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The Border Wall Diaries
Both Victimized By Hate Crimes, Muslim and Jewish Women Band Together to Help Migrants at Mexican Border
It is a pre-pandemic Monday afternoon in an airless courtroom on the second floor of the Federal Courthouse in Tucson. I glimpse the wide chocolate eyes of a terrified Guatemalan teenager in a stained red T-shirt with hair spilling from a ponytail tie as she is led into the courtroom from a side door along with six male detainees. All seven are shackled at the hands, waist, and ankles.
“Oh my God. She’s a baby in comparison to the men!” I whisper indignantly to the woman beside me, one of 49 companions on this four-day “immersive” odyssey to the US border to witness firsthand conditions faced by migrants at the US border at nearby Nogales.
My equally outraged friend and I are members of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS), a six-year-old nonprofit dedicated to bringing Jewish and Muslim women together to learn about one another’s religious beliefs and collectively stand up to hate. Given that 2018 FBI data shows that Jews, followed by Muslims, are the most frequently targeted victims of religious-based hate crimes, it was not surprising this trip sold out within five minutes of the link to register going live to SOSS’s 3000-plus members. I was thrilled to make the cut. My late parents were Holocaust survivors. They are in my ear saying, “Don’t look away when children are ripped from their mothers’ arms. Do something.”
There is nothing I can do for this waif — Carmerina, according to the court docket. Carmerina doubtless walked hundreds of miles in flimsy sneakers to find sanctuary. Instead she became a mouse trapped in the maw of Operation Streamline — the fast-track prosecution program begun by Bush II and continued through the Obama and Trump administrations with the objective of achieving “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement zones along the US/Mexico border.
Operation Streamline means that over a three-hour period, accompanied by the shuffle of shackles, up to 70 undocumented border crossers a day are tried as criminals and swiftly ordered to jail or deported to Mexico. Personal effects that were confiscated upon arrest — photos, money, ID — are never returned.
It is inevitable Carmerina will wind up dropped by an ICE bus onto a street corner of a cartel-plagued Mexican city.
Communing Over Being Targets of Hate
Two nights earlier when our group first congregates, there is not yet a face — a Carmerina — to put to the migrant tragedy; just excitement mixed with a smidge of apprehension about meeting 49 strangers, some with whom I share a common language (Jewish guilt, black humor, hatred of borscht) and others where the only known bond is shared persecution. We are in the small building housing Borderlinks, the organization guiding our learning quest.
Borderlinks set up a dedicated area for Islamic prayer times as well as for Jewish women wanting to daven (Yiddish for pray). There are 12 rooms — each with two or four bunk beds. I am among the few comfort-seekers who opted to stay at a nearby hotel.
Once all 50 of us are present, the group heads to the slightly claustrophobic backyard. In vain I look for wine. Oh, right — some of the Muslim women follow Islam’s dictates against alcohol. After toasting our mission with Dixie cups filled with either water or soda, SOSS cofounder Atiya Aftab, a 51-year-old attorney and adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, concludes her opening remarks with, “We can’t change history or rewrite it, but we can change the future.”
Standing next to Atiya is SOSS’s executive director Sheryl Olitzky. A former Fortune 500 marketing executive and wife and mother of rabbis, Sheryl, 63, conceived of SOSS after a 2010 trip to Poland and Auschwitz, where she witnessed continued prejudice against marginalized groups. She traveled home determined to “build bridges and change the world, one Muslim and one Jewish woman at a time…”
As the periwinkle twilight reinforces why Arizona, with its expansive, open sky is lauded for spectacular sunsets, Sheryl encourages us to start conversations with one another, finishing: “Nothing is more powerful at breaking down barriers than sharing our stories.”
I’m angry at myself for feeling a slight weirdness that over 20 women are wearing hijabs. Are any of them a tad discomfited by the sea of Jewish stars?
Amid the buzz of engaged voices, I search for kind eyes, finding them in Rokeya Akhter. “I’m a therapist so I’m comfortable skipping small talk and getting right to the trauma. Are you okay with that?”
She laughs, “Sure!” Abandoned by her husband in her native Bangladesh with their six-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Rokeya arrived in Portland, Oregon, 29 years earlier on a six-month tourist visa. She says, “My family blamed me for my husband’s leaving so I felt like I had to escape.” It took six years for her to get a green card, another seven to become a US citizen. The seeds of Rokeya’s anti-bigotry activism began after 9/11, she explained, “when a coworker blamed my people for the attacks.”
“Ahh,” I exhaled as this stranger morphed into my comrade, my sister. I shared, “I first realized prejudice can come from the most unlikely sources at age 12 when a neighbor came over for coffee and casually called my mother, who lost her mother and two sisters at Auschwitz, a kike.” We join the numerous pairs of teary-eyed huggers (again, pre-COVID) hugging their way to communion.
My sense of communion with SOSS sisters intensifies as we begin our training sessions, held alternately at Borderlinks and the nearby Jewish Museum. These include lively conversations led by Atiya and Rabbi Amy Eilberg on Muslim and Jewish texts, respectively.
Atiya stands in front of a chalkboard and explains that the theme of the Quran is “persecution.” She adds that after enduring 13 years of starvation, torture, and violence, Muhammad and his followers immigrated from Mecca to what was promised as the safe haven of Medina.
The Torah says at least 36 times, You shall not oppress a stranger. Rabbi Amy, who in 1985 became the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, says to applause and laughter, “Abraham, Sarah and Moses were migrants…”
Remain in Mexico as US Policy
We learn that Tucson is credited as the birthplace of the 1980s Sanctuary movement, when local church groups came together to provide safe haven to undocumented Salvadorans fleeing the Central American wars who were being hampered from applying for asylum by the federal government’s immigration policies.
Of more recent vintage, January 2019 saw the Trump administration’s enactment of the Migration Protections Protocols (MPP), commonly known as “Remain in Mexico.” This policy, which didn’t impact the Nogales border until January 2020, forces many asylum seekers previously allowed to wait in the US for their court hearings to instead return to dangerous conditions in Mexico. According to Human Rights First, since MPP’s inception, over 59,000 asylum seekers and migrants were forced back across the border, resulting in over 800 reports of rape, kidnapping, and other violent acts. (Updates since SOSS’s visit: On March 11th, the Supreme Court refused to block MPP while legal challenges to it played out. Ten days later, as a “precautionary measure” against the spreading of the virus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shut off access for any migrant trying to claim asylum. And on April 22nd Trump put a 60-day ban on green cards for most immigrants.)
The ruinous effects of MPP are on display during SOSS’s visit to Casa Alitas, a former detention center turned short-term shelter serving migrant families waiting for asylum hearings. The twentysomething director Sarah Reed leads us around the brightly painted, art-filled space, which offers medical screenings, food, volunteers, and clothing (including shoelaces, which are confiscated upon arrest), as well as a play area for children stocked with an impressive array of toys.
Before MPP was implemented in January, Casa Alitas was operating at near capacity — if squeezed, the facility can fit 180. During our four-hour post-MPP visit, the 25 SOSS members outnumber the trickle of migrants. My task: taking a stab at sorting into sizes the endless piles of donated clothes. A few Spanish speakers, including Rokeya, draw pictures with the eight children present. Rokeya later shares, “It was joyful playing with them and at the same time it reminded me of when I came to this country with my daughter, and she’d get frustrated and not want to be here because no one spoke her language.”
The best moment: witnessing a family from Guatemala hugging Sarah goodbye as they’re given a ride to the bus that will ferry them to relatives on the east coast to await their asylum trial.
As we leave, something Sarah says lodges in my head: “The Mexican government is supposed to protect the migrants waiting for their trials, but instead are throwing them to the wolves — even sometimes handing them directly to the drug cartels.”
Later, cocooning in my room at the Downtown Clifton Hotel, I’m beset by a recurrent nightmare of being chased by Nazi storm troopers in heavy boots. Over breakfast as I start sharing my dream with a sister from Palestine, she butters an English muffin and says, “Sherry, I don’t want to offend you but I am so angry that [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu just announced plans to annex all the West Bank settlements. My family is trapped.” I snap into empathy mode and say truthfully, “I’m so sorry for what your family has to endure. I’m not a fan of his policies,” then pivot awkwardly, “This coffee is really strong!”
The day’s first organized action is spearheaded by the humanitarian group No More Deaths. The sisters are set to hike from Arivaca, 11 miles north of the Mexican border at Nogales, through the deadly Sonoran desert to leave jugs of water and buckets filled with essential supplies for migrants attempting the perilous journey to freedom. This is a potentially life-saving act as according to IOM-UN Migration, the Missing Migrants Project recorded 1468 deaths on the US-Mexico border between 2014 and 2018.
However, part of being over 60 is coming to accept one’s limitations. With both a bad ankle and a lifelong predilection for tripping, when I see the start-point of the hike — three slippery logs to walk across — I flash to the log dancing scene in Dirty Dancing ending in Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey tumbling into the water, and I decide to join SOSS cofounder Sheryl Olitzky on option two: exploring Arivaca, population about 700.
Founded in the 1800s and surrounded by sweeping vistas of the San Luis mountains, this tiny town is comprised of artists, ranchers, barflies, bird watchers, and retirees. On the issue of undocumented immigrants, Arivaca has become a magnet for both MAGA diehards, self-appointed militia wielding guns, and fervent humanitarians.
The MAGA perspective is immediately evident at The Mercantile — the town’s sole grocery store/gas station. The Merc is where residents buy hardware supplies along with bread and produce, and then fill up the tank outside. When Mary, the owner, rings up our Gatorades and chips, Sheryl asks what it’s like living close to the border. Mary sniffs, “I don’t want any trouble. If one of them knocks on my door asking for help I point toward the road and send him on his way!”
Thinking of the sisters concurrently hiking to leave water and food to save lives, I long to throw the chips in her face. Sheryl, Queen of Restraint, leads me to La Gitana Café, a dance-hall-turned-brothel-turned-barn that in 1950 became what remains the town’s only bar.
La Gitana’s political leanings are pretty clear from the sign on the door: UNWANTED: Members of any vigilante group, including, but not limited to AZ Border Recon…
From our perch on the patio gulping Diet Cokes, a rangy, chain-smoking, blue-eyed man with a full head of rapidly whitening hair doffs his beer mug at us. Banjo Ben (not his real name) settled in Arivaca six years earlier. He confides, “Trump’s rhetoric has been more effective than the wall at keeping Mexicans and Guatemalans from coming here.”
Despite the threat of being charged with a federal crime and/or misdemeanor for aiding an undocumented immigrant, when a desperate soul knocks on his door in the middle of the night, Banjo Ben shirks the law to offer shelter, food, water, and even transport in his truck (the passenger hidden under a blanket) to a safe location.
Political discussion finished, he stands, strums his banjo, and sings an original composition.
“Everything just changed, honey on the day I first met you —
I got struck by lightning when the sky was sunny blue…”
For dinner, 11 sisters and I gather at Downtown Kitchen, a bright, airy restaurant specializing in eclectic cuisine. At the other end of our rectangle table I hear snippets of energetic exchanges that frustratingly defy my eavesdropping attempts. I later find out they are sparked by Netanyahu’s announcement. I sip a Prickly Pear Margarita and look at family pictures on sisters’ iPhones. The giggles emitted by Amira Ishoof, a 36-year-old Floridian whose ancestors were trafficked from India to British Guyana in the 1800s, are contagious as she shares a video surprising her clearly thrilled husband of 17 years with socks from DivvyUp Socks, decorated with pictures of her! “Socks and me are his two favorite things,” she explains.
A Leap Over the Border Wall
The group’s final activity: a ‘tour’ of the steel and chainlink fence embedded with coils of razor-sharp concertina wire that literally divides US Nogales, a town of 20,000, from the thousands of people on the Mexican side. Adding to the war movie feel are drones, cameras, sensors, and occasional helicopters buzzing overhead. “U.S. Murder Patrol” stickers adorn lampposts.
Our guide is Carlos (not his real name), who lives in Nogales, Mexico. If he were caught talking to us, the precious border card he won 20 years ago permitting him to work on the US side would be confiscated and he might face arrest. Scott, from No More Deaths, serves as translator.
“Hardly anyone gets caught sneaking over the wall,” Carlos explains, as a scrawny teenager runs forward, tosses his orange sneakers over the 12-foot fence, and shimmies over it into Mexico.
“These kids watch videos of how to avoid the wire,” he added, as a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) SUV roars up the block, horn impotently blaring. Carlos guesses that the boy was working with the cartel to sell drugs.
As a gaunt Dachshund leaps among us hoping for food and love, Carlos rails against NAFTA. The 1994 free trade agreement which removed trade tariffs, allowing companies to export grains below cost to Mexico, resulted in his family being among the nearly 1.3 million farmers to lose their livelihood.
Like Carmerina, Carlos now provides a face to the migrant tragedy. We say our “goodbyes” and “thank yous” to Carlos and pile back in our vans to head back to Borderlinks for our final dinner together.
I’ve bonded with many of my 49 sisters, but we are a self-selecting group of women who chose to attend this trip — ones who are eager to learn, not judge, and who disapprove of our religions’ orthodoxies that treat women as subservient. Part of social work training involves delving into my pockets of prejudice. I’ve learned that what ignites my red-as-a-lobster-shell-after-being-boiled rage is the Hasidic patriarchal culture. Perhaps, judging from my difficulty sharing my dream with a Palestinian sister, there is something more going on. I’m eager to get back to New York and reflect.
Two minutes after stumbling out of the vans, SOSS Advisory Board Member Sheila Sonnenschein smiles and announces we are doing a ‘debriefing’ before dinner. Each of us will have three minutes to talk about our feelings on the group’s sole powder keg issue — the Palestinian/Israeli situation. She adds, “No cross talk during the shares, no feedback or opinions. Just fully listen with no judgment.”
Despite being exhausted, hungry, devastated by seeing the wall and fearing a boy would be shot before our eyes, suddenly we are crammed into the claustrophobic living room, shoulders and knees pressed together, inhaling granola bars. Sheila has no trouble enlisting a volunteer to keep time during the shares, but no luck getting someone to speak first. So she picks someone, adding, “Then we’ll go counterclockwise.”
A sister from Palestine sporting a diving-into-a-cold-pool expression grabs the box of Kleenex on the Ikea coffee table in front of her, clears her throat and spills, “I’ve never believed all Jewish women, no matter how kind and well-meaning, could really understand the pain of my people or truly want a two-state solution.”
She passes the Kleenex to the next speaker, a Jewish sister. “Being at the wall today brought me to the same place as when I saw the West Bank wall last summer. I’m horrified at Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians and yet the existence of a Jewish state is like an existential, overwhelming need. I hope by starting to share our feelings we can make a first step to finding workable solutions.”
I confess the guilt over Netanyahu’s policies that kept me from sharing my nightmare, and instantly feel caressed by the caring expressions of my Muslim sisters and clucks of understanding from Jewish ones. I finish, “I am just coming to see that while I will always honor my Holocaust survivor parents’ need for a secure Jewish homeland, I am not a disloyal daughter if I break with some of their beliefs on the West Bank issue.”
A Hindu sister says, “Sometimes it feels like we try to outdo one another with our pain. Suffering is suffering. Let’s be here for one another and move on.”
After the shares, tears and hugs flow. “This was so cathartic,” sister after sister agrees. Over dinner specific actions are discussed for local SOSS chapters to help migrants. Sweetening this farewell are pledges to reunite at SOSS’s annual conference in the fall.
Two weeks after returning to our homes across the country, the world changed. Our group’s WhatsApp remains a buzzing hive. In addition to sharing news stories of the migrant and COVID situations, and brainstorming activist actions, there are Zoom yoga meet-ups. We comfort those whose families are personally impacted by the virus. One sister wrote, “Miss you all but we are spiritually and cosmically connected.”
I dream less of Nazis in heavy boots chasing me and more of Carmerina and Carlos. A wall is a wall, whether it imprisons Jews in concentration camps, seals off Palestinians, or prevents migrants in need from finding sanctuary.
Here is a report about our trip on the SOSS website, along with next steps for being an advocate.
Sherry Amatenstein is a NYC-based therapist, author of four books, host of the podcast Sherapy and contributor to many publications including The Washington Post, The Week, vox.com, and Hemispheres. She was an interviewer for Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah, a foundation dedicated to taking audio-visual testimony from Holocaust survivors.