A Week on the Border

In September, three UUS members spent a week providing assistance to asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the southern border. Sally Hartman, Colleen Higgins, and Lois Hughes dubbed themselves the “Tias from the Prairie” in honor of the primary relief organization they worked with, Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley.

The following photo diary offers a glimpse into their journey and some of the people they met.

Friday, Sept. 20

New friends at the Lott, Texas, Dollar Store prayed for us and blessed us for our volunteer work at the border. Such kindness and grace from strangers!

We arrived in Brownsville! Colleen unlocks the door to the Unitarian Universalist Church. We were oriented to tomorrow’s job of distributing soap and wash cloths by two Angry Tías, Elisa and Barbara.

Saturday, Sept. 21

We are preparing to cross the border with a wagon load of washcloths, soap, wipes and shampoo. We have more to bring tomorrow.

This is the Rio Grand looking East, with Mexico on the right and the USA on the left. It looks serene but a young woman and her two year old drowned after being denied asylum.

This is a small section of the tent city of 700 just across the border from Brownsville. The handout of soap, shampoo and washcloths was a bit hectic, because the people have great needs.


We are some tired Tías tonight. This morning our red wagon full of essentials crossed the border and was greeted by chaotic and desperate needy families. With hands reaching and bodies pressing, we struggled to ensure no one was getting more than their share.

We needed a debriefing after seeing such destitution. Our mentor from the Angry Tías organization, Elisa, talked us through our experience. She told us that some days are like that, but not all. When we expressed regret of not having enough, she said you can never have enough for the 700 living there in the tent city.

She thanked us and stated that especially now we are needed. After the Trump “migrant protection policy” came into effect, both asylum seekers and volunteers have become disheartened. In Mexico, Cartels are kidnapping for ransom. Here, our government’s ransom is children’s future.

Sunday, Sept. 22

Tías from the Prairie assisted at the “Sidewalk School” at the tent city of now 800 on the Mexican side of the border from Brownsville. Imagine 10 wagons piled with supplies and snacks pulled by 20 volunteers crossing the Rio Grande bridge. The 60-70 students learned songs and then divided into age groups for a lesson. I donned a pink pig mask for a lesson on colors!

The “Sidewalk School” was a success! Too bad it lasts only 2 1/2 hours once a week!

Monday, Sept. 23

Even at 9 in the morning the temps are near 90. Behind the lines sagging with laundry, you can see the long lines of people lining up for their breakfast of two egg tacos and a glass of juice or coffee. The children received anemic looking chocolate milk.

Colleen and two men serve the breakfast. A restaurant donates the food and volunteers drop by to help.

We walked further into the tent city and made some discoveries. Some families even with babies do not have a tent. Some are sleeping on cardboard. If they are lucky they are given a used yoga mat or a blanket. Also as immigrants are heading north to escape misery or death, immigrants are being relocated and heading south by US policy to wait for their asylum hearing. There may now be well over 1,000 in the tent city. We are volunteering with dinner tonight and were told to bring granola bars because they have been running out of food.

Tuesday, Sept. 24

Reading books to refugee children is more challenging when you have to translate as you go along! The children would often help out by shouting out corrections! That was the highlight of a day filled with tragic stories. A mother asking for a diaper and clothes for her one year old only wearing a shirt. The discovery of a body in the river today. The baby in the hospital due to dehydration. The hollow look of hunger on a teenager’s face. How can we?

Wednesday, Sept. 25

My first impression was how nice it must be to take a swim in the Rio Grande and cool off in 94 degree weather. Then we talked to the volunteer nurse who said she was treating adults and children for skin infections caused by the polluted water. Yesterday we learned A group is controlling access to swimming and is requiring a fee. Mr. Rogers said when something bad happens, focus on what the helpers are doing. In this case the Angry Tías installed two showers and another non profit secured water. With that, 300 people’s showered that night for the first time in weeks.

We met Rochelle, an immigration lawyer from ACLU, who with her colleague and a volunteer were taking a census of the tent city and looking into cases. When we left they were talking to a woman who was separated from her child. I fail to understand how this is still happening!

The Presbyterian Church in Harlingen hosted a duffle bag stuffing session today. About 12 volunteers created an assembly line to fill 500 bags with towels, flip flops, underwear, rain ponchos, notebooks, and pens. As I stuffed the bags, I tried to imagine what it would be like for a refugee to open the bag. Then I started imagining all the faces of the refugees I had met. The task of stuffing duffles then took on more meaning than just putting items in a bag.

Thursday, Sept. 26

Just who are Angry Tías? There are many in the Rio Grande Valley and here are two of them, Glady, and Elisa on the right. With other Tías they bring food, clothing, tents and toiletries to the refugees waiting for word of their asylum cases. Most refugees posses almost nothing. The Tías are their angels.

Friday, Sept. 27

Volunteer work at the border results in….ok, I’ll just say it. Wetness around the eyes. This share from a fellow school psychologist reminds me where the wetness comes from. Thank you, Karen!

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

— Jamie Anderson

We made friends with Esther, a bilingual nurse who set up her tent and a makeshift clinic in the middle of tent city. A new friend, Barbara, and I went to the store to stock up on first aid items for Esther. Why did we need jock itch cream? Oh, I guess when you can’t change your underwear for a month…

Through a series of blimps across the Rio Grand Valley, Border patrol has put into place an expensive high tech surveillance system. A wall is not needed. So why build one that would destroy bird refuges and the possible demise of the ocelot, an endangered cat?

Saturday, Sept. 28

Mr. Rogers once said that when he was a child, and something looked scary, his mother said to look for the helpers. As you may have seen in other posts, we have lots of helpers, like nurses, teachers, food providers, and lawyers. The real heroes are the parents! The children we met were polite, eager to learn, and obedient. Under extreme circumstances, the parents were taking tender care of their children.

I think of the mom delighted that we gave her a box. When we asked her what she was going to do with it, she said it would be her baby’s bed. I think of the dad who meticulously styled his young daughter’s hair (see photo). We were amazed by the grandmother encouraging her young granddaughter to pay close attention to a book read in English so she could learn.

We saw parents pocketing food to give their children something to eat at midday, since food was only available in the morning and evening. We appreciated the mom sweeping before we spread the blanket for story time. Many moms and dads helped their children learn.

These are the helpers who make the tent city less scary for the children! Less scary for me, too!

We said goodbye to Elisa, the Angry Tía we worked most closely with in Brownsville. She wasn’t angry Even when we didn’t deliver one of the boxes full of packets with toiletries, socks and underwear, which was hiding behind a door. Actually, we never saw any Tía showing anger. Instead, we saw profound sadness for the refugees and deep frustration with our president’s policies.