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Tijuana Final Part | Dr. Ann Colbert

Working in a Migrant Clinic at the Mexican Border

I feel a sense of urgency to write this final Tijuana blog. Before words and images evaporate. Turning into the hot air of another intellectual. It is indeed a struggle to remain focused away from the action. As Audre Lorde rather starkly commented, “it is hard to feel anger and fury and prostration and grief. It is so much easier to remain emotionally aloof or to indulge in the quick emotional jerk off that passes as sentiment”. So, I write of these last few insights and unexpected lessons.

There are three groups who oppose giving humanitarian assistance to refugees and deportees at the Mexican border. 1) US Nationals, 2) Mexican Nationals and 3) Organized Crime. These factions pose real threats. It is the reason the shelters are locked, guarded and hidden. Why we were advised not to say much about our work. Even to interested people who would show up to ask what we were doing. Some of course were legitimate, like Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, but others had a far eviler purpose.

Suspicion arose when anyone asked what I was doing in Tijuana. One day, I walked into one of the hundreds of pharmacies and the pharmacist asked me what I thought of immigration. Before speaking, my mind flashed back to the warning at our orientation, “many Mexicans do not like that aid workers are helping migrants”. I reflected the question back toward him but his answers were evasive. Not a real conversation.

These groups perplex me. It is obvious that Trump is the prototype of the US White Nationals. Make America Great Again. By banning Muslims and people of color. That makes no sense. At least a third of the doctors I worked with in rural Kentucky were from foreign countries. And some of the refugees I met in Mexico were architects, doctors, economists, nurses and teachers.

Last week Nadia Murad, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and a group of religiously persecuted refugees were invited to the White House. During a photo op with the president, she described how her mother and brothers were massacred in Iraq. She literally spoke those words into the ear of Trump. Not only could he not turn his body to face her, seconds later, he asked,”where were they now?”. Not listening. Do white nationals really think offering assistance to these people will somehow diminish the country?

Every day in Tijuana, I heard stories like Nadia’s. And I couldn’t have turned my back. One parent’s son murdered. A nearly due pregnant woman whose husband had been burned up in Guatemala. A mother leaving six children in Cameroon as she fled for her life. A deportee’s spouse who had to choose between going with her husband or staying in the US with her infant. Children separated from their family during the long journey through the jungle. One day a call went out for help in tracking a boy who never arrived at his bus stop destination. As one volunteer, Tresne, said Trump and others are afraid for the crimes committed by immigrants but more often, they are the victims – both in their country of origin and where they seek safe passage.

Then there are the Mexican Nationals. Al Otro Lado (translated from Spanish meaning “to the other side”) the legal organization working closely with RHA, reports there are many Mexicans who oppose offering assistance to migrants. They don’t want people from Central America or Africa in their country or waiting for asylum. Some of these nationals are of Mexican-American backgrounds. They were immigrants once themselves.

No one knew my father was Jewish in the small Michigan town where he was a prison warden and member of the parish council. Not even his own children – we found out only when my grandmother’s real name was revealed. The life of an immigrant or the unwanted can be one of secrecy. A life of uncertainty as to who will become suspicious. Has much changed since my dad hid his identity? A president and his fan base tell elected officials to “go back to your country”. They still face discrimination and inequities. Possibly that is an explanation why some vehemently oppose the newly arrived.

Yet an overwhelming majority of RHA volunteers are from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Whether influenced by parents or society, they direct all their energy into helping refugees. They are young and authentic and seemingly indefatigable. Phil with his Filipino heritage who started RHA shelter visits and the clinic with nothing more than a bag of supplies. Summer, a full-time volunteer with her inspiring Pakistani parents. Hussein, another dedicated volunteer lugging heavy duffels to shelters week after week. Alex, with his unpronounceable English surname, helping out while waiting to join the Peace Corps. Melissa with her Vietnamese background. Celeste balancing medical school applications with the mentally stressful task of coordinator. I met and worked with health providers who were of Indian, Spanish, Mexican, Colombian and Chinese descent. And those were just the ones I got to know.

Finally, Organized Crime is a factor. Families of gang members are tracked thru Mexico and remain vulnerable if their location is discovered. War lords do not want to lose them with an escape across the border. The police as well have mixed loyalties. Many of the wounds I treated in the clinic were caused by police beatings. Reportedly, the local hospital would turn people away who were injured by the police for fear of retribution. Not good.

Other things I learned by being on the west coast for a few weeks. The donkeys that tourists sit on in Tijuana are not hybrids bred for their stripes. It’s paint. And they don’t pull the colorful carts. Might mess up their stripes. San Diego has perfect weather. Where I live in the US is way behind on acknowledging gender preferences. The LGBTQ population are a group of refugees who don’t get much publicity. Nor, sadly, empathy. That should change. I may begin using “they, their, theirs” as my preferred pronouns. Partly because I am beginning to see gender as non-binary and partly because my age cohort needs shaking up.

While in Tijuana, the work was relatively easy – see one patient, see the next. It felt like I was doing something. Back in the states with a slew of concerned citizens, I hope to continue an effort to change immigration policies and refugee health. It is not impossible.


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