A Child Of Refugees, On The Front Lines Of The U.S. Border War
By Jamila Osman
I am hiking through the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It is mid afternoon, and the sun is at its fiercest. I do not know much about the desert; I am a city girl, and I feel small in all this wide-open space. The bareness of the desert astounds me. There is nothing but dirt, rock, and cacti for miles on end. In the distance, there is a mountain range. Heading north will take one deeper into the United States, the proverbial Promised Land. To the south is Mexico. Between the two lies a border fence and a desert that seems like it will never end.
Over spring break I spend a week in Ajo, Arizona working with the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths. Their mission is to end death and suffering in the US-Mexico borderlands. The borderlands are a highly militarized war zone. Men with guns and steel-toed boots swarm the desert on foot and ATVs. Choppers buzz overhead long into the night, pitching light against the dark and rolling landscape, hovering over and scattering groups of migrants. Thermal imaging cameras scan the desert for body heat and signs of movement. The desert is a battleground: an elaborate and high-stakes game of cat and mouse.
I fly into Arizona on the same day as a Donald Trump rally. On the cab ride to the church where No More Deaths holds a volunteer orientation, I make small talk with my driver. She is disturbed by Trump’s wild popularity: “It’s just so un-American,” she says. She means well, but Donald Trump is America’s prodigal son. As a Black woman, the daughter of Somali immigrants, the country she fails to recognize is the country I have always known. For me, America has always been a place of deep and irreconcilable hypocrisy. Although it was my parents’ refuge from Somalia’s civil war, there are more wars here, covert and insidious. There is the war at the border, the war on the streets waged by cops against Black communities, the war leveled against Indigenous people, the systematic war waged with the weaponry of poverty and mass incarceration. My parents would quickly come to find that the United States was a war zone, too.
The drive from Tucson, where the volunteer orientation is held, to Ajo is two hours long. I get into a beat-up white truck with a group of other volunteers. The truck is old and worn from driving rocky desert roads. As we drive through the sprawling Tohono O’odham reservation, we pass an enormous Border Patrol checkpoint. A sovereign people are unable to move freely through their ancestral homeland without being asked about their legal presence in the United States. The desert is a place of unimaginable irony.
The news is saturated with images of huddled masses of migrants: children in tears, wide-eyed men and women. The media deems this a refugee crisis, but it is a crisis of empathy. This is the crisis of neoliberalism meeting its own reckoning.
I struggle to explain to my friends and family what going to the desert means to me. I go to bear witness. In the face of unimaginable horrors, in the wake of a dystopian political climate, solidarity is what we owe each other.
I go to the desert because my people, too, are refugees. Strangers in a strange land, my people wonder. My people wander.
On my first morning at camp I meet Geraldo who has been walking for eight days, four of them without water. He stumbles into the camp disoriented and dizzy with dehydration. His feet are blistered and bloody. Later that night when he has rested and his feet have been bandaged, he joins another volunteer and I around a campfire. My Spanish is minimal, but we tell jokes and sing songs. In the desert hope is a language we all speak. It is a full moon, and we are all lulled by its magic. In the desert the sky is more expansive than it is in the city. Under the light of the moon everything feels possible.
The work I do while I am in the desert is emotionally and physically difficult. I am part of a crew of volunteers who leave water gallons, cans of beans, energy bars, and socks along the most widely used migrant trails. We write messages on the water gallons in black sharpie. They say things like “hasta un mundo sin fronteras!” and “hay más amigos que enemigos!” These are desert prayers and proclamations. We draw hearts and butterflies and rainbows. We draw the world we wish we lived in. Sometimes the work feels futile, but we refuse to succumb to the coaxing hum of complacency. We have a world to win. We owe it to each other to dream audaciously and against all reason.
Sometimes in the middle of a particularly intense hike I see my grandmother in the distance, a strange desert mirage. My grandmother was a border crosser. Traveling from Northern Somalia to Ethiopia on foot during the peak of the civil war, she walked bravely and boldly in the direction of a better life. She prayed each night for safety, for peace, for a place to sleep at night without fear of what the dawn would bring. Decades later, I echo the prayers of my grandmother who never found what she was looking for. I transcribe these prayers on water gallons in the middle of the Sonoran desert.
One month after my time in Ajo, a ship carrying upwards of 500 migrants capsizes in the Mediterranean Sea. Only 43 people survive. The Somali government releases a statement that 200 to 300 of the migrants on board the ship were Somali citizens, the majority of them teenagers attempting to escape poverty and ongoing conflict. Two hundred to 300 Somali teenagers drown in the sea and there is no mainstream media coverage of this disaster. I scour the internet for hours trying to piece together the details of this latest tragedy.
This is not the first time a ship has capsized in the ocean. This is not the first time that hundreds of people have drowned in the sea en masse, their lungs filling with water, their bodies returning to the shore, bloated and sticky with salt. We never learn their names. We do not know what dreams they had for themselves and their families, what they hoped to find on the other side of the ocean.
I imagine the lives these young people could have led. I imagine the people they will never grow up to become. I mourn for them. The world is a mirror, every tragedy a fractured reflection of another. If I look at the border fence between the United States and Mexico and squint, it is the apartheid wall in the West Bank. It is 1950 in South Africa. It is 1965 in Mississippi. If I tilt my head a certain way this is Somalia and on the other side of the border wall is the occupied Ogaden region. A desert is not an ocean, but both are graveyards, memorials where we mourn all that will never be.
The organ pipe cactus is a species native to Mexico and the part of the United States that was once Mexico. During the summer months it produces a cream colored flower that only blooms during the stillness of the night. The flower remains open for just 24 hours, and closes again by mid-morning. The desert possesses a beauty that is difficult to get used to: a beauty marred by suffering. It pulses with life; it is not the barren wasteland I once thought it was. Flowers, on both sides of the border, sit coiled, waiting for the right moment to erupt.
My grandmother planted the seeds of the world she held in her heart. She knew all along what I have just finally learned: there is no Promised Land. There is only the world we are brave enough to build together. The future is our inheritance, and hope is the country we come home to. Hope, like the full moon on a desert night, like the bloom of the organ pipe cactus, is a light in the dark that cannot be put out.