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Franciscan Br. David Buer & Sr. Judy Bourg are part of the Tuscon Samaritans. (Peter Tran Image)

Water in the desert

Somehow I was  pointed to this News piece in the midst of the flood of media coverage on the hardships and issues  endured by the ongoing  movement of people’s, particularly  Migrants and Immigrants and Displaced Peoples.  It can be very easy to almost unconsciously  mainstream and normalise this information into the background of our lives  ‘as just another part of world issues that we can do nothing about’.   Maybe too their suffering was also brought home to me more profoundly by our current experience in Ireland of higher temperatures than normal, and the impact this is having on the homeless on our streets and the additional provisions they need to get to survive this heat.

In the Sonoran Desert northeast of Ajo, Arizona, temperatures can soar to mid-90’s in late spring and above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.   This vast, arid landscape of mountain ranges, arroyos and valleys, typical throughout southern Arizona, is where the undocumented migrants make a path to find a better life in the United States.  This is also where hundreds of unfortunate ones have taken their last breath.                                                                     ~ So writes Peter Tran, in an article that appeared recently in Simple action carrying water in the desert prevents migrant deaths

Coincidentally in recent days I was speaking with an American friend of mine originally from Tuscon, and now living in Europe.  We have many conversations about the unsettling experience of  being American today (especially during the Trump presidency) compounded in recent times by the ‘caging’ of migrants.  She is in regular contact with her family, and was telling me about members of local communities in the desert region who cannot just stand by and let people die, and who are involved in desert projects despite the risks.   Still others are making a regular financial contributions to facilitate the continuation of  work done on a regular basis by so many who are providing quite literally ‘water in the desert’.

Sr. Judy Bourg (School Sister of Notre Dame) is a regular volunteer with Tuscon Samaritans – a humanitarian aid organisation (founded as a mission of Southside Presbyterian Church) to prevent death and suffering along the US-Mexico border.  The volunteers come from various faith traditions or none at all.  Using two donated four-wheel drive vehicles, they carry water, food and emergency medical supplies, communications  equipment and maps out to the desert daily to help people who are crossing this unforgiving landscape.  The Samaritan’s major mission is to provide humanitarian assistance to keep migrants from dying of dehydration.

They carry out two operatons – checking locations where they previously dropped off water looking for empty jugs or signs of migrants using the trail, and  since the desert is so vast they need to do regular reconnaissance of trails to identify which one’s are being used as well as how many bottles of water were used and left at any given time.  The group then repeat  drop-off’s at various locations along the way.

Sr.  Judy decries the US strategy of ‘prevention through deterrence’ where ‘urban areas were walled off and checkpoints were placed in such a way that people attempting to cross were funneled into the driest, most remote and brutal parts of the desert, far from roads, resources or possible rescue.  In other words, the US used the desert wildness as a weapon’.

Reflecting on her Desert Ministry, Sr. Judy Bourg said:  ‘her most joyful experiences are when she sees that water containers left weeks earlier had been used’.  Another special poignant memory, she said , ‘is when  she found the words ‘muchas gracias’ carved in the dirt in large letters’.

After years of advocating for migrant rights, Bourg said, ‘I find this direct humanitarian action in the desert tangibly rewarding.  I believe that through the simple action of carrying water in the desert, suffering is being reduced and lives are saved’.

From January to June 2018 the number of migrants deaths (i.e. recovered remains) in Arizona stood at 56. From 1998 to 2017  more than 7,200 have lost their lives.

See also Meet A Woman of Our Times


(There are quite a number of organisations that carry  out similar operations with a common mission, sometimes on their own and at other times collaboratively).


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