Svitlana Iukhymovych, St. Joseph Worker, shares her reflections on SOA Watch Convergence-2016
Last month, Mary’s Pence connected with supporters at the annual SOA Watch Vigil and Convergence. In the years past, this event was held at Fort Benning, a combat training facility that is part of the School of the Americas. This time, the SOA Watch Convergence moved to the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. I joined Katherine and Grace, other Mary’s Pence staff, and Sr. Pat Rogucki, a former Mary’s Pence board member, for this first-time SOA Watch event at the border. From October 7-10, we adventured together and contributed the voice of Mary’s Pence to the Convergence. In the shadow of the border (quite literally), the gathering brought up many questions about the plight of refugees and migrants escaping severe hardship in their home countries.
Local Organizations Work for Migrant Justice
Upon our arrival, we attended an exhibit by the Migrant Quilt Project, a group of activists who narrate the stories of migrants through quilting. The quilts we saw were made out of clothes abandoned in the Sonoran desert, embroidered names, and scraps of fabric. Many names were replaced with Desconocido or Desconocida, meaning Unknown, unidentifiable, as the desert swallows a human body whole in two weeks’ time. The quilting project patches together these untold stories.
From the exhibit we proceeded to Casa Alitas, a shelter for migrants in Tucson. Casa Alitas primarily hosts mothers and children passing through Tucson to reunite with family members elsewhere in the United States. Many of those staying at the house are facing immigration hearings. Casa Alitas is a temporary safe space for asylum seekers, capable to host only up to 10 people at a time – all five rooms of the house are almost always filled. We were inspired by the kind staff and volunteers of Casa Alitas, a small group doing impressive work, not unlike the organizations Mary’s Pence partners with through the Mary’s Pence Grants program. Our short visit there affirmed the need for social justice efforts on the local scale.
SOA: Walls, Words, and Actions
SOA Watch events commenced in the evening with a concert and a vigil at Eloy, a detention center for ‘illegal migrants’. A man came on stage and told his story of battling cancer as a prisoner at Eloy, without proper medications or healthcare. Actors put on prisoners’ garb and handcuffs, re-enacting arrests by the Border Patrol. Joining the voices of spoken word artists and poets, supporters sung songs of hope and prayed for those who have suffered from violence.
The next day, various activists ran ongoing workshops about a range of issues centered around the border and affecting communities across the Americas. The speakers discussed international policies that negatively affect El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other Central American countries. Mary’s Pence also had a booth – we were able to connect with many of our supporters and friends who were at the vigil.
Some of the conference talks could have been taken out of the daily conversations at the Mary’s Pence office. For example, one workshop discussed the role of women farmers in indigenous communities, bringing to my mind the women who participate in the ESPERA community lending program. These women farmers generate locally grown produce that doesn’t harm the environment. On the other hand, agricultural corporations cut the farmers’ sources of income and contaminate the soil with chemicals. Thus, helping the women find confidence in their business models is essential both to their own prosperity and for the good of the land.
“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us”
As one of the last acts of the Convergence, we sang ‘Presente!’ to the long list of names of those who fell to cruelty at the border. The iron border wall split the stage between Mexico and the U.S., but the people who gathered on either side cheered and mourned in unison. Everybody kept chanting the lines of a song, “the world we want is right here”…”the desert is hot, but we are the rain”.
Some attendees could walk freely across the checkpoint to join at one side of the stage or another. For some, such a journey would be one-way only, or impossible altogether. But the energy of the crowd showed that the wall was only an imaginary, arbitrary division. The Puppetistas closed the Convergence, staging a scene of hope – a blooming desert overcoming human greed, migrant butterflies settling after their journey.
Reflecting on Hope amid the Desert
One moment stayed with me in a most potent way – the nighttime Vigil at Eloy. I put my camera and my phone away to experience it fully, without anything that would create protective distance. Distance was already there, in the form of a barbed-wire fence and thick walls of Eloy. We stood at the bottom of a dried-out sea, tiny shells crackled under our footsteps and dry dust rose with the slightest movement of air. We lit candles for all those who perished or suffered from the cruelty of border patrol or ICE. It took me a couple of attempts to light my candle in the wind. Then I stood motionless, trying to protect the flame. Hot wax burned my fingers. The candle melted down to a tiny stub. We moved as close to the walls of Eloy as we could, separated by a fence and a yard, screaming out chants in solidarity with those within the walls. I saw silhouettes of those imprisoned – they were signaling to us, drawing their window curtains up and down, letting us know that they heard us. The prison turned into a lighthouse in this extinguished sea. I felt the need for action then, and a conviction that the world of militarized borders and thick walls is in need of organizations like Mary’s Pence, a little lighthouse in its own right.
Past and Present Mary’s Pence Grantees Working With Migrant/Immigrant Women and Their Families:
Centro de Recusos Educativos para Adultos (CREA) – NY, NY (fall 2016)
Milwaukee New Sanctuary Movement – Milwaukee, WI (2016)
Welcoming the Stranger – Warminster, PA (2016)
We Are One Family/ Somos La Misma Familia – Cochise County, AZ USA/Sonora Mexico (2015)
Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera – Austin So Close to the Border – Austin, TX (2015)
Asylee Women Enterprises – Baltimore (2014)
CMAA Refugee Services– Columbus, OH (2014)
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