All posts by Isabel Melhado

Back to Normality

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The Team

These trips are something I am so grateful for. I not only learn so much but I am learning through experiences not many people get to have or even know exist. We were able to visit the border wall, meet Sherriff Benny Martinez, perform successful search and recoveries, and learn so much everyday from not only our brave leader, Dr. Latham, but also Ray and Don who took care of us and put up with our attitudes (I know y’all miss my voice already).

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Don holding a jog of water discarded by a migrant

This team grew so much over the week in Texas. Not only as teammates but as friends as well. From the first day of searching to the last, our skills as a team grew immensely. Our communication skills while searching were the highlight of our growth, in my opinion. We went from reiterating how straight a line should be to maintaining a line without even questioning where our “person”, what I call the person who keeps track of you no matter the conditions, would be. This team was extremely efficient at taking our own notes (what we thought we did well for the day and where we thought we could improve) and applying them to our work the subsequent day. Along with that, we shared so many smiles and laughs along the way, from trying to get turkeys to respond to our calls to almost getting attacked by a turkey (Sorry Liv). We faced a number of challenges, including physical and mental. We worked together to keep morale high and keep a sharp eye on each other to make sure each of us were hydrated and took breaks when we needed it. The heat was no joke. It constantly made me think of the migrants facing these conditions. I was pushing forward extremely prepared and still feeling the effects of the heat. I can’t imagine what those individuals must go through to fight for each day. The day all team members got benched because of heat stress was an especially hard one for me. The physical stress felt nothing compared to the frustration I was facing mentally, which in itself was also worsened due to the heat. Our safety always comes first, even when we want to throw it to the side and push on for our cause. Regardless, we moved forward as a team and supported one another. This team exemplified there truly is no I in team because every win was a win for all of us.

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Traversing the border wall with Mexico in the distance

This blog post always is always the hardest to write. I truly thought that because I had gone on the Beyond Borders trip in January that my transition back to my “normal life” would be easier, but less than 24 hours into that transition (as I write this) and I know that isn’t true. The feeling of being able to put your entire life on hold to devote your time to not only others but to a truly brave and good cause is immeasurable. We discuss feelings like this in our final debrief that, again, feelings like this are normal. I cannot speak for everyone, but personally, there is an immense sense of guilt as I plan my days here at home. It’s hard to go from actively working towards a cause to struggling to find things to fill the hours of the day as you had before. Its even hard to make myself stop constantly searching everywhere I walk. Tedious daily operations like ordering Starbucks or deciding on an outfit for the day seem trivial. It feels if you are not working towards a goal or for a cause that your days are meaningless. I know this isn’t true (even though it really doesn’t matter what fancy coffee I order or what clothes I wear. Those were simply examples). This is the challenge of transitioning back to what I am referring to as normal life.

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Helping each other through barbed wire
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Our fearless leader, Dr. Latham

Being able to travel with the Beyond Borders team is a privilege I am so lucky to have experienced. It has also left me with the tools to continue my humanitarian efforts concurrently with my normal life. I am still working on my degree at UIndy to be able to be more qualified in doing this work. Spreading the word of the humanitarian crisis occurring at the US-Mexico border and my experience with it is a small act I can do to help others understand that what they see on the news is only one perspective and not always the truth of the matter. Behind the headlines and stories are millions of people affected.

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Powerlines often used as guides by migrants

The cemetery we viewed the first day of arriving in Texas was one previously worked on by multiple forensic teams, including UIndy. Approximately 150 unidentified migrants had been recovered from their “communal resting place” with hundresd more deaths of unidentified migrants documented, meaning there are more individuals there that are unidentified, more families still wondering about their loved ones, and more work to be done. Additionally, there are so many other individuals who perish on their journey into the US that are not only still being searched for but still being missed by their families. I can never say I know how those families feel, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to live each day and not know where your loved one is or if they are even alive. This is one of the main reasons I do this work and is also the thought that not only kept motivating me to push harder in Texas but continually motivates me to do what I can for those affected while home. No one deserves to feel this way, regardless of race, ethnicity, size, shape, etc. It can be easy to distance yourself from the reality of what goes on at the border, but these are real people, enduring real tragedies, often at the chance for a better life that they may or may not reach.

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A wild Don

One of the most fulfilling parts of my experiences with the Beyond Borders team occurred on this trip. A message from a migrant, who had been apprehended by border patrol, was sent in to Dr. Latham. The message was about a woman who had been left behind in the brush and her descriptors. I was able to translate the message and get the information back to those who could continue searching. This is truly an experience I will never forget. I will carry it with me always, and I hope that the woman has reached safety. The opportunity to directly help a migrant had such an impact on me that I honestly can’t put it into words how much it meant, so forgive this small paragraph because it deserves pages.

I want to thank Dr. Latham for the opportunity to work in Texas again. Being a member of this team is an honor, and the perspective and knowledge I have gained is priceless. Thank you to Papaw Don and Pop-pop Ray for teaching me, keeping me safe each day, and answering my nonsense questions to keep everyone smiling.

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Ray with his new self-appointed grandchild

This is work I will never stop asking for. There is so much left to be done and so much knowledge to be shared. I hope I can continue not only through Beyond Borders, but in a number of ways, to help those affected by this crisis.

Be kind,

Izzy

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A Busy “Rest Day”

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Our team at the wall

Today, we got to sleep in for 30 extra minutes… and we still left the lights off for longer than usual. A slugglish morning was quickly halted by a change of plans. Today emphasized the team motto of “expect the unexpected” as our plans changed within 15 minutes of departure. Instead of our original plan to assist the South Texas Human Rights Center with water stations, we loaded into Sandy and headed for the border. We are sad we won’t be able to see Eddie this trip, but know we will see him the next time the team is in town. Surprisingly, it’s a bout 1.5 hours from Falfurrias to the actual border. A nice long car ride for team bonding and the Texas playlist motivating us through it all. The landscape slowly changed from ranch land to urban civilization. I do have to include that I heard Dr. Latham’s first evil laugh because for the first time in my life, I said the words “I like Texas”.

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Border wall

As billboards and shops changed from English to Spanish, we pulled off the main road to avoid accidentally going into Mexico (if only we brought our passports!). We walked up close and personal to the wall, where we could see ladders and personal effects of those who crossed. In some areas, handprints and slide marks were visible on the metal. The areas where the fencing seems shorter was accompanied by a steep drop on the opposite side and layers of barbed wire. Buildings in Mexico were clearly visible in the distance. We prepared to be interrogated by border patrol as you are not supposed to be that close, so we prepared to play our “tourist students” card as we saw a border patrol vehicle speeding towards us. I think it was the matching outfits, strategically placed cameras, and lighter than average skin tone that signaled to border patrol that we “weren’t a threat”. They sped past us and gave the cordial Texas wave. Not being questioned and chased away was a first for Dr. Latham in her ten years of trips here!

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Before
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After!
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Agua fresca de piña

We returned to Sandy to head back to Falfurrias. On the way, we stopped for some lunch. I wish I could send tamales to you as you read this blog because they were absolutely fantastic. My teammates were introduced to aguas frescas and horchata that went right to your heart. I described my pineapple agua fresca as “taking one sip will make you feel like there’s nothing wrong in the world”. Once back in Falfurrias and buried under the weight of our food babies, we were able to relax for a bit to wait for an updated plan. [and by wait, I mean we all took a nap to ease our tamales] We awoke to Don and Dr. Latham at our door ready to bring us for more adventuring.

We visited the Brooks County Department of Corrections to view their newly updated mobile morgue. Don taught us about the impound lot where the morgue was found and said that the vehicles found there were usually a result of drug or human trafficking.

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Brooks County mobile morgue
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The girls on the confidence course

We returned to the hotel and passed the time until we met with Don, Ray, and some friends from Texas State to enjoy a cook out together. Don took us on a tour of the ranch and of course, taught us more along the way. This man knows SO much! We are all very thankful to hear any and every piece of knowledge he gives us, even if he gives us some *smart* remarks along the way. On our tour, we spotted a “confidence” course that we decided we had to try. Once we had climbed most of the way, the realization of how high up we were hit hard. I rolled into the net just to have the experience, but we all climbed down. My confidence was less than built up! It was very, very fun though. We continued our tour and learned how migrants may use pipelines and powerlines to guide them on their journeys. Many spots we stopped Don stepped out to look for possible tracks and check if there was any waters left in the water stations from migrants.

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The only picture I could take of my meal

We returned to their homebase, and Ray started up the grill. It is always fun to get to unwind and talk to others who have such different experiences from your own. The meal was SO GOOD!!!!! Many laughs and good conversations were shared.

Tomorrow, we plan to get right back to searching. A “day off” was good, but can really make you feel guilty at times because you feel you’re not making any strides towards your goals. It has been a lot of hard work, and we have learned so much. Yet, the differences in the hours we work now versus my last trip in January are prominent and are very much in the back of my mind each day. It is important to keep perspective, though. We are battling Texas heat, attempting to stay as hydrated as possible, and trying to keep everyone safe and healthy. Texas is a more than fair opponent to face. We strive to stay positive and do as much as we can while we are able. All in all, it was a great day with even better people.

Izzy

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Ladders on a fence line to prevent damage to the fence
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What was left after we ate pounds of tamales
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Don giving us the ride along tour of the ranch
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Ladders on the US side of the border wall
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A shooting range on the ranch
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Austin takes on the confidence course
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Me in the net of the confidence course
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Jordan leaving Olivia and I at a more reasonable height
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Powerlines used as guides
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Don examining a water jug left behind in the water station
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Our trusty steed, Sandy
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Jordan contemplating pushing Olivia into the pond
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Austin’s new friend that I did not get anywhere close to
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Don leading us to a new learning experience
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The impound lot in Brooks Co
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Austin playing his role as “student tourist” as border patrol sped to check us out
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The entrance into Mexico (green)
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Barbed wire on the Mexico side of the border wall
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Elements left at the border wall
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An Interesting Travel Day

Olivia’s candy stash being exposed

Bright and early at the airport for a 4:30 am meeting time. We got our boarding passes and headed for the TSA line, and things got a bit… bumpy from there. Dr. Latham was the only one to get through with no issues. I had to go through a different scanner and have my bag searched. Austin had to have his bag searched. Olivia and Jordan both had their bags pulled and searched as well. Their only find was Olivia’s extensive stash of candy, which of course was clean after they swabbed it and tested it.

After that, things calmed down, thankfully. Our flight from Indianapolis to Dallas was smooth. I got to discuss some of the politics of our work and just general chit-chat with Dr. Latham, while Austin and Jordan slept and Olivia wished she was asleep. We got to sit in the exit rows with extra leg room on both flights. From Dallas to San Antonio, we got to meet an amazing flight attendant, Jess. He was so kind and gave us the scoop on some lesser known perks of flying. We had a great time with him, and I honestly hope he is our flight attendant on the way back. It was a unique seating situation to say the least, but I’d be lying if I said he didn’t sway me to considering flight attendant as a career.

Jess, our flight attendant, sat directly in front of and facing us
My Torchy’s Meal

Once we arrived in San Antonio, we got to our new rental van (name tbd) and set off for Torchy’s Tacos. I have heard stories on stories about how good their food is, so I was happy to finally put it to the test. I got the tipsy chick and the mofaux and yalllllllllllllllllll (southern for oh my goodness) it was SO good. Everyone cleared their plates, which if you know some of us personally, you know how big of a deal that is.

After our meal, we left for Falfurrias. Shotgun always stays awake with Dr. Latham, so as we drove, we listened to the new Texas playlist and chatted. The Texas scenery changed from downtown to ranches, cacti, and cows. Some of us nodded off, but the drive went by quickly! Starting to see the same environment I experienced in January made it all feel real again, and I am so ready to get to work tomorrow.

We checked into our hotel, rested for a bit while watching Spongebob, ran to the grocery store for essentials, and then headed to the county cemetery. Dr. Latham took us on a tour of where our team has worked in the past. To learn that they have uncovered over 120 unidentified migrants over about four different years was shocking. In areas that just look like small, open spaces. Latin cultures honor their passed family members, and that was shown immensely in the care taken by family members to the resting places of their loved ones. It emphasized to me the importance of getting these unidentified individuals back to their loved ones.

Dr. Latham teaching us about the cemetery
Beautiful Cemetery plots
County Cemetery

As our team learned more, a familiar face met us there. It was so good to see Deputy Don White again. It feels like we were just here and are now picking up where we left off. We caught up for a bit then went for snowballs. The rest of my team will all say snow cones, but I have always said snowballs. From snowballs, we went to whataburger and discussed our tentative plans.

Today was pretty low pace compared to the days ahead. We finished out today with our first debriefing, where some of us were already feeling the weight of the meals. We talked about what to have in our personal field bags, what to expect in the upcoming days, and some jobs we needed to take responsibility for, such as the walkie-talkies and camera. I am honestly nervous about the upcoming days with the heat. The high tomorrow is 98 degrees. We will have to be very aware of each other and watch for any signs of fatigue. Regardless, it is so good to be back. Tomorrow morning we will have our safety debriefing before we start our search, and then the ball will be rolling for the rest of the week.

Send us cool thoughts!

Izzy

Dr. Latham practicing her selfie skills
Early morning group picture
Team picture of the day!
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