(A version of this essay was published as a Letter to the Editor months ago. That letter focused on Syrian refugees after the bombings in Paris. This new essay is published in the Santa Fe Literary Review (Fall 2016) and weaves together the experiences of Syrian refugees across the sea and Mexican migrants across the border. The final message feels even more relevant today than it did the day I wrote.)
Invisible Borders of the Heart
by Dawn Wink
The waves toss the boat from one side to the other. I know within the boat are many more people, much more weight, than the boat was designed to hold. My eyes scan the endless water on all sides in hopes of seeing land across its expanse. I’ve chosen to put my children and myself in this place, because my homeland has been destroyed, family killed, nothing is left of our home, but rubble, blood, the dreams it once held, and the memories of what once was and will never be.
A Syrian mother, children huddled at her side, peers out over the ocean. I read of the Syrian refugees and try to imagine the horror necessary to drive people to make this choice. I sit surrounded by food, electricity, running water, and home. I try to imagine a life so desperate to force people to leave behind homes, bank accounts, their entire world–and walk to the edge of a sea to climb aboard a small boat to head out across the water.
Half of all the pre-war population of Syria–11 million people– have been killed or forced to flee. More than half are children. We have all seen the photo of young Aylan Kurdi’s body on the beach, drowned along with his mother and brother. In the month following Aylan’s death, 77 more children that we know of, drowned. In the wake of the Paris bombings, voices rise to close the borders to Syrian migrants. It feels impossible to read of the tragedy in Paris, to look at the photos of those killed and those left behind, and not weep. yet, to imagine that the terrorist who committed the horrors in Paris somehow reflect the whole of Syrian refugees supports the terrorists’ wishes and perpetuals the tragedy. “I have many emotions running,” wrote Brussels resident James Wilson in personal communication. “We have refugees at the train station in Brussels. It is raining. It is cold. We are on a terror alert. But today is the first day of advent as we prepare to celebrate the birth of a Middle Eastern refugee in a cattle stall. We have to go with the heart and do what is right.”
A world away and closer to my home, migrants flee north across the once invisible border between Mexico and the U.S. “It used to be a slow time in Arizona when people from south of the border drove to Tucson to work and then returned home to live, a time when the US-Mexico line was a wire laying on the ground,” writes Kathryn Ferguson in The Haunting of the Mexican Border, “and we crossed the border like birds.”
The consequences of NAFTA and increased border security after 9/11 have been a deadly combination. The closure of the urban areas where people historically crossed pushed undocumented border crossers into desert and mountain terrain. This funnel effect is the main reason for increased migrant deaths, with over 7,000 human remains found since 1994. The rhythm of deaths in the desert borderlands continue unheeded in conversations around immigration, replaced with the thumping beats of helicopter blades as they “dust” migrants in the desert, lowering their helicopters close enough to the desert floor to kick rocks, sand, and cactus into people and force them to scatter. Separation can mean death.
The causes of these migrations are lost in public discourse around Syrian and Mexican migrants; instead the war drums beat with furor, hands and hearts drive by fear increase the violent tempo.
It is the invisible borders around our hearts that create the most tragedy. So much energy spent on keeping people out restricts our own ability to expand and allow love in. Invisible borders, through fear and hate, take shape in the form of barbed and iron fences that slither across the desert border, and shape the votes to deny entrance to Syrian migrants.
As we wrestle with what the future holds, with the calls to build borders around our country and within our hearts in the name of self-protection, it is our individual and collective potential and possibility that withers. Invisible borders bind and diminish the hearts and spirits of the people in whose hearts they live. May our hearts know no borders.
The waves toss the boat from one side to the other…
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