Today was the team’s first day working at Sacred Heart Cemetery. The morning was cool and cloudy, but we were all ready and excited to work. We made it to the cemetery by 7:45 and met with the team from Texas State who we will be working alongside to tackle multiple areas of interests in the cemetery. We unloaded all of the equipment and went over the gameplan, and the teams were separated into areas.
The UIndy team was given quite a large area, but we are not intimidated by the work that lies ahead! We decided to split our section into two smaller sections to start, and began probing our first section. The first thing we noticed was that the soil consistency varied, being soft in some places but more firm in others. Our first trench revealed several large roots that the team had to work around. Once the main trench was dug, Sidney & Arden began digging a smaller trench perpendicular to the first while Dr. Latham & Sammi continued clearing the first. My job consisted of emptying buckets. SO. MANY. BUCKETS. To be honest I didn’t mind the work. Every member of the team was working just as hard, and I think everyone who came by to see the work we were doing agreed.
By the end of the day, we had dug our trenches down to about 60cm deep and have about half of our first subsection explored. We will continue this section tomorrow so we can be confident that we have thoroughly explored this area. I am very proud of our team, as this was our first time working together in this capacity, and I feel that we all jumped right in with the work that we have to do. We found a natural flow to the digging, and we reminded each other to take plenty of water & snack breaks. Even though we are all incredibly sore at the moment, we know that the work we are doing is important and it will all be worth it in the end.
We are eight days away from our trip to South Texas as I write this. This will be my second humanitarian trip with the UIndy Beyond Borders team, and as I will be graduating in May, this will also be my last trip. I feel incredibly grateful to be able to return to South Texas with Beyond Borders, as the first trip was, as cliche as it may sound, life-changing. For our previous season, we walked the paths migrants must take through the remote ranchlands. We experienced a fraction of their journey as we searched through cacti and scrub under the Texas sun for individuals who had perished due to dehydration and exposure, we observed evidence of their travels in the form of water jugs, clothing, and backpacks, and we were all humbled to search with a family member of one of the missing individuals. My last trip to South Texas changed my life, and I expect nothing different from this one.
Our trip this season takes us back to a cemetery in Brooks county where we will exhume unidentified individuals in the hopes of future identification and the return of their remains to their families. While Beyond Borders has worked in the cemetery previously, this will be my first time performing exhumations in this humanitarian context. I look forward to working with Sammi who has done exhumations in the past and is our seasoned mapping expert, and also look forward to working with two new graduate students and members of the Beyond Borders team Arden and Sidney. I feel that this season will be a linear continuation of my experiences from last season, because in my previous trip I walked the path of the living searching for those in distress and the recently deceased; this trip will allow me to experience the after effects of another part of the journey that every migrant knows about, fears, and many experience themselves – death during the journey. For this season I expect backbreaking work and extemely long hours as we work to find and exhume these individuals who perished and were buried in unmarked graves. I am not wary about this however, as I feel our entire team understands that we are all working towards something much bigger than ourselves, and if anything we will work harder because of it. My personal goal for the team is simply to exhume and recover as many individuals as we possibly can during our trip, in the hopes that these unidentified inviduals will have their names and identities returned, and hopefully their families will be provided with some sort of peace and understanding in knowing what happened to their loved ones.
Other than being eight days out from our trip, today is also Christmas. I can’t say that it is a coincidence that I’m writing this blog post today of all days. If anything, it is evidence of how I’ve been changed from this humanitarian work. Christmas is a day spent with family and friends, and the time surrounding it is filled with “good tidings of comfort and joy” for nearly everyone we come across. We are more patient, more understanding, more giving, and seemingly more aware of those who are less fortunate than ourselves – after all, this trip would not be possible without all of the generous donations from people like you! The political situation surrounding the migrant crisis is incredibly muddied and convoluted. We should remember however, that these individuals have left their friends and family behind, they are risking their lives for just a chance at making it, despite knowing that there is a very real possibility that they will either be caught and deported back to their homes, or they will never be heard from again. At the most basic level, we must remind ourselves that these are human beings who deserve dignity in life as well as in death, and these individuals deserve a name. I look forward to playing a small part in this endeavor, and until then I’ll enjoy spending this time with my family knowing that I am fortunate enough to do so. Merry Christmas everyone!
It’s been two days. Two days that I’ve been out of the Texas heat, three since I’ve walked through the harsh terrain many others still traverse. The difference is that their lives are dependent on how they cross it, how well they conserve water, how well they hide. My life was not dependent on these things. Throughout my journey across the Texas scrubland, I had plenty of access to water, I was covered head-to-toe in sunscreen and bug spray, I had food and air conditioning to look forward to, and I did not have to worry about being seen by others. Before this trip, I had read about the migrant crisis, studied it through books and documentaries. I thought I could understand what these people face on their journey to what they believe will be a better life. The truth is that no one can know what migrants face unless you’ve faced it yourself.
The work the Beyond Borders team did was difficult, something I expected. What I didn’t expect was to realize how little I actually knew about the conditions migrants face. We covered 23 miles of land but I cannot describe it in a way that sufficiently demonstrates the true nature of the environment. I can say it was hot, I can say we picked ticks off our bodies by the dozen, I can say that sand is really hard to walk in. None of these explanations truly cover what our team experienced. If I cannot explain the harshness of the environment as we experienced it, I cannot imagine the true nature of the journey as a migrant does. I can’t tell you how it feels to sleep under the cover of trees, how panic sets in when I’ve run out of water, how adrenaline kicks in when I hear movement that may be from another person. I did not have to worry about those things, but the migrants that make this journey do.
Since we’ve returned from Texas I find myself thinking of those who are still on those ranches, including the living and those that have perished along the way. I love being back home with my husband and my cats, but I know there are others separated from their families. I love sleeping in my own bed, though I know there are others trying to find a shady spot under a tree to sleep under. I’m able to go out to eat, go to the gym, to sit inside my house if I want to while others are missing, deceased, and/or unidentified. Why am I so lucky? Why am I not forced to make a decision to either remain in a place ravaged by conflict and poverty or to make a treacherous journey north that may very well cost me my life? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I feel with all of the luck I’ve had in my life that I have an obligation to help those that are not as privileged as I am. I only hope that the work the Beyond Borders team did will mean something, help someone, or at the very least give someone hope that there are people in the world who have not forgotten them.
Before this trip, we were asked what we hoped to gain from this experience. I wanted on-the-ground knowledge about what the crisis was really like. Though the Beyond Borders team have only experienced a fraction of what migrants face on their journey, I feel that I have learned so much. I additionally feel an added weight that accompanies this knowledge. The emotional baggage is something I would never give back and I fully claim it as my own. While out to dinner with Sister Pam she said something to the group that stuck with me: “You become different people when you put your feet in other people’s shoes…it changes you”. I am forever changed by people I have never met. I have a drive to learn even more about the migrant crisis and to provide humanitarian aid sometime again in the future. To those who do this work day in and day out, thank you.