A grey, three-footed Mexican rescue cat named Tiny bats innocently at the frayed end of a dirty white rope. At the other end of the rope is a noose. The rope is one of many artifacts Shura Wallin has recovered from the Sonoran Desert between Green Valley and the U.S. Border with Mexico during her forays there to deliver life-saving containers of water.
With Randy Mayer, pastor at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Wallin co-founded Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans. The group not only delivers water containers to the desert, but works to bring safe passage to border crossers seeking asylum north of the Mexico border. Wallin’s personal mission also is to educate others about the plight of migrants, and why they risk their lives crossing the desert.
Wallin lived in Berkeley, California, for 28 years and was a co-founder of the nonprofit Dorothy Day House, a volunteer-based organization that provides food, shelter, and employment to those in need. In 1996, in recognition of 14 years of tireless dedication, the City of Berkeley chose her as one of its “Outstanding Women of the Year.”
When she moved to Green Valley 20 years ago, she read an article about Humane Borders, a local organization that works to prevent human death from dehydration and exposure in the borderlands by operating a network of 55-gallon water stations across the desert. She began volunteering with them.
Migrants from Mexico seeking employment and economic improvement have illegally crossed the border for decades. Increased dangers from drug cartels, gang activity, crop failure due to climate change leading to poverty, and political issues have led to a recent upswing in recent years of Central and South Americans fleeing to seek asylum or entry across the U.S. southern border. Hundreds never complete their journeys, dying in the desert from environmental dangers, or becoming lost or injured. Wallin has come upon more than one set of human remains.
Frequently finding water tanks that have been riddled with gunshot or the spigots left open to drain the water disheartens Wallin. She’s found cases of water bottles left for travelers, where not one bottle was opened. But, the bottles were empty, having been slit on the bottom.
Once, en route to Arivaca on the road to Sasabe, she stopped at a water tank and found the noose hanging in a nearby tree with a message, “Don’t Come Here.” Such messages and threats come from citizens who do not agree with providing humane assistance for migrants. “I don’t understand that mentality even for five seconds. The viciousness of that mentality, so many cruel things bother me. It’s mind-boggling,” says Wallin from her Green Valley home.
Pint-sized and thin as a rail, at age 78 Wallin hardly appears able to lead the busy life of an activist. Yet she says she’s never experienced any fear in doing what she does.
“You deal with it in yourself. You try to understand what is going on in their mind. Lots of times, that’s hard for people,” she says of those who fear or threaten migrants. “On the other hand, looking at the Holocaust, how many people do you know that want to leave their country, their family? Try to imagine yourself in that position. If you approach it like that, you begin to see other nuances and recognize the humanity in each person and in yourself.
“If you were watching your child starve to death, you would do anything. I’ve met thousands of people like that. They are no different from us. It’s necessary to not start hating others. Hate agitates yourself and others around you. When people only look for difference, that’s when the blood bath starts.”
Besides Humane Borders, Wallin has worked with Tucson Samaritans and No More Deaths. After a Border Issues Fair held in Green Valley in 2005, a sign-up sheet netted 350 interested area volunteers. That led to Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans formation. Its volunteers patrol the many migrant trails that crisscross the desert south of Green Valley on both sides of the Interstate 19 corridor.
Wallin focuses her work these days on the Mexican side of the border, where the Samaritans assist migrants deported from the United States. They join Jesuit priests and the Sisters of the Eucharist who run a kitchen in Nogales called El Comedor, established by the Kino Border Initiative and operated daily to feed a daily average of 300 migrants waiting on that side of the border.
There or at shelters located throughout the community she works with children to teach English, encouraging them to draw pictures and tell their stories, or just to giggle and laugh like children. “I have such love for these people and the children,” Wallin says. “When they see me coming, they come running to me and I pick them all up in my arms.”
She compares the scores of drawings she has collected from migrant children with those in the book, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942–1944,” compiled after World War II by Czech art historian Hana Volavková. “Those drawings are no different from what these children have drawn,” says Wallin.
People from across the country come to Wallin’s Green Valley home to listen and learn about border issues. “My name is out there,” she admits. She shares some of the artifacts she has collected in the desert: the noose, a faded scarf trimmed in hand-crocheted lace, cloth tortilla wrappers embroidered with endearing phrases, a child’s backpack with an empty water bottle and roll of toilet paper, articles of clothing. “We talk about why they would leave these items behind.”
She takes these groups to the comedor and cemeteries to show them what’s happening. She always ends the exchange by sharing a stanza from “The Cry of the Children” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She says it evokes images of what she sees every day with the migrants.
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, —
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows;
The young birds are chirping in the nest;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west —
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
Wallin remains deeply focused on the core mission of the Samaritans — saving lives in the desert, one at a time. “Nothing is more sacred. Moral laws have to take the high ground.
“We do the best we can do, that’s all you can do. I know we’ve saved a lot of lives, by the fact we put out water. As long as I am able to do this, I will continue to do this work.”