The work our team does towards migrant identification has many benefits and many applications. The most obvious of which is to identify and repatriate persons that perished in the Texas Borderlands by volunteering a specialty forensic science to communities that are unable to afford investigations into identity. Additionally it provides a learning experience that is not attainable in any textbook. UIndy students are applying the forensic science skills they’ve learned in the classroom to this humanitarian crisis. This work exemplifies UIndy’s motto: Education for Service. In addition they are applying problem solving skills and critical thinking, working as members of a team, learning to navigate a socially and politically charged environment, expanding their professional development as they work with professionals and peers from other institutions, delving into border issues and becoming humanitarians and global citizens.
I asked each of the UIndy Beyond Borders team members to tell me something new they have learned while working on these exhumations or a unique application of something they learned at UIndy.
Jessica: One of the things that I have learned is not necessarily something that I learned in the classroom but more experience based. It is so important to be able to adapt to your surroundings, especially when any given situation can change. Every field season we constantly stress to expect the unexpected because with every day, each field season, and every new cemetery, nothing is the same.Its stressful but over time you learn to adapt to those unexpected changes. Sometimes, you come away feeling that you should have been more prepared or spent more time prepping; but in reality, it doesn’t always matter how much prep or planning goes into something because in the end, you may end up taking a whole new path. Texas has taught me a lot on how to adapt in stressful situations. It has given me strength that I didn’t know I had. Feelings of empathy and sadness gives every field season a bitter sweet ending and I couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity.
Leann: Through my experiences in South Texas, I have learned more about the value of human life and how these values are grossly neglected for certain populations within the United States – a reality rarely realized and/or fully understood in the Midwest. It has taught me how to be an advocate for human rights and for dignity in both life and death, regardless of who you are or where you come from.
Jordan: Thanks to my participation in this field season in South Texas, I have come to appreciate that the methods taught in the classroom are not fixed laws and must be applied flexibly to any particular situation.
Sammi: It is entirely impossible to explain the change of heart that I have experienced while serving in this large-scale identification effort. This project is for the people who lost their lives in search of a safer, better life for themselves and their families than they would be able to achieve in their corrupt and poverty-ridden homelands. I have gained a deepened perspective on the value of human life, no matter where you come from, and how trivial many my struggles are in comparison to so many others once you truly open your eyes.
As our last day comes to a close, I cannot help but think about the people I am going to miss. I will miss Dr. Spradley, Dr. Gocha, Deputy Don, and the many others who volunteer their time to assist in identifying the individuals who exist as a mere number in the legal system without this humanitarian effort. I will miss Joe and Luis, who not only came to the cemetery every day with an eager outlook and a focused mind, but proceeded to bring us donuts, fried chicken, fruit, or pistachios to show their appreciation for the hard work we put in. Today has been full of various emotions. Dr. Latham said this has been considerably different than the final day of most previous field seasons. This time, the groups are not working to quickly, carefully uncover the final few individuals before cleaning up and leaving the site. The UIndy team has finished thoroughly investigating every open area of our quadrant for the remains of the unidentified migrants we are searching for. This time, our final day is a day of closure.
As Joe and Luis worked on filling in the large pits we had excavated within, everyone else supervised and cleaned up the site. Texas State came back with coffee, so Joe took a break and came over to our group. During this time, he shared some of his experiences living and working close to the border. It was powerful to hear the sincerity in his voice as he reminded us that people walk enormous distances to cross into the United States in search of a safer life and higher paying jobs, yet die of heat exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration as they journey through the state avoiding checkpoints. This was the most I had interacted with Joe during the trip, but it was valuable to receive a local’s perspective about those suffering in this crisis.
Once the surface had been entirely leveled out, we gathered plastic flowers, trimmed the grass around grave markers, and stuck the flowers in the ground or tied them in place in front of every burial. Every single burial received at least 3 flowers, thanks to Leann. Leann essentially became the self-established site florist for two hours as we finished marking burials that had been missing a sign. It is so important to Texas State University and University of Indianapolis to show our respect and leave the cemetery even better than we got it. This felt like the perfect final gesture to end the exhumations with a small gift.
I have been very touched by the events of our final day. I was able to see the site in stunning condition before we left to drive back to our hotel for the last time. There is still much to do. Leann and I have some mapping to work on over the weekend, and a long day of travel ahead of us tomorrow. However, I have been absolutely amazed by the amount I have learned from this experience. Texas has been extremely good to the Beyond Borders team this year, and for that we are grateful. We are very fortunate that Dr. Latham’s involvement with this project has allowed us to participate another year and provide students with the opportunity to help provide closure to many families who have lost their loved ones.
We are exhausted. In fact, we are beyond exhausted. Today marks eight straight days of pushing our bodies to the brink of our physical strength. We have had at least ten to twelve hour days every day since we have been here, on top of hours of blogging, mapping, and debriefing each night, and our bodies can tell. Despite all of the physical exhaustion and emotional challenges we are facing, we never complain and we never forget why we are here. We are here because the individuals being exhumed faced far worse conditions than us, conditions we can never even begin to imagine. We are here because these individuals risked their lives and died seeking a better and safer life for themselves and their families. We are here because these individuals were buried without any attempts at identification, leaving their families to wonder what happened to them. We are here because we are fighting for justice for the individuals who have had their basic human rights blatantly ignored. We are here because of the families missing loved ones, hoping to bring them closure and free them from the pain of not knowing. This keeps our team going. We never forget why we are here.
This morning, we visited “The Wall” in Brownsville, TX. We stopped at a beautiful park downtown that was right along the wall where we were able to sit and reflect on our experiences thus far. One of the most powerful things that happened today was noticing the presence of a Peace Pole in the park.
This peace pole is part of a larger Peace Pole Project, which consists of hand-crafted monuments displaying the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in multiple languages. Peace Poles are found in 180 countries worldwide and serve as constant reminders for us to strive for world peace. The presence of the Peace Pole in Brownsville served to further remind to our team why we are here. We are helping bring peace to family members who have missing loved ones. We are fighting for world peace and to end unnecessary suffering.
After we visited the wall, we went back to the cemetery to exhume the two individuals we found yesterday – pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. After fully uncovering these burials, we found that there were actually three burials. We weren’t worried about exhuming a third burial because we still had a half-day to complete all of the work we needed to. After these three individuals were uncovered, Jessica and I probed an open area outside of our quadrant to feel for anomalies. Jessica and I each felt an anomaly and investigated them by digging test pits. Jessica located another burial in her test pit, but I was still only feeling loose soil. We decided to have Joe and Louis come with the backhoe and carefully remove dirt layers in order to locate these two burials and any other potential burials that lay outside of our quadrant. In the end, we found three additional burials and had each of them excavated by sundown at 6pm. We started the day thinking we only had to excavate two individuals and ended up excavating six… for a half-day’s work we are pretty proud of those numbers!
Tomorrow, our plan is to head to the cemetery one last time to monitor as Joe and Louis refill in our quadrant. Tomorrow will be a bittersweet day – we worked so hard in our quadrant and moved so much dirt by hand, all remnants of which will be removed in a matter of hours by Joe, Louis, and the backhoe. However, we are proud of the amount of work we were able to accomplish in just eight short days. We are confident that we investigated every possible location within and outside our quadrant that these individuals could be buried, ensuring that no one is left behind. Because that’s why we are here – to exhume every unidentified migrant so they can begin their journey home.