By: Julia Blumberg
Gail Kocourek and Dora Rodriguez at Casa de la Esperanza Resource Center.
(SOUNDBITE OF WALKING)
JULIA BLUMBERG, HOST: Gail Kocourek is an energetic older woman with mid-length white hair. She would often split her time between San Francisco and Tucson to take care of her ailing mother who had Alzheimer’s. Gail moved to Tucson permanently in 2011. After her mother passed away, she was looking for a way to help migrants while also doing something she loves: hiking.
(KOCOUREK): When I got here and I needed something, Samaritans fits in because I love hiking. And so I thought well I am going to be helping people and doing something I like to do and it’ll be healthy. I got ill and it was hard for me to walk and so I thought of doing orientation trips.
(BLUMBERG): To be a volunteer with the Tucson Samaritans, one must go through a training process about the history of migration, first aid, safety, and Border patrol protocol. Gail may take people interested in volunteering with Samaritans or even media teams on these trips to teach them about the Sonoran desert.
Between dropping water in the desert during long hikes and conducting orientation trips, she has learned many lessons along the way. One important thing Gail learned was from Maria Ochoa, who is one of the cofounders of Tucson Samaritans. She was in charge of educating others about the desert and migration. Maria also would take the media on trips through the desert for the Samaritans. Gail took over media and education after Maria moved to Phoenix.
(KOCOUREK): She’d tell me about the vultures and how to read the different things that they were doing. You could tell if they were just looking, or if they found something, or waiting for something to die. She says watch the vultures, so I did. I would go on trips with her with the media, and she recommended I take over the media and education that she had been doing before she left.
(BLUMBERG): Gail remembers a time she saved a migrant’s life on an early morning desert trip. She was with another volunteer for Tucson Samaritans, Alma. They spotted turkey vultures circling high in the sky, which is something turkey vultures often do before dropping down to eat their prey. She felt they were preparing to devour something, and that’s where this story begins.
(KOCOUREK): We were driving along a road and we saw turkey vultures, which I love because they tell you a story of what is going on in the desert and they keep it clean. I was watching the turkey vultures and I said they got something. They weren’t landing, but they were just in a real tight funnel. The lady that was with me, Alma, I said can you walk out along the fenceline?
(BLUMBERG): Alma walks along the fenceline as Gail was driving in the car on the road with the windows rolled down.
(KOCOUREK): All of the sudden she stops, and she yells migrant, but she is looking to the north on the west side of the road. And I look in the rearview mirror and I see this guy sitting, and he just goes over.
(BLUMBERG): Gail described the man she spotted with Alma. She asked for his permission to take pictures of him so that his family could know how far he made it. She felt that could give comfort to his family to know he was not alone in his last moments.
(KOCOUREK): He made it…
(BLUMBERG): The pictures of the man from Honduras that Gail and Alma saved that day were never shared publicly to protect him. However, Gail shared that he did survive.
(BLUMBERG): I had the opportunity to join Gail on some of her desert orientation trips. On a surprisingly rainy September day in Tucson, something already felt different. Dark clouds covered the normal blue sky, the roads were damp, and the sweet, refreshing smells of creosote bushes lingered in my nose. On a quiet paved street within Tucson city limits, I did not expect to see migrants caught by Border Patrol so soon. A few feet away were two border patrol agents, with their two white trucks blocking the lanes on Diamond Bell Ranch Road. Around 15 migrants had just been caught. Gail didn’t seem as shocked and she stopped the red car we were in to talk to one of the Border Patrol agents.
(KOCOUREK): Hi guys, need any food, blankets, or water?
(BORDER PATROL AGENT): They have water, they have everything. We’re good. Thank you.
(KOCOUREK): We are always here to help. Always flag us down if you need anything.
(BORDER PATROL AGENT): Appreciate it.
(BLUMBERG): As Gail drove off after that quick interaction, she reflected on what we’d just witnessed split seconds before – that one of the migrants probably understood or even spoke English. Despite the situation, they gave us the thumbs up sign – indicating that everything is alright.
(KOCOUREK): Somebody in that group probably spoke English and understood what I was saying.
(BLUMBERG): They were waving.
(KOCOUREK): And smiling. They may have recognized me from Sasabe. Man, they made it a long way. It’s just heartbreaking to make it right to the entrance of Diamond Bell. It is home free when you get there just about. Should be.
(BLUMBERG): Our next stop on the orientation trip was the new resource center in Sasabe, Sonora that is a safe space for migrants and people who live in the Sasabe community. Gail and Dora Rodriguez opened the resource center in May 2021.
As I am getting out of the car, I can see big blue letters with the words “Casa de la Esperanza: Centro comunitario y ayuda al migrante” surrounded by yellow and orange painted butterflies on a white wall.
(BLUMBERG): Dora is a short but mighty 62 year old woman and is the director of Salvavision, which provides aid to migrants in border towns and detention centers within Arizona.
Dora and Gail met at a Samaritan meeting about 10 years ago, but they did not start working together until December 2020. Dora was invited to speak at a vigil against the wall this past September and then was invited to Sasabe, just across the border in the Mexican state of Sonora. Sasabe was one of the few border towns she had not been to before this date.
(RODRIGUEZ): I went and I was invited, my good friend Gail, and sister Judy from Notre Dame Nuns. I got stopped by the group that protects migrants when he saw this group of women delivering stuff in the streets and told us we needed help. There are 150 migrants deported everyday in this town…
(BLUMBERG): Gail and Dora contacted local organizations about the situation in Sasabe. They all started to gather items and food to deliver there. Despite the strong cartel presence, they were well received by the town.
(RODRIGUEZ): The director of that office is right across the border and he said no one will touch you here. You can deliver the donations here and we set up a little tiendita. Due to that effect, almost 3 months of this food – we were driving back. I said we are not doing the right thing. We need to be vocal, the newspaper needs to know, the local reporters need to know.
(BLUMBERG): The response was amazing and it brought to light many issues related to the treatment of migrants. Dora then met with the mayor of Sasabe.
RODRIGUEZ): In January, I was introduced to the mayor of the town and I talked to her. I told her what we were doing and how we were serving migrants in the street. Do you think we can have our own resource center? She asked if we could meet next week. Everyone said we are with you and Gail, because we know it is needed. It took us about 4 months to finish the contract with the building and clean the building. In May 2021, we opened the resource center. We call it a community center and migrant help, because we want to be welcomed by the community.
(BLUMBERG): Dora, a migrant herself, tried to come to the United States 3 times and the first two times she tried to cross the border with friends.
(RODRIGUEZ): I am also a migrant and I will forever be a migrant. I came to this country when I was 19 years old. I came during the civil war in El Salvador in 1980. I tried my journey 3 times, and the first two times I was caught at the border. The first time I was cut in Tijuana. Within a week, I was returned to my country and it was the very first time I flew on a plane.
(BLUMBERG): In June of 1980, she came over thanks to the financial support of family members living in California. They paid for the smugglers so Dora, her uncle, and cousin could all cross the border together. Soon after, Dora and her family were gathered on a bus with several other Salvadorans ranging from children to adults.
Dora explained that she crossed the river from El Salvador to Guatemala, without knowing how to swim. They walked day in and day out in extreme temperatures until they got close to the U.S.-Mexico border.
(RODRIGUEZ): We got to the border in Sonoyta/Lukeville Port of Entry. We got to that border town and the Salvadoran coyotes knew the terrain was going to be very hard. They didn’t want to scare us. We started noticing they separated the woman and children, and sent them to Yuma. They left a lot of us to cross through Lukeville.
(BLUMBERG): The border wall was nothing compared to what it is today. Just barbed wire, but the real danger was the barbed spines of the cholla cactus. Dora was unaware of what the journey to the promised land would be like and that they did not have enough water to survive.
(RODRIGUEZ): We went through 6 days of a horrible journey. By the second day, we started drinking our pee. We started drinking the lotion in our suitcases. We started getting a hold of anything that was liquid. The desert is so deceiving because it is huge and then you do not know where to go, everything looks just the same.
(BLUMBERG): One male smuggler stayed with the women while the men went to look for help. Dora recalls going in and out of consciousness due to dehydration.
(RODRIGUEZ): At first, he took away from one of the women the gallon pee we had. He took possession of that and he said if anyway wants to take from this you have to have sex with me so I can drink your sweat and all this crazy horrible things.
(BLUMBERG): Dora remembers hearing the young girls in her group screaming and calling out her name for help. The smuggler was sexually assaulting the three girls. When she heard their cries for help and that he was hurting them, Dora crawled her way to a tree and pretended to be dead with the hopes he would not rape her.
(RODRIGUEZ): I remember him saying, “I’m not going to hurt Dora, because she is a good person and she is dead anyways so she is not good anymore.” And what he meant was to rape me, but I am so thankful that I crawled myself to that tree. That is where I was found by Border Patrol.
(BLUMBERG): The reason that Dora was found by Border Patrol was because two Salvadorans she traveled with were found on the main road. The agents poked and prodded the two Salvadorans to tell them if there were more people from their group in the desert.
(RODRIGUEZ): Border Patrol told them we know Salvadorans never travel alone, they come always in a group so if you do not tell us they all are going to die, because it was a heatwave of 115/117 degrees. And sure enough, by the time they said yes – they found 13 bodies. 13 people died and 13 people survived. And for some reason, I am one of the survivors.
(BLUMBERG): She was flown to the nearest hospital in Ajo, Arizona and the survivors were brought to Tucson after they were treated in the hospital. She spent a whole year with a sponsor family, because they were material witnesses to the crimes of the smugglers, including rape and murder. Dora bonded with three girls, ages 12, 14, and 16, who lost their lives at the hand of the smuggler in the desert.
(RODRIGUEZ): I mean, I feel for everyone. The part that did mark my life was the three sisters, because they were so young. Why did life rob them so young? And the mom was here in Los Angeles, and she saved all her money from working in the factory, trusted these horrible people, and brought them. This is horrible, because it is exactly what is going on right now.
(BLUMBERG): Dora took advantage of being in the United States, she went to college, got married, had kids. Then she found strength in helping others and helping Salvadoran people fleeing El Salvador. It was only 5 or 6 years ago that Dora felt comfortable sharing her story.
(RODRIGUEZ): Telling my story does help me to heal and process that more. When I am eye to eye to a migrant, I know their pain and I can tell them I am you. I was you and you have the right to seek a better life and to dream, but let me tell you the dangers of the desert and at least you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION IN THE RESOURCE CENTER)
(BLUMBERG): Geovana Federico shared a similar sentiment when I went back to the resource center with both Gail and Dora in November. Geovana works there on the weekends from 10 am until 5 pm, mainly by helping the migrants. She gives them food, asks them if they are okay, if they need to talk to their family and assists them in any way possible.
(FEDERICO): Pues, yo me encargo de darles de comer a los migrantes, atenderlos, preguntarles si están bien principalmente, si quieren medicamentos, si necesitan hablar con su familia, como los trataron porque muchos de ellos se tratan mal.
Well, I am in charge of making food for the migrants, taking care of them, asking them if they are okay, if they want medicines, if they need to talk to their family, how they were treated because many of them are treated badly.
(BLUMBERG): She gave me a tour of the resource center, which is two rooms. We started the tour in the kitchen, which is at the back of the resource center. We then walked through the door that separates the kitchen from the front room, where the bathroom and the clothes for migrants to change into are located.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOUR)
(BLUMBERG): At the end of the tour, Geovana said that people need to take action and help migrants more.
(FEDERICO): Pues, lo que podría decir es que los ayudan más.
Well, what I could say is help them more.
(BLUMBERG): Dora takes it a step further and says it is not just the responsibility of outsiders to help, but migrants also need to lend a helping hand.
(RODRÍGUEZ): [Lo que] quizás compartiera con cualquier hermano o hermana, pues [lo que] logré aquí con esta tierra, verdad. Como le digo muchos a mis solicitantes de asilo, a los que han buscado asilo. Todo el tiempo, ellos me llaman madrecita, me [lo] dicen muchos. Y yo les digo: si algo se llevan de mí es que sólo el cielo es tu límite. Te van a dar la oportunidad de hacer una vida mejor y vas a aprovecharla. Entonces les digo: vienes aquí has sufrido mucho, has pasado por mucho dolor en detención, en el desierto, cruzando… con un propósito y es el propósito de hacer el bien. No te olvides de dónde vienes, nunca y no te olvides, de extender una [la] mano a alguien que lo necesita porque es muy fácil olvidarnos de quiénes somos cuando ya estamos bien….
[What] I might share with any brother or sister, for [what] I accomplished here with this land. As I tell many to my asylum seekers, to those who have sought asylum. All the time, they call me mother. And I say to them, if something is learned from my experience, it is only the sky that is your limit. You are going to have a chance for a better life and you’re going to take it. Then I say to them: you come here you have suffered a lot, you have gone through a lot of pain in detention, in the desert, crossing… with a purpose and is the purpose of doing good. Do not forget where you come from, never. Do not forget to extend a helping hand to someone who needs it because it is very easy to forget who we are when we are already well.