A rainbow. A smile. A little boy with his papa. A heart, a sunset, clouds, flowers.
Though the children spoke only Spanish, their paintings needed no words to translate: These are things that make them happy. They got to keep their happy paintings — although even at that, it was hard to coax them to smile for photos.
That’s because their life is hard. Most of them had been traveling for days and weeks — in buses and walking under the hot desert sun — fleeing life as they knew it. They arrived at the U.S. border in Juárez, Mexico, a river’s width from their promised land. Their parents are hoping against hope to live in the United States.
The children and their families are asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Violence, fear and suffering are part of their history, so the afternoon of painting was a brief respite in a strange town amid an uncertain future — though some of the paintings were dark, a reflection of difficult lives and journeys, and even death.
And Boiseans Betsy Luce and Sylvia Walker were among the group of volunteers who orchestrated the art sessions for the children.
The mission was twofold. First, give the children some fun. They did the paintings, and received a T-shirt, pizza and soda in the children’s museum that hosted the event. (“You would have thought we had given them the world,” said Walker.)
Second, and more seriously, the children painted the stories of their journeys, which will be used in an art exhibit.
“We told them … tell us how you feel about what’s going on,” said Luce. “Show us what you think about being at the border and where you’re going.”
Both Luce and Walker, neither of whom had ever been to the border, said the project was eye-opening — and heart-opening. They met the people who make national news on an almost daily basis, as the Trump administration continues its crackdown on immigration and advocates for the asylum seekers fight it. They spent time with volunteers on both sides of the border. They listened to stories, and they laughed with and played with the children.
“Meeting them was life-changing, to say the least,” said Walker, a retired flight attendant. “I knew when I went down there — I knew it was going to change me. It was like, whew. It did. …
“I don’t know what’s next, but it’s not the end. I feel really passionate about it. I mean, if you could Haiku it down to one thing, it’s like … compassion. Compassion for people.” Her voice turned into a plea. “These are human beings.”
Gathering help and supplies for the border
Luce’s sister, Diana Barnes, teaches U.S./Mexico studies at Skidmore College in New York. She volunteers extensively at the border; she’s fluent in Spanish and a national expert on border issues. She dreamed up the day of painting for the children, but she is not an artist. That’s when she called Luce.
“I totally believe in what my sister is doing,” said Luce, an interior designer. “She is right there in the middle of it. And if she can do that part, I can go down and help when she needs a helping hand.”
In Boise, Luce enlisted Walker. They consulted art therapists about the process and painters about the supplies they would need. They ordered 100 large and 100 small paint boards, two boxes of acrylic paints, and dozens of brushes and other supplies. They stuffed them into backpacks — along with enough T-shirts to give to everyone — and walked across the Rio Grande. “Surreal,” said Walker.
“Juárez isn’t something you do lightly,” said Luce, because of the danger to both U.S. citizens and migrants. “The cartels run Juárez.”
The project was organized in Mexico with help from Skidmore College, the state of Chihuahua, the Organization for World Peace and an El Paso volunteer organization called Seguimos Adelante. Nearly 55 children, ages 5-18, were bused from migrant shelters to La Rodadora, a children’s museum in Juárez.
A mural artist, Cimi Alvarado, of El Paso, explained the project to the kids.
“He said, this is you telling your story. Paint from your hearts,” said Luce, who later organized the paintings into themes for a show. Skidmore students in one of Barnes’ classes will finish the process and display the work at Skidmore and other Eastern colleges. Luce is working to find a venue in Boise as well.
Some of the children painted what they left behind. Reina, 11, painted a cheerful orange house with birds and butterflies flying by. The stick figures of her family — mom, dad and herself in the middle — all have smiles. This was her house in Guatemala.
Although she confesses that she misses her country very much, she said in an interview with the newspaper in Juárez that she wanted to cross the border because “the United States is very beautiful.” She and her family surrendered to Border Patrol to seek asylum and have their first court date on Oct. 28.
Some children painted about their journey. “Every one of those pictures has a big hot sun in the corner,” said Luce.
Some children painted what they expected when they got to the border. “(Those paintings have) green on the other side of a river, with the U.S. flag flying above, with people that are happy,” said Luce. “They had so much hope for what happened once they got to the U.S.”
The children also painted what they found when they got to the border. “That’s where it was heartbreaking,” said Luce.
A girl, 17 years old, painted herself with a bag in each hand. On the left, three figures trudge through brown dirt. On the right, people with clubs are on both sides of a wall, keeping her out. She is crying. Luce said the girl reported being “violado” — the Spanish word for rape or sexual abuse — on her journey. Young women in particular are at risk for sexual abuse and trafficking, Barnes said.
Another painting turned out to be the most powerful of them all. A wide river flows through the center, left to right. On one side of the river — the brown side — are people milling about in confusion, their eyes white and wide.
In the middle of the river is the artist’s father, holding a baby, reaching for her mother, who is too far away and floats face-down in the river.
“No child should ever see what (she) saw,” said Walker, tears filling her eyes.
But there’s more: On the other side of the river is a wall. On the other side of the wall — in the lush green — are people with guns shooting people who are on the ground bleeding.
Helping asylum seekers at a shelter
“It’s hard to look at this stuff (at the border), to take it in and to know everything about it,” Luce said. “It’s much easier to go, oh, that couldn’t be happening, and not not face it. …
“People need to know. I mean, it is as bad as you hear. It’s not like, oh, it couldn’t be that bad. It is.”
While they were in El Paso, Walker and Barnes stopped by Annuciation House, a shelter that receives asylum seekers when they are released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Volunteers feed them; give them clothing, showers and medical assistance; and help them understand their ankle monitors — that they must be charged for hours at least twice a day while still attached to the body.
Annunciation House volunteers help asylum seekers organize travel by bus or plane to relatives and friends in the United States while they await their hearings. Walker and Barnes accompanied a family from Honduras to the airport. “They’d never been on an airplane,” Walker said. “They’d hadn’t been in an airport. We had to teach them how to get on the escalator; they were frightened by the escalator …
“It gave me such a different aspect of what it would be like.”
Walker and Luce heard of families being separated, of freezing-cold detention centers, of ankles rubbed raw from the monitors.
“They’re not criminals,” said Luce. “That’s what they’re being treated as.”
Often, she says, the families have been run off their family farms at gunpoint.
“They have nowhere to go and it’s dangerous; they have to get out of the country,” she said. “And so they’re just begging — which is perfectly legal — for the United States to take a look at whether they can come into the country.”
Walker said she’s surprised at her friends who assume the thousands at the border are crossing illegally rather than seeking asylum legally. “It’s like, no. They spent all this time and money that they don’t really have. They’re coming across the border to the Border Patrol. … They’re being turned away,” she said.
Because only a few asylum seekers are allowed into the United States each day, they are given a number and released into Juárez, a violent town that doesn’t have shelters to accommodate large numbers of people. “They were up to 17,000,” said Luce. “And even the little kids, each child, knew their own number.”
‘We should all be outraged at what is going on’
Luce is familiar with third-world countries. She and her husband adopted two boys from Haiti, which prompted them to help organize Saint Alphonsus’ Project Haiti. The nonprofit has donated services, money and medical supplies to St. Damien Hospital in Port au Prince for 25 years. That was different, she says, but it still boils down to people needing help.
“We have so much in this country,” she said. “We should all be outraged at what is going on (at the border). It’s so awful that we don’t want to look at it.”
As Luce organized the children’s paintings into a show, she saved a special one for last. It’s a heart that has a little patch on it. “We asked the girl about it and she said, ‘My heart is breaking and I’m trying to hold it together.’ That’s the end of the show.”
While politics dictate much of what is happening at the border, each asylum seeker and each volunteer is a human being — that’s what Luce and Walker keep telling people. Neither of them speaks Spanish, but in the end, that wasn’t a deal-breaker.
“If we can (just give people) a hug and go, ‘Somebody cares,’” said Luce. “There are 55 kids (who now) know somebody cares. People who don’t even speak Spanish care.”
Luce’s sister brought simple charm necklaces for each of the kids, some strung with a little starfish. It comes from the ubiquitous story of a little boy throwing starfish back into the ocean, knowing he couldn’t save them all — but he could save one. And then another.
When the children picked out their necklaces, that’s when they would smile for photos.
“We can give love,” said Walker. “Love’s free. You can do that.”