Christine Forner, BA, BSW, MSW
This month I had the privilege of visiting the city of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. As one of the keynote speakers at the Trauma and Resilience in the Border Land Conference I was able to see and hear first-hand stories of what is happening at the Border. What I witnessed is both horrifying and brilliant. As a Canadian who lives very far from the US/Mexican Boarder, I have been shown terrible images that depict a very clear racism. I have been shown through the media that Mexico and Mexicans are people to be afraid of – and this was a totally false notion.
I was struck by the stories of the children who are in these detention camps. As only lawyers and child advocates are allowed into the camps, I relied on speaking with individuals who are working with these children. What I heard were stories of wasted human potential. Most of the stories that I heard were about children and adolescents who had so few choices that they made a life-and-death decision to travel to the US, avoiding further violence, in an effort to find safety. These were stories of young adolescent men who were never formally educated, but who have learned to read on their own and now want to read everything they could get their hands on. Stories of young men who lost every family member they had, but found other young men on their journey, who had no interest in harming others or joining gangs, but who found family with each other. I heard stories of mothers who were doing what they could to save their children. I heard stories of fathers and grandfathers leaving messages of hope within folk tales of how to conduct oneself with dignity and honour. I heard stories of social workers, psychologists, lawyers, teachers, child advocates and other community members going out of their way to do what they can to help these children find safety. I heard the accounts of the wonderful souls they have met. It was the helpers whose stories were loud; not the stories of those doing harm.
One evening we went into Juarez for dinner. I found it fascinating that I was not asked to produce any I.D. to get into Mexico. They did not treat me like I was a potential criminal. I was treated with a casualness that was pleasantly benign. The food was outstanding, as were the people. There were crowds of people gathering to enjoy their Saturday evening, expressing themselves through art, culture and dancing. My experiences, in what I was told was the most dangerous city in the world, was as non-eventful as it would be anywhere else in the world.
It was coming back into the US where the tone changed. I was confronted with the sight of large German Shepherd dogs on guard, razor wire around and on top of everything, armed guards yelling that we were not allowed to take pictures, and many “things” that looked ominously covered up with camouflaged. It was frightening, honestly. Being a Canadian I have traveled into the US countless times throughout most of my life. This was one of the most intimidating border crossings I have ever done. The intimidation seemed so backwards.
In this situation I had to really examine what I have been taught and what biases I have. I was more afraid walking into the United States than I was in Mexico. This statement may sound racist, and by no means is this my intention. If I am sounding racist, I ask for forgiveness. My intention of this commentary is to state the opposite. It is intended to highlight how much propaganda I am being fed on a daily basis and how this has influenced me, as well as many others. I feel like I’m being gaslighted. I am being told through media that the safe place is dangerous and the dangerous place is safe.
I expected a scene from the move Sicario. I was expecting to see droves of humans all begging to get into the US. I was expecting to see huge poverty. What I actually saw was the same as I see here…humans taking care of humans and going about their business.
I was left considering how I have been led to believe that there is a huge crisis at the border. I saw no crisis coming from the Mexican side. I considered how I have been led to believe that there are horrors happening. It is odd to be in the middle of someone else’s projection.
What I did witness was humans doing everything they can to help other humans. I heard story after story of how everyone is trying to help out as best as they can. How Uber drivers are volunteering their time, how mothers and grandmothers are trying to feed, clothe and care for those who are missing their families. I heard stories of young people bonding with other young people and wondering how they too can help others.
There is a crisis at the border and that crisis is called racism. I feel very fortunate that I was invited to this lovely place in the world. I feel gratitude to all of the people that I met who are doing what they can to help others. I am thankful that I was able to meet so many humans working very hard to support other humans. I am grateful that I belong to a society that works hard to look at these hurtful truths right in the face and finds the humanity under all the pain and suffering. Our strength is each other and our collective wisdom that human connections are a basic human right.
And as an after note: I have just found out that there was another mass shooting in El Paso and reports that the crime was racially motivated. As stated above, the information that is being disseminated in mainstream media and social media about the “crisis” is not what I saw. The crisis is still the same crisis that most people face every day: the crisis of trauma, abuse and neglect. Trauma, fear, neglect and harm are at the root of much of our social ills. This makes sense as we are fundamentally caring and bonding creatures, but when there is not enough safety in childhood all sorts of ill-effects occur. The hatred that one group feels towards another group is trauma based. Selfishness and greed can also be seen as a symptom of trauma.
Solutions can also be found in education about, treatment for and research into complex trauma and dissociation, and the root causes of both. I encourage all of you to write, teach, work and research in any way you can so that what we do becomes common knowledge. A clear path towards healing can be found within the ISSTD vision that “social policy and health care will address the prevalence and consequences of chronic trauma and dissociation, making effective treatment available for all who suffer from the effects of chronic or complex trauma” and our Mission Statement that states “ISSTD seeks to advance clinical, scientific, and societal understanding about the prevalence and consequences of chronic trauma and dissociation”. The more we share what we know, the more we can guide policies and cultural norms to places that are more aligned with our common human need for care, safety and security in our world.
Thank you Dee, Fabiola and Cheri for the hospitality, heart, soul and wonderful El Paso care.