Dr. Jessie Davis volunteers for the Refugee Health Alliance.
PORTRAIT BY MICHAEL WELLS
“Am I not human?” The question, written in black marker against cardboard, is held by a Syrian refugee at hour 1:05 in activist-artist Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow. I pause the film, struck by the sudden weight of not only what is asked, but why it is asked. “Am I not human?” The profound and heavy question settles firmly in my consciousness, and I struggle to process. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this inquiry is that we live in a world in which this question even needs to be asked, let alone with such stark sincerity. The young man holding this sign appears to be in his late teens, perhaps early 20s. Yet, when I repeat this question to myself, different faces flash through my mind — faces of the children we have cared for in the Tijuana refugee shelters:
The 12 month old with pneumonia, skin pulling violently between his ribs as he gasped for air in May. When the pulse oximeter read 83 percent, our only option was to attempt to find a hospital that could provide him with life-saving treatments.
The limp, dehydrated frame of a beautiful 2-year-old girl who didn’t flinch when we checked her blood sugar in April. We were somehow able to bridge her with rehydration solution while arranging for transport out of the shelter.
The 15-month-old boy with a severe, invasive bacterial infection that enveloped his neck and face after developing chicken pox. The infection was so far advanced that he could no longer turn his head from its unnaturally forced position looking over his left shoulder. Medics in Tijuana refused to transport him because they felt he wasn’t “sick enough.” He required inpatient care with intravenous antibiotics for over a week, and it was that long before we knew whether he would make it.
“Am I not human?” Will these children someday carry the weight of this same question? Will they someday hold signs defending their own humanity? I shudder to think we may still be asking these questions in the years to come.
One wouldn’t instinctively think of an ongoing humanitarian crisis that was taking place just south of San Diego. I certainly hadn’t. But, after my first day volunteering with the Refugee Health Alliance (RHA), I began to understand the enormity of the situation.
Despite working as an emergency physician since 2017 and volunteering with nonprofit medical organizations since 2011, nothing in the last 10 years prepared me for the magnitude of trauma endured by those seeking refuge at the U.S.–Mexico border.
The dirt road leading to the shelter is riddled with potholes, empty plastic bottles, shredded tires, and small piles of burnt trash that are occasionally still simmering when we arrive. Stray dogs find shade under trees doubling as clotheslines, and emaciated chickens pick at scraps in makeshift walkways. Entering the shelter is like entering a different world. Bunkbeds line every available wall space. Blankets and sheets are tucked under the top bunk to create some semblance of privacy for the space below. It is not uncommon for a family of four or five to occupy a single bunk. During the day, thin gray sleeping mats lay stacked in any remaining space, awaiting their use. At night, children and families without a bed take turns receiving their mat, placing it in the middle of the unwashed floor.
Another woman clings to her young daughter, telling us she could no longer remain in Honduras after her father-in-law was murdered, her own father was shot and paralyzed, and her husband was assaulted. The breaking point came when she began receiving death threats for her daughter. While the conditions she currently faces are horrendous in themselves, she tells us she is grateful they are alive.
RHA is an incredible nonprofit organization working under immense pressure to provide as much support as possible to the continued influx of those seeking protection. This alliance is a bright light attempting to make a difference in the world.
Though most volunteers are local to Tijuana and Southern California, RHA has inspired people across the United States. Handmade masks have been sent from New York to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19, and medical supplies have been donated by friends and family in Colorado and Washington. After a mother shared how she dug through garbage searching for clothing for her infant daughter, I was amazed at how the Coachella Valley community pulled together in support. Clothing drives held by local hospitals, schools, and fire departments have helped clothe entire families. I remember a young girl playing on the floor in a stained, oversized long-sleeve shirt in June. The look on her face when she put on brand-new shorts and a shirt her size was unforgettable. Her mother thanked us with tears in her eyes.
When sharing these experiences, I am commonly asked how others can help. Aside from medical/personal donations and monetary support, which are critical, there is something more fundamental that we can all do — something simple and equally important. To truly begin to address the root cause of the suffering we continue to witness, we must recognize and understand that we, all of us, are in this together. As social activist Valerie Kaur so beautifully advocates, we must make an authentic effort to “see no stranger.” We must appreciate and value our shared connectedness. If we can come together, seek to understand, and endeavor to be kind, we can change this world and see each other as we fundamentally are: human. refugeehealthalliance.org/support-us