enshrine the desert as a call to action for everyone to protect humanity.