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Rafael limped into the Migrant Resource Center for the second time that day with the same weathered smile on his face. The first visit happened in the morning, moments after he was returned from the U.S.
Rafael tried to walk across the desert into New Mexico but was caught, detained and dropped off in this Arizona border town to find his way back “home.”
“Good evening! Can I make a call?” he asked in Spanish as he hobbled to the back of the center.
Phil, the U.S. Migrant Resource Center coordinator, invited Rafael to sit in the center’s well-utilized seat by the phone. Josias, another volunteer, brought a plate of hot burritos and pan dulce for him to eat.
“Muchas gracias!” he told us enthusiastically, turning to offer some of his food to his companion seated a few yards away. “Thank you. Such good people here. Something else- do you have anything for blisters? My feet are really sore.”
I leaned over Rafael as he removed his shoes, trying to mask any involuntary reaction from the smell. But as he peeled back his socks, I let a small gasp slip out. His toes were raw and coated with blisters. Now I understood the limp.
“Sorry for the smell,” he offered with the same good-natured smile. “We were walking, lost, for eight days…”
Eight days in the desert.
Rafael is lucky to be alive, blisters and all. My heart went out to him. I looked at Phil, busy making the phone call, and Josias, getting coffee, and realized with some reluctance—I guess I’m on foot duty. Fantastic.
I filled a basin with warm water and soap and fetched some medical supplies from the stash.
“I don’t think we have any clean socks,” I told him regretfully.
“No, no—don’t worry! But I think I’m going to throw these away,” he said, eyeing his old socks and laughing. “Better to go without socks, no? I’ll throw these away outside.”
Josias graciously took the nasty old socks from Rafael and disposed of them. I kneeled down on the floor with my basin next to Rafael’s feet and asked him to place them in the water. For the first time since entering the center, Rafael’s smile broke.
He winced and sucked air through his teeth as he lowered his raw, sore feet into the basin. The volunteers all winced along with him as we encouraged him through the process. The pain was worse than he let on.
I gently washed Rafael’s feet as we chatted to take his mind off of the burning. I asked about his three children, and he tried hard to pronounce words like “blister” in English. Rafael told me he’d been in the U.S. for ten years already, living and working in New Mexico with his family, but English was still very difficult.
Rafael was born in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua. As a teenager, he moved to a border city to find work. He worked different jobs and became very involved with his church.
“I did a lot of volunteer work with young people. It’s important to help others like the people do here in this place,” he told me.
Eventually, Rafael met his wife and her two sons at church. They dated for only two months then got married.
“Those are my two oldest children…so, they’re not really my children, but they are. Understand?”
Like any parent would, Rafael grew disturbed with the escalating amount of violence in his city. He wanted to move his children away, but he recognized there weren’t many employment opportunities in Mexico. Moreover, anything available paid a fraction of the minimum wage rate offered just on the other side of the border.
What’s a father to do? For Rafael, the decision wasn’t easy, but it was understandable: he decided to move his family to the United States. And they came illegally—a popular choice considering securing a work visa as a Mexican citizen can take decades.
What A Gift
After ten years of living in the U.S., Rafael decided to visit his parents back in Mexico, because they’re aging and their health failing. Unfortunately, this means Rafael is now stuck back on the Mexican side of the border and needs to cross the desert on foot to reunite with his family.
I began to dry Rafael’s feet and treat his blisters as he bragged about all of his children—the one who wants to join the army, the one who wants to be a Marine and the youngest who wants to be a doctor.
“I just want my children to have good lives,” he told me, “not lives full of riches—just good lives. That’s all.”
By this point in Rafael’s story, my posture had changed quite a bit. With every minute we spent together, with every detail of his story he revealed, I was increasingly humbled.
Here sat a man of such good intent and so much unconditional love for his family, whose body had been abused by the desert, and whose dignity had been further abused by the process of being arrested and detained.
And I got to wash his feet. I had the privilege of wrapping his wounds and listening to his unassuming wisdom. What a gift.
My brief time at the Migrant Resource Center is nothing compared to the dozens of volunteers from the U.S. and Mexico who keep this place running every day. They welcome hundreds of men and women, many with stories similar to Rafael’s.
Volunteers welcome migrants with compassion and respect, no matter the situation. People arrive here caught in the middle of much larger issues than what the Migrant Center and its volunteers can address alone, but at least in this place, they can provide some relief to the travelers.
To be candid, Rafael will probably head back out into the desert soon, bad feet and all (tears are springing to my eyes at the thought!). Like I said, much larger issues are at work.
But at least here, in the Migrant Resource Center, he was treated with humanity amidst a journey that wears down the spirits of so many weary migrants.
- Learn more about Frontera de Cristo and the Migrant Resource Center from their website.
- Has anyone ever “washed your feet”? What are ways you can be affirming to others with your words and actions this week?
- Consider donating to the work of Frontera de Cristo or to the Migrant Resource Center in particular to support their important work here on the border.
- Pray for safety for Rafael and the safety and dignity of the migrants who are crossing the border into the U.S. Pray for the authorities they meet along the way who have a challenging and overwhelming job to do.
About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.