I carry water in gallon jugs, one in each hand, and a backpack full of food, blister-care kits, and Ace bandages. As we walk, I cup my hands periodically and call out in Spanish, “Hello, friends. We are humanitarian volunteers. We have food, water, and medical aid. Let us know if you need help.”
We’re on a remote desert trail just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Arizona, volunteering for a group called No More Deaths. Our mission is to cut down the number of casualties in the desert—numbers that have grown steadily as the exodus of migrants from Mexico into the United States continues.
Some groups hide when they hear us, hoping to stay under the radar; others, usually the ones most in need, wait for us. Dipping into a ravine, I come face to face with a group of 20 men and women, crouched and sitting around a dried-up creek bed. I ask them how long they’ve been out in the desert, and then I begin handing out supplies. Our medic helps a woman with a badly twisted knee. These interactions are poignant and brief; the people we help are understandably weary and strained. A quick clasp of hands between us says all that my Spanish cannot say.
Although many No More Deaths volunteers are locals, others, including college students and retirees, come from all over the world. Some work at aid stations in Mexico’s border towns. In Tucson and Phoenix, volunteers work on advocacy and organizing. Other volunteers, like my crew, with whom I spent a month in August 2008, patrol the cactus-dotted trails twice a day.
Though the Arizona-Sonora desert is unforgiving, it is surprisingly gorgeous and, in late summer, full of color. The desert flowers are in bloom. Pillars of red rock burnish under sunset, and the canyons, riddled with nooks and crannies, seem deeper with every shift of the light. When I’m hiking the trails, it sometimes seems unfathomable that this vast expanse of quiet wilderness is at the epicenter of a refugee migration, but the starkness of the need of those I meet reminds me.
From Verge (Spring 2009), a Canadian magazine about studying, working, and volunteering abroad.