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Water drop in the Sonora desert in southern Arizona

Post by Pamela Yates, January 16, 2019

Oona Holcomb is 39 years old, a masters degree student in Public Health with a global perspective at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, Minnesota and the first defendant to testify in the trial of No More Deaths volunteers here in Federal Court in Tucson, Arizona. Oona believes in providing direct humanitarian aid, in providing water and food so that no migrant suffers and dies in pursuit of a better life for themselves. “I felt compelled to come here for weeks, for months in the summer, for three summers running as a volunteer with No More Deaths.” In July, 2017 she was again called by No More Deaths colleagues alerting her that there was a dire situation unfolding. More and more migrants were dying in the desert because of soaring temperatures and the remoteness of their crossing near Ajo, Arizona. Dead migrants were being found on a a daily basis.  It surpassed anything that the volunteers had seen before.

No More Deaths is an organization founded in 2004, by a coalition of groups working in the sanctuary movement, including the Samaritans. The Samaritans were mainly older retirees who did water drops, but as the gravity of the migrant’s plight intensified, they wanted to have a 24/7 presence in the desert. They wanted to penetrate deeper and deeper into the migrant trails – nearly 2000 miles of them – running from Mexico into southern Arizona. So they looked to young volunteers and formed a new organization, No More Deaths to set up a camp in the desert to be proximate to where the migrants were actually crossing. The young volunteers could withstand walking 10 and 12 miles a day in the intense heat and make their water drops count where they were most needed.

The work delivering water and food far off road in one of the most rugged and remote landscapes Oona had ever seen was grueling. With heat regularly in the triple digits, it was exhausting and disorienting, yet she felt called. She and the other volunteers would write messages to the migrants, messages like “suerte’ (good luck), and ‘vaya con díos’ (go with god).  When asked what she meant by “good luck” she replied, “Good luck with surviving and thriving.” Oona wanted them to know that she was there with them.  

On the stand, to a hushed courtroom, Oona described, “How a quiet happens out there. There are intense feelings when we come across empty water containers, when we see migrants’ clothing abandoned in the desert, we feel their presence. We wonder, where are they? Are they okay? We come across small altars that they’ve made and we feel like we are in a shared space. It feels sacred.”

Day 3 of the trial continues today with the other 3 defendants set to testify. A verdict is expected today or tomorrow. Later today I’ll be writing about the US government’s case against the No More Death volunteers.  

Paco de Onís

Paco is the Executive Director and Executive Producer of Skylight, a human rights media organization dedicated to advancing social justice through storytelling by creating documentary films and media tools that can applied in long-term strategies for positive social change.

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