“Why do you do this?” is a question I return to each year because it’s one of the first questions I am asked by people learning about our efforts on the border. My response has consistently been “Because it is the right thing to do.” But the more I work within the midst of this humanitarian crisis, the more I ask myself “For who?”. Who is benefitting most from our work in south Texas? Is it the unidentified individuals? The families of the missing? Myself? As a professor of biology and anthropology I spend my days trying to simplify a complex reality for my students. Yet I’ve been working in the complex reality of the Texas-Mexico border for several years and have been approaching it with an embarrassing naievity. I made it so simple in my mind and in my explanations that I now find myself questioning my own oversimplified statements from years past.
Award winning author Adriana Paramo (Looking for Esperanza) visited UIndy and spent several hours with my students and I talking about her work with migrant women and our work on the border. “How do you know they want you touching their loved ones?” her question was simple but I wasn’t sure how to respond. The individuals that have been identified and repatriated to date were returned to families looking for closure, so I hadn’t considered the fact that not all families would feel that way. I hadn’t considered that some families would view our analyses as a guaranteed extension of purgatory for their family members, or be insulted by what they view as cultural insensitivity. But I return to the fact that most of the families of the missing want answers. As trained anthropologists, we approach our work with sensitivity and cultural understanding of the many different groups of people and cultures we may potentially encounter. As forensic scientists we approach our work with respect and a sense of responsibility in providing dignity for the dead.
Is it me? Am I doing this simply because it makes me feel good? There is a sense of satisfaction that comes with doing something you feel is right. But there is also an overwhelming sense of stress and fatigue that is inherent in this type of work. Any type of volunteer work that forces you to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion cannot be purely selfish in nature. If I merely wanted to feel “good” I could find other venues that were less time consuming and closer to home. I would find something that didn’t leave my body and mind questioning my decisions to put myself so close to my breaking point over and over again. As we prepare to leave tomorrow I have to remind myself that this year not only am I responsible for my own health and well being, but also for my daughter who is due in July.
So why is this the right thing to do? It is right because hundreds of people should not be nameless and forgotten after having died in our country. Children and spouses should not suffer wondering what happened to their loved ones. And while I have come to recognize the fact that our work will not be the “right thing to do” for everyone and in every situation, it is the “right thing to do” for most. Year after year I have seen my students grow as they experience a harsh reality very different from their own privileged lives. I use this work to teach my children and my family about being thankful, humble and kind. In a time when many question the entitlement of the next generation, I see many young people (from my university and others) leaning humility, compassion and understanding in a way that would not be possible without immersion in this humanitarian crisis.
There are many smart, compassionate and dedicated people working in the middle of this crisis everyday. I respect them in a way that I am unable to put into words because I can come home and separate myself from this situation in a way that they cannot do. They do not do this because they get paid, they also do this because they feel it’s the right thing to do. While we all have different ideas and different feelings as to what “right” means, I am proud to be a small part of this amazing group of people who fight for basic human rights in life and in death. Who treat all people with dignity. Who embody compassion, humility and humanitarianism. And who lead by example.