The Children of Camp One, Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico
Fue un adios una despedida in the dark…. Saying goodbye to walk the bridge.
The calls began coming in to us at Bay Area Border Relief (BABR) Wednesday night. Four children from Camp One had been forced to walk alone on the long bridge over the Rio Grande to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents. Step by step, young children leaving their parents to be unaccompanied minors in the United States so they can survive. The cries of the parents are beyond desperate, they are anguished, inconsolable and completely heartbroken to have to say goodbye and watch their children take the steps that may force them apart for years, maybe even forever. As the coronavirus pandemic looms over the country, pushing its way into all communities, our asylum-seeking families wait with little protection — their fears only compounded.
They are tired. For the children of Camp One, it’s been nine long months of weathering the storm of the US government’s current policy. As one dad, Kique,* shared, “When we were with ICE begging for asylum, they told us we were being sent back to Mexico because of the new Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also called the Remain in Mexico protocol. We thought we were coming to a special program or shelter, but they threw us to the other side, on the sidewalk, with nothing, no place to sleep, no place to go. We had nothing, scared for our lives in our country and in the dark of Matamoros. For two weeks, my wife and daughters slept under the park bench at La Plazita. I slept on top to shelter them, until someone was kind enough to give us a tent.” Since June of 2019, families of Camp One have worked to gather together, tent by tent, united by tragedy and survival. Subject to the elements, suffering hunger and insecurity, these families are warriors in this fight for their lives.
In the camp, families were consumed by rumors of US immigration shutting out volunteers and closing the border to asylum seekers, leading to parents’ desperate cries of exhaustion and fatigue as they worked to find help for their children. Camp One has been displaced the longest of all of the camps, enduring the cold, the hunger and fear for over eight to nine months. They are the ones that have been waiting “the right way” at the entry point since the summer of 2019, when suddenly everything halted as MPP was put in place. The doors were slammed shut and the chains double wrapped to close them out. There would be no front-page news stories showing children crying in the United States detention stations. Now these refugees would be hidden in the shadows of Matamoros, steps away from the border with Texas. Three thousand people are crowded into the “camp,” an empty lot of dirt and grass, now filled with tents. The little children waiting with their parents had no idea what journey they were on, only that their parents feared the worse for their life back home.
Nine-year-old Delia’s mom hugged her tight. She was leaving to walk as part of a group of four children together, from three families, saying goodbye for the last time at the bench. Their last hugs to their parents, their last tears that their mothers would wipe away. Their parents and members of the camp family walked with them to the bridge; they gathered to say goodbye and see them hold their parents so tight, knowing they may never see them again, may never feel their breath on their little heads through a hug, may never look into their eyes again. The security of being with their parents was suddenly gone — ripped from them in a presidential decree in full view of the public. Their dream of a better life, their flight from certain death, had come to this.
Friends they made since they arrived now huddled together in the cold with their parents to say goodbye — mingling the tears of all the asylum-seeking families. They have become familia there, suffering as a community with a desperation and a hunger for safety, their lives in emotional shambles due to the forced MPP policy that is putting the lives of the most humble, caring and loving children and families at risk for death and harm.
Minutes after the separation, Kique reflected on the decision, his voice shivering with grief and even regret, adamant that their children are suffering beyond what they can emotionally endure, stranded in the camp in Matamoros, Mexico. Delia’s mother shut herself in the tent wailing with llantos, a painful cry of loss and grief. Kique again shares the story that returning to their country means death and living in the camp for the past nine months has been traumatically difficult for the children. Either way he cannot watch the suffering. His only choice now is to believe in the dream that they might find safety in their lives across the border. This sense of safety is a long shot, and fraught with uncertainty, as children have been spiraled into complex systems of abuse and neglect en el otro lado. “They were tired, they were exhausted, they were afraid and with the corona coming and the little protection we are going to have, I did not want to see them die of hunger”. These are the surreal decisions that families are living with – a fight of survival few of us in the United States can even comprehend.
After crying and crying — wishing there was more our team of Bay Area Border Relief could do — I (Belinda) realized that the bubbles, the treats, the love that our team sent earlier in the day through volunteers on the ground was actually a goodbye party for the four little compañeros that our team would never see again. The children knew they were leaving – they were able to celebrate together as one family of siblings that have grown together over the last nine months together.
Tonight, four children walked across the bridge to turn themselves in. Can you even imagine that moment they said goodbye — turning themselves in to authorities, believing that the United States is better than their suffering? As a mother, I feel desperate, a pain in my heart. And, truth be told, I feel so angry and hurt. I can’t even understand a mother’s love for her children’s safety forcing her to make a decision to have them cross an empty bridge to turn themselves in to men dressed in black, empty arms that are heartless, following orders of a country that has turned their back on them. We can’t be there to catch them amidst the wolves that are trying to destroy their spirits. I have come to feel that we, as a country, are simply cruel, we have emptied our hearts.
Miguel adds: “We came here for a dream of safety, we have waited eight months — hungry, in the cold, in the rain, in the mud and we are afraid, we are exhausted. My children are begging to go live on a mountain, far from a camp that is cold, that is eating them alive, with a violent cartel gang that surrounds them, watching their every move.” How can we justify keeping families in these conditions?
As coronavirus comes closer to our homes, we have realized how vulnerable we are and at the same time shut the door to children who are in great distress. As my tears fell, a WhatsApp ring came through. It was eleven-year-old Flor from Camp One, her little voice trying to console me when I should be consoling her. She sent me a video after watching her friends leave for the bridge. She walked with them — along with other families that have been with these children for months in Camp One. As they watched their friend and mother hug and cry for one last time, in the video a little girl shouts out, “Don’t cry Delia, your life is going to be better in the United States.” We woke up the next morning to beautiful WhatsApp photos from the children of Camp One. All of them are fighting for survival as one team, smiling to put on their best faces for those of us in the United States, all of us knowing the pain and cruelty they are enduring. There are forced smiles to cover the trauma, the only way they are able to survive right now. Flor’s message went on to share with me, “Buenas noches, Belinda. We came from seeing how the kids went across the bridge; they have them now. Thank you for helping us.” A second video showed up for me to open. It contained a Spanish song, “Mi Dios Eres Tu.” Their faith continues in the darkest of times.
The U.S. has been put on a pedestal as the best place to live, granting safety in the darkest of times. We had hoped that, with this worldwide crisis, this coronavirus pandemic, our country’s better nature would come forward — we would see the human family pulling together, housing the homeless, granting human rights to refugees, ending mass incarceration. But instead we are seeing official acts of cruelty, the slamming of doors, the deepening of pain. Those who have scrambled onto the lifeboat are pulling up the ladder so no one else can get in.
So many refugees are simply looking for a place to lay their head, a place to sleep, a place to find hope, a place to find a dream, to wake up and not fear their life will end. This is what life does, right? Life seeks life — we would all fight for our children. As a mom, I know I would do whatever it took for them to have a life amidst the backdrop of rape, torture, killings, death and trauma. This is the reality of Camp One and the many that are living there now.
I am hurting, I am devastated but I still have hope — because I cannot believe the cruelty, I cannot believe the injustice, I cannot believe a country drenched in privilege continues to colonize and perpetuate human rights atrocities. Nine months after the camp was erected, the children are counting on us to hear them, to witness them, to believe in them. They are believing in us for hope — something we can’t grasp as we watch the cruelty of this administration. Hope is slipping from our own hands each turn we see — MPP, the coronavirus, Trump, all of it.
Please join us in demanding human rights and fair treatment for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. You can support the work of Bay Area Border Relief by donating to www.bayareaborderrelief.org
· All names here are changed for their protection.