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By Symone Saul

Photos by Symone Saul

There is a breakdown in communication when everyone is shouting, not listening, just adding to the noise. No one can hear me over their dissonance. 

Maybe if they heard what I heard: the laughter of a dozen children bickering playfully, shouting “¡Guantes!” as they snap latex gloves high above their wrists. They stretch open a trash bag like a parachute in gym class as I shovel in garbage and human waste from the riverbank of the Rio Grande. They giggle, ignoring my pleas for them not to help; too many of them are crowded around and it’s too dangerous for their fragile immune systems. They should be in school, but instead they’re so bored that they beg me to let them don these oversized medical gloves and help us gringos pick up mounds of dirty diapers and other trash. The toxic garbage slides down the marshy hillside into the river water, from which the children are often sent to collect buckets of downstream. 

Thomas Merton Center Director, Gabriel McMorland, and I have traveled from Pittsburgh to volunteer for the grassroots Resource Center for Asylum- Seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. They coordinate the needs of this refugee camp; which grew in a single year from 40 people sleeping on the U.S./Mexican border bridge to what has now stretched into several blocks of an estimated 2000 people living without homes. The sudden increase is due to a new U.S. policy forcing persons seeking asylum to ‘Remain in Mexico’ for months while awaiting their hearings. 

We’re on trash duty because the Resource Center has built hand-washing stations to accompany new port-a-potties, and has run water-filtration facilities so campers no longer have to use the contaminated river water or the dug-out latrines lining the riverbank. Trash pick-up and an informational campaign will provide an alternative to discarding waste only a few yards from their tents and prevent any outbreak of disease. 

As we clean, my ears ring with glee at the squealing of my new young friends who find joy in disposable gloves, despite the leering threat of illness, rape, kidnapping and exploitation. Meanwhile, my stomach twists remembering that same laughter of kids on the soccer field, hidden behind barbed wire fences at the Tornillo Detention Center. I shudder knowing if my tiny friends, all under the age of 11, survive this camp, their future still likely entails crossing the border only to be shoveled into what they call “Las Hieleras” (Iceboxes)- the freezing American concentration camps that most people requesting asylum will endure through filthy and dehumanizing conditions. There, the guards wear face masks while prisoners wear close to nothing, susceptible to whatever diseases the government is hoping they catch. 

No matter how hard the inspiring team at the Resource Center works to reinforce humanity, dignity and safety at the refugee camp, there is still a much larger force of intentional cruelty weaving this imminent net of chaos around them. 

There is a breakdown in resolution-in solutions and in resolve. Democratic politicians shouting for immigration ‘reform’ involving border security are still invoking anti-immigrant hysteria instead of firmly defending the human rights of people forced from their homes. The only reason borders are dangerous is simply because they exist! Anything short of resolute legislation to resettle those caught in the devastating whirlwind of global migration only furthers our complicity in this crisis. 

As Australia is burning and Iranians are panicking, I’m weighed down by ankle-deep toxic sludge and the knowledge that I can only have a tiny impact in this sea of cruelty. I know the solution to ALL of these problems: Dismantle weapons, decolonize, divest from capitalism, do less, share more. 

Yet there is a breakdown in connection because we’re shouting over each other instead of listening to the children, who don’t need to share your language to find ways to laugh with you and who have many reasons to cry. 

The Resource Center for Asylum- Seekers in Mexico makes these connections and amplifies the voices of those being ignored. The small but powerful operation is mainly comprised of two people, Gaby Zavala and Brendon Tucker, who started as Team Brownsville and grew with the needs of the community. When I met Gaby a year ago as we served food on the international bridge, she was scouting out locations for a Center, resolved to provide a safe space. Through her individual determination, the Resource Center now provides a diverse range of volunteer roles, occasional employment for asylum-seekers and facilitation of the contributions of major international aid organizations. Gaby and Tucker’s work comes from real connection and leading by example. They empowered us to wade through this muddy water to fill this ocean of need, bottle by bottle, knowing that each small contribution speaks louder than words. 

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Symone Saul and Gabriel McMorland, executive director for the Thomas Merton Center, volunteered with the Resource Center in December & January. To support this work, visit

NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 2. March, 2020. All rights reserved.

Categories: News

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