Immigrant Stories: Working with refugees at a detention center in Texas
Intro: Local attorney Claire Noone has seen a lot in her 30 years, because she has always been compelled to do what she can to help others. In college, she was assisting the war widows of Bosnia and Serbia. Today, she has just returned from the detention center in Brownsville, Texas, where she was assisting the refugee families and children of Central America.
Gallacher: What was it that motivated you to become a lawyer?
Noone: When I was in college, I was living and working in Bosnia with genocide survivors, helping them develop their economic sustainability. I felt like I was doing good work. But one day, we were walking down the street and a woman I was with suddenly bowed her head and looked away. I saw a man pass by, across the street, and I said, “Who was that? Why did you just react like that?” And she said, “Well, that’s the man that killed my husband.”
So, at that moment, I realized how crucial justice is to every kind of healing and every kind of growth. The laws we create and the justice that we hold each other to is, for me, the fiber that holds together society. So I applied to law school at the University of Denver.
Gallacher: So it was your experience in Bosnia? Tell me about your time there.
Noone: I was in a study-abroad program in Bosnia. There were eight of us, and we lived in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. We were doing a post-cultural, post-war transformation study.
When we lived with the Croats, they would say, “Oh, don’t trust the Serbs or the Bosnians.” And then when we lived with the Serbs, we heard, “Don’t trust the Croats or the Bosnians.” I learned how we all are the same, there’s no one that’s inherently evil and no one that’s inherently good.
I did my thesis on Bosnian electoral politics, and returned to Bosnia as a peace fellow. That’s when I actually worked intensively with genocide survivors.
Gallacher: Where does that come from, your motivation to focus on those less fortunate?
Noone: I grew up in a family that was always very active in providing things for community. When I’m doing the kind of work I do, I feel like a river of energy is flowing through me and pulling me forward. It’s the closest to a religious experience I’ve had. I truly feel like I’m just following some great current. And the times when I feel most helpless and overwhelmed is when I am out of that current.
When I’m just studying in a classroom, separate from actual work, or when I’m unwell and I can’t be present, I find that, through action and through movement, I experience a kind of self-healing.
I have been so lucky to know the women of Bosnia. Even after losing their homes, their families, everything they knew before, they still find a way to laugh. Their indomitable spirit lifts me up. Just like the children in the refugee detention centers in Texas.
Gallacher: Tell me a story of a woman from Bosnia that illustrates your point about how war is devastating but doesn’t kill your spirit.
Noone: Well, I worked with a group of women that had lost everything in the war. Their sons and husbands were killed, and they were sent to Tuzla, the nearest Muslim territory. That’s where they remain to this day. They have not been welcomed back to the home that they had to flee.
The woman who emerged as the leader of the group was Beba. Beba realized that she and the other women had to have something meaningful to do. So she told the women, “If we can sit, we can knit.” She got aid organizations to donate yarn, and the women began knitting together. Knitting became a form of healing and an identity. They’ve been doing that for years.
Gallacher: Do you have a similar story from your time in the refugee detention center in Tornillo, Texas?
Noone: I worked with kids who are fleeing from what’s called the Northern Triangle, which is Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador. And as you probably know, most of the cocaine in the world is grown in South America, and the biggest market is North America, so smuggling channels of the drug trade run through these very narrow, very small countries, and the people in these countries just have no way of dealing with it.
Most of the kids I worked with were fleeing the gangs that have flourished with the drug trade. Most of them are between the ages of 10 and 18, which is the most dangerous time. They call it the “hot zone,” The boys are used for enforcement and transportation of the drugs. The girls are used for corner sales and many are forced into the sex trade.
The kids say gang members wait outside their school, or come to their homes, bang on the door and say, “You either join us or you’re against us, and we will kill you.”
And so they flee. The whole family would come if they could but the cost of the trip has ballooned to a point where it takes everything a family has to send one individual. It used to cost about $2,000 to make the journey, and that accounted for hiring a coyote to guide you and help you cross the U.S./Mexico border, train travel, bus travel, and bribes that needed to be paid. But now it costs around $9,000.
There really is no safe future for children in the Northern Triangle. It’s been called the most dangerous place in the world that is not an active war zone. The highest murder rate in the world jumps between Honduras and El Salvador every year.
When the children arrive at the detention centers, they have a genuine and heartfelt hope that the worst is over. Many of the kids are relieved. They have food. They have a roof over their head. And even if they are kept in cold rooms without blankets, at least they are not being shot at. So they’re probably thinking, “OK, this might be bad, but it’s not as bad as where I came from.”
I think our government really underestimates what’s pushing these kids to leave their homes. I had one young woman whose eight brothers had been murdered. She was the only sibling remaining.
Midway through the interview I remember asking her about her family and she said, “Well, I used to have family but the gangs killed my father and my eight brothers and my mother passed.”
She was about 35, and she came with her pre-teen daughter. She had left her other children with friends and was attempting to save the child who was most likely to be killed or recruited.
Gallacher: From our vantage point, it looks like they are being irresponsible parents putting their children in harm’s way. But when you hear the backstory you understand that she couldn’t bring the whole family. She had to get out of there with …
Noone: The most vulnerable, the one receiving the direct gang threats, the one who had a gun pointed at her head at school.
Gallacher: Do you hear reverberations from your Bosnian experience?
Noone: Definitely. I mean, it is one of the common threads of humanity, that violence comes into the lives of civilians, people that do not seek it, people that do not embrace it, people that would rather live peaceful lives with their families, working good, honest jobs and just being good people.
But sometimes, even when you do follow the rules, even when you are good to people, even when you go to church, even when you try not to make too much of a fuss, war and rampant violence still comes to your town and there’s no protection. There is no discrimination. It comes to everybody.
It happened in Bosnia during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and it is happening in Central America in 2019. When someone else has a gun, and they’re holding it against you, threatening your family, all other differences go away. We are all so similar. We all handle it exactly the same way — we get into protection mode and survival mode, and we do whatever it takes to save ourselves and our loved ones.
America is a complicated and difficult place, but I am so proud to be a citizen of a nation where people in trouble run to us. Regardless of our foreign policy, of our gun violence, regardless of all of that, we are still a country where people seek refuge in a storm. I take that very seriously as a citizen, and I want to uphold that incredible honor that tradition has brought to us.
I interviewed this one little boy who had made the journey from Guatemala, all by himself. Both of his parents had been murdered, and he didn’t speak a word of English. He was just following a group of older boys who had befriended him. It warmed my heart to see how well they looked after this little guy.
Someone had taught him the Pledge of Allegiance in English along the way, and he was able to recite it for me. He did it perfectly all the way through. I got the impression that he was saying, “This is where I want to plant my flag. I want to add to this society. I want to add to this economy, this country. I want to be one of the strengths.”
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