A lifeline for migrants

y Ireland Stevenson/El Inde

On June 1, 2018, Kathi Noaker, Linda Hirsch, and six other Voices from the Border volunteers trekked across the U.S.-Mexico border hauling bags of supplies in hopes of lending a hand and making a difference.

When they arrived to see more than 100 migrants sitting on the floor at the port of entry, exhausted from their travels, the group’s mission became clear: provide daily medical and humanitarian aid to those who are struggling at the border.

The Women’s March took place in Tucson, Arizona, on January 2017, and that’s when Kathi Noaker and around 70 other residents from Patagonia, Sonoita, and Elgin met to brainstorm how to make an impact from Southern Arizona and affect change.

“We felt pretty strongly that we wanted to make this a movement, not a moment. We didn’t know exactly what that meant but we knew that we were in the borderlands and we knew that moving forward, our concern was that Trump’s policies would directly affect us here so we got together and talked about what we could do to make a difference,” Noaker said.

Voices from the Border’s focus started very broadly, as their main goal was to provide help to the greatest number of people. But then, in May 2018, they heard about an influx of migrants in Nogales, Sonora, who were requesting political asylum in the United States.

“It was a group of about eight of us, and we got together in the park and asked ourselves, ‘What are we going to do?’ So, we decided to fundraise and buy what we thought they needed and walk it across the border,” Noaker said. “We didn’t know what we were doing, we just knew that there were people in need and we thought if we were them, what would we need?”

They were able to raise $600 very quickly from residents in Patagonia, Elgin, and Sonoita. The group then set out to cross into Mexico with supplies to help migrants and refugees with no place to go — everything from diapers, water, and food to coloring books and crayons.

This day would change their lives, their work, and their mission forever.

Noaker and the other volunteers were surrounded by worn-out mothers and small children, happy and giggling as they ran around playing games. Soon after they arrived on that first day, they met Francisco Olachea Martin — more commonly known as Panchito — a nurse and medic who had been treating migrants for the past 10 years after being deported from the United States.

Panchito had worked as a caretaker in the United States for 32 years before he was deported, and he’d been giving care to migrants on his own for years at the border. His altruistic nature had helped him commit to a life of serving migrants, asylum-seekers, and those living in extreme poverty in the Nogales, Sonora community.

Over the next few months, Voices from the Border worked hand-in-hand with Panchito as they continued to learn about him and his work. Today, their organization funds Panchito’s work in Nogales — along with his ambulance, which he’s nicknamed Christina — and this partnership provides the only free medical care to Central American migrants and asylum-seekers in Nogales.

“We saw the work he was doing there every day, seven days a week wasn’t something we could personally do ourselves … and we thought, ‘If we could fund him, that’s how we’d help the most people’,” Noaker said.

Voices from the Border is solely run by volunteers, with an operational budget of about $1,200 a month. With these funds, the group partners with Panchito to provide free medical care that includes medicines, diagnostic tests, emergency procedures, and minor dental work. Depending on the month, the money also goes toward clothes and hygienic items that they do not receive enough of when they collect donations.

“The donations are mailed to my house and I store them,” said Linda Hirsch, the secretary for Voices from the Border. “I keep them in a room and we get everything from food to clothing, water and any other supplies.”

People come to volunteers like Hirsch, suitcases in hand, and then cross the border to hand out the items directly to the migrants.

They also receive checks and money donations constantly, and Hirsch says, it is because people always want to help.

“We have people frequently ask if they can come down, and at this point, we have sort of a daily regime and routine and the people there need consistency,” Hirsch said. “People — especially in our community, because some live here during the winter months and then leave during the summer months — always want to help and do the right thing and they aren’t here to do it so I get checks and donations from people from all over the country. It really is wonderful.”

Editor’s note: A version of this story will appear in the summer 2020 special issue of the Patagonia Regional Times.

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