One woman mobilized her region to help migrants in limbo in Mexico
One woman mobilized her region to help migrants in limbo in Mexico
The young woman wandered alone through a dusty camp near the Rio Grande. A slight breeze had cleared away smoke from the morning cooking fires. Four men moved among the tents, picking up small pieces of garbage.
The woman paused when she saw Sandra Villarroel sitting on a concrete planter 20 feet away. In this camp of dark-skinned asylum seekers stuck in immigration limbo, Sandra was an unusual sight. She had fair complexion and pink hair pulled into pigtails. She wore a sweatshirt dyed turquoise, pink and blue. Slowly, the young woman moved closer.
Sandra did not notice the young woman’s gaze or her movements. Her mind remained fixed on a question. Sandra pulled up a sleeve to reveal 17 words tattooed on her left forearm: Proverbs 31:8. She had dreamed about this ancient verse: “Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, protect the rights of all who are helpless.”
Those words compelled Sandra to search for the most vulnerable people she could find. She ended up in this refugee camp, 1,600 miles from her home in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood, where she and a small team of volunteers had been delivering soap, shampoo, food and other supplies to people speared by trauma. Sandra had asked God, “Is this supposed to be my path in life?” She’d found pieces of an answer the past few days.
A quiet voice interrupted her thoughts: “Where are you from?”
Sandra looked up. The young woman stood before her, clutching a clear plastic baggie containing a muffin and two cookies. Dried dirt had embedded itself in every crack and crevice in her pink plastic shoes.
“I’m from Chile, but now I live in Pittsburgh, in the northern part of the United States,” Sandra replied. “Why?”
“I just wanted to ask you a question” the woman said.
“Go for it. I’m not charging for questions today,” Sandra joked.
The woman began her story. She had journeyed here from Honduras, she said. Her family there could not afford to send her to school, so she ended up on streets run by gangs. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, now 5 years old. She knows that when he turns 12 the Honduran streets will claim him, just as they claimed her. His will be a life of alcohol, drugs, crime and violence. Honduras is one of the deadliest countries in the world, thanks mostly to its warring gangs. She wants her son to have a better life. Or simply a life.
So she and her son fled north, hoping to enter the United States. When they arrived at the U.S. border at Matamoros, she said, officials sent them back to Mexico to await a March hearing. Confused and broke, she ended up in this sprawling camp near a bridge connecting Matamoros and Brownsville, Texas. It’s a haphazard collection of more than 600 tents housing an estimated 2,500 people seeking refuge in the U.S. Under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, they must wait in Mexico while courts process their cases. Sometimes this can take months.
“I would walk back and forth everywhere through the camp with my son,” the woman said. “There were times when my son would say he was hungry and his stomach hurt. I had no money and no phone, and I would tell him I’m hungry, too, but I can’t give you anything. And then he said he didn’t want to be here anymore.”
The son cried. He wanted to go back home to his grandmother. A relative sent the woman a cellphone, and the boy was able to talk to an uncle in Florida. “Come and rescue me,” the boy said to him. “I don’t want to be here. I sleep in the dirt.”
The woman, who said she was 22 but appeared much younger, grew increasingly desperate. The camp was dirty and dangerous. Parents worried about losing their kids to human traffickers and cartel members who walked in and out of the camp at will. Children here tell stories of kidnapping and rape. There is no security.
One day, the young woman heard rumors that children crossing the border alone would be able to stay in the United States — an issue often debated in camp. The idea stuck in her son’s 5-year-old mind. He hated camp life and said he was going to leave and no one was going to stop him.
She said he slipped away from her 22 days ago. He walked out of the camp and, alone, crossed the Gateway International Bridge connecting Matamoros to Brownsville.
Now he is housed in a facility in New York state, she said. She is able to contact him by phone. He tells her he has food, a bed and is treated well. But she misses her son and wants to be with him.
The young woman asked Sandra, “Do you think they will let me go across even if I don’t have my child, or do you think I can get a permit to be with my child?”
To Sandra, the young woman seemed lost and naive. Sandra told her that very few people were granted asylum these days. Then Sandra pulled out her phone and read from a government website explaining that people are granted asylum because of persecution, or fear of persecution, because of race, religion or other factors.
“What if I don’t fit any of those?” the woman asked.
Simply wanting a life free from the constant threat of gangs did not seem to qualify as persecution, Sandra said. (This was later confirmed by Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney at the border. “It’s not a viable claim,” Ms. Goodwin said. “And that’s a really hard conversation to have with mothers trying to protect their children.”)
Now the woman and her son were separated by 2,000 miles. Where would he end up? In Florida with relatives? In foster care? Would he be deported?
“You came here to give your son a better life. You succeeded. He’s already got a better life.”
Sandra could not answer but tried to be hopeful.
“You came here to give your son a better life,” Sandra said. “You succeeded. He’s already got a better life.”
But the young woman feared her son would grow up without his mother by his side. It was, Ms. Goodwin later said, “A 100% legitimate fear.”
Throughout the conversation, the young woman had maintained a polite expression. Now a tear came. Sandra rose to embrace a woman she could not comfort.
“I feel like I am dying of sorrow,” the woman said.
Called to serve
Sandra Villarroel was born in 1982 in Viña del Mar on Chile’s Pacific coast. She grew up in an abusive home and recalls beatings with wooden spoons, brooms and the cord of an iron. She suffered burns and broken bones. At times she thought she would be killed. At age 15, she fled her home to live with her grandfather. His death a year later left her homeless.
“In the beginning I slept on the couch of every friend I knew,” Sandra said. “I stayed around until I ran out of friends.” She didn’t want people in her hometown to see her living on the streets, so at age 18 Sandra moved south, to the city of Concepcion. Things got worse there.
Sandra slept under bridges, on park benches, on church steps. Wherever she felt safe. At one point she worked as a waitress and slept in an abandoned house. Normally she walked to the house after her shift, but one rainy night she accepted a free ride from a taxi driver. Instead of driving her to the house, however, he took her to an isolated spot, threatened her with a knife and assaulted her.
“In that moment I thought, if he kills me and throws me in a ditch, no one will know,” she said. “No one will cry; nobody is going to be sad that I died. I’ll rot here, and nobody will find out.”
Traumatized by the event, Sandra sought safety in churches, which were always open and filled with people. Once she visited a Baptist church and stayed for a worship service. It seemed the pastor’s message and every hymn spoke directly to her. She was invited to a retreat and accepted — it meant a bed and food for a few days. Soon, a family in the congregation offered to give Sandra a home.
The family — parents and three daughters — had little money. “They had a car, and we would go to church, and pretty much every Sunday we couldn’t make it home because of lack of fuel,” she said. “It became kind of a joke that we had to push the car back to the house. They were poor, and still they embraced me. They told me, ‘You’re worth fighting for.’”
Freed from daily worries about food and shelter, Sandra finally had an opportunity to think about her future. “Maybe I can study,” she thought. “Maybe I can get a job. Maybe somebody will love me some day, and I can get married.”
Sandra learned to use the internet and reconnected with an American she’d met in Viña del Mar in 2000. His name was Nick Petree of Hooversville, Somerset County. Mr. Petree, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, was stuck for several weeks in Viña del Mar after his ship, the USS La Moure County, ran aground off the coast in nearby Quintero. Before departing, he gave Sandra his email address. The two began a long-distance online friendship.
In July 2003, Nick returned to Chile to visit Sandra. “We picked up where we left off,” Sandra said. “I enjoyed the time with him the way I never enjoyed time with anyone else. I would say, ‘Nick, let’s go dance,’ and we would dance. He didn’t know how to dance, but we had fun through the process of him dancing like a robot because he’s stiff and me being my spontaneous self. And that’s what made us fall in love. We just had fun doing normal stuff together — getting a hot dog or going to the beach or just walking down the street, looking at other people.”
The two married in 2006 in the United States and eventually settled in Pittsburgh.
Once in the U.S., Sandra taught herself wedding photography and started her own business. Still, she couldn’t forget her past. “Every time I went to a wedding I’d spend the day happy and joyful,” she said. “Then I would walk out of the wedding and see homeless people on the streets, and I’d be confronted with my past and who I was before. I knew exactly what it felt like to sit on the ground with your hand extended, cold, hungry, begging for money to eat.”
She organized an effort to donate excess food from wedding receptions to the city’s homeless. She also assembled small bags of toiletry items — shampoo, soap, toilet paper, deodorant — and offered them to homeless women, whom she knew to be in need of items that would make them feel human. Inside each bag she included a note of inspiration. “You are worthy of love,” they read. “You are not your circumstances.”
Through Instagram, she reached out for help. Within a week, hundreds of people were dropping off toiletry items at her house. Her project needed a website and a name. Thus began “Worth Manifesto.”
In July 2019 she wondered, “Who are the most marginalized, vulnerable women in the country?” She could think only of the women crowded at the border in Mexico, hoping to enter the United States. Women comprised a substantial number of the thousands of asylum seekers awaiting the processing of their claims.
Sandra’s goal was to collect enough toiletry supplies to create 200 hygiene kits she could send through the mail. Once again, donations filled her house, enough for more than 5,000 kits — too many to mail. So in August she shipped everything as freight to Brownsville. She then flew there to distribute the items.
Conditions in the camp, which was much smaller at the time, appalled Sandra. People sleeping on the ground asked Sandra for pieces of cardboard they could use as beds. Many children were naked. They had no toys. No one smiled or made eye contact. No one wanted to talk. The place was devoid of laughter. Temperatures hovered near 100 degrees during her visit.
Sandra returned to Pittsburgh determined to do more. She set up 15 collection points throughout Western Pennsylvania so that individuals could donate items needed at the border camp. In addition, several Pittsburgh-area organizations, including No Crayon Left Behind, PA Connecting Communities, GIFT Pittsburgh and Temple Sinai, pitched in with donations and helped package the items.
Still, to Sandra, it wasn’t enough. She wanted to document the humanitarian crises at the nation’s southern border, so she reached out to wedding and family photographers she’d met and invited them to Brownsville to help with distribution and to take pictures of conditions in the camp. The pictures, she said, would be shared online and in a photo exhibit, to help create awareness of the crisis.
Five months after her first trip to the border, Sandra and Nick watched while five tons of supplies were loaded into a truck in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood. In a week, she was scheduled to meet the supplies in Brownsville. So much had yet to be done. “I hope everything aligns,” she said. “Here’s the thing: I’m not a planner, I’m a doer.”
Ideal meets reality
The morning after arriving in Brownsville, Texas, Sandra Villarroel waited nervously in a crowded coffee shop a few miles from the U.S southern border. “I’m freaking out,” she said.
Five tons of donated supplies would arrive in a few hours, and the Brownsville organization that originally offered to help distribute the items in the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, had changed its mind at the last minute. What would Sandra do with all the soap, wipes, crayons, shampoos, protein bars, toys and hundreds of other supplies?
She contacted another Brownsville organization and scheduled a meeting with its founder, who was now 90 minutes late because of a flat tire. Sandra grew increasingly concerned she’d been stood up a second time.
In addition to the supplies, 10 photographers Sandra had recruited to document camp life soon would descend on Brownsville. But at the moment, Sandra’s “Plan A” had fallen apart and “Plan B” seemed dubious. The stress weighed on her. She had spent months putting together this effort, reaching out to churches, synagogues, businesses, individuals and nonprofits. Boxes and bins packed with supplies had soon filled the garage of her Greenfield home. It was all part of an ongoing effort through her organization, Worth Manifesto, to help those stuck at the border and hoping for asylum. Now she was thinking, “Maybe this trip was a big mistake.”
Minutes later, a tall and energetic 43-year-old woman walked into the coffee shop, quickly identified Sandra and introduced herself as Felicia Rangel-Samponaro. She operated a sidewalk school for children in the camp. She apologized for her tardiness.
Sandra quickly explained her effort and the difficulties she faced. Earlier, she’d received a discouraging email from one organization that read, “The migrants have everything they need, they don’t need anything from you.”
Ms. Rangel-Samponaro shrugged it off. “They need anything that can be provided,” she said. “Don’t worry about that.”
How do we distribute the supplies? Sandra asked.
“We can work it out,” Ms. Rangel-Samponaro replied.
Ms. Rangel-Samponaro explained that a number of organizations were helping to provide for the needs of those in the camp. Many organizations, like hers, were operated by a handful of volunteers. No one is in charge of the camp, she said. It’s pretty chaotic.
“Let’s go there,” Ms. Rangel-Samponaro said.
Thirty minutes later the two women each slipped four quarters into a turnstile and walked across the bridge connecting Brownsville and Matamoros. At the far end, a guard waved them through a security checkpoint. They crossed a few lanes of traffic and entered an array of camping tents crowded together onto concrete walkways and medians. People in blue jeans and T-shirts sat inside the tents and peered out through open flaps.
Ms. Rangel-Samponaro led the way down a paved street, then up a set of steps to a walkway overlooking several hundred more tents set up on a narrow strip of cracked, dry earth near the Rio Grande. This was the bulk of the encampment. It stretched approximately a quarter of a mile in length and, at its widest point, measured about 300 feet.
The two women walked into the camp. Drying laundry hung from lines stretched between small scrappy trees. A man with a straw broom swept small limbs and debris from the compacted earth in front of one tent. There was no grass. The smell of sewage occasionally wafted through the air.
Ms. Rangel-Samponaro took Sandra to the camp’s health clinic, housed in a white trailer and operated by Global Response Management, an international nonprofit organization.
Sandra told the clinic’s executive director, Helen Perry, about the supplies she’d gathered. Ms. Perry was in the process of establishing a shelter that would serve as a safe place for children whose parents awaited treatment. Sandra’s collection of crayons, toys and children’s books would be a big help, Ms. Perry said.
The camp, she explained, exposes children to several dangers. First, there are the cartel scouts, or “hawks,” who come into the camp seeking children they can snatch for their sex trafficking operations. Filth presents another problem. Children and adults often bathe in the Rio Grande, which is also used as a toilet.
“A child goes out and gets a little scratch, then they go play in the river, which has a high E. coli content,” Ms. Perry said. “Next thing you know, they have a raging infection.”
In the rain, the situation worsens. “All this turns to mud and poo,” Ms. Perry said, pointing to the dry ground. “Then we see lots of gastrointestinal issues.”
While Ms. Perry spoke, a 9-year-old boy named Kenneth approached Sandra and showed her a crayon drawing he’d made of his house in Honduras. He said he’d lived in the camp for a month and had learned some English — the words red, green, orange and yellow, and the phrase “Hello, my friend.” But he was scared. Everyone was talking about a man who had raped a 6-year-old girl.
“How do you know what rape is?” Sandra asked.
Kenneth said he didn’t know what the word meant, but he knew it was bad.
Sandra Villarroel’s team of photographers and volunteers began arriving hours after her moment of stress in a Brownsville, Texas, coffee shop. By then, she had patched together a plan to distribute the supplies she had collected from the Pittsburgh region through her Greenfield-based organization, Worth Manifesto.
The team included photographers from Western Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and California. Sandra’s friend, Nicole Paladin, of Lawrenceville, took time off from her marketing job to help with organization.
The supplies arrived in dozens of plastic bins, which team members stacked and sorted in a house Sandra had rented. The next day, Sandra and the photographers, pulling carts and carrying backpacks, delivered their first load to the camp.
Their initial stop was at a black tent serving as home to Natasha, a 23-year-old trans woman from Honduras. Sandra had met her online. Natasha said she fled her home because of harassment and threats against her life. She walked for 40 days and reached the U.S. border in September 2019. After requesting asylum in the U.S., Natasha was detained for 10 days, then released in Mexico to await a June hearing. Sandra entered Natasha’s sweltering tent and offered her several items of clothing, a brush, makeup and a wig. Sandra knew Natasha was vulnerable. “Don’t lose hope,” Sandra said.
Next, the team hauled supplies to the health clinic and unpacked a rug, fuzzy pillows, stuffed animals and toys, then set up a play area in the shelter designated as a safe space. Once the work was complete, children rushed in, filling the shelter with laughter. One young girl held a mermaid doll and declared, “Muy bonita (very pretty).”
“It was like watching my children on Christmas Day,” said Pamela Velez, a North Braddock photographer who was part of Sandra’s team.
For four days, the team carted tons of supplies across the border and delivered them to “free stores” and organizations providing support for asylum seekers. After each delivery, the photographers walked through the camp, talking to adults, playing with children and taking photographs.
A few team members met one young girl from El Salvador who, while telling her family’s story, reached for her mother’s cellphone to show a picture of her aunt and uncle. Tori Stipcak, a photographer from Josephine, Indiana County, was shocked by the image — a gruesome picture of two bloodied corpses. The aunt and uncle had been murdered.
“Just to see this girl, under the age of 10, holding a stuffed animal in one hand and the phone with pictures of two dead family members in the other … ,” Ms. Stipcak said. “It’s one thing to hear their stories and to empathize with what they’re sharing with us. But it’s another thing to see an image of what they’re fleeing from. Especially this young child.”
Pamela Anticole, a wedding and family photographer from McCandless, saw dignity in the way people tried to maintain a sense of normalcy and community. Children chased scuffed soccer balls, men played cards under a tree, women cooked on stoves made of mud.
But as the days passed, Ms. Anticole understood the sense of “normal” in the camp to be a thin veneer over trauma, fear and uncertainty. She and others in the team met an 11-year-old Honduran girl named Yeleny who learned to hide in her tent every time a cartel hawk named “King” entered the camp looking for girls tall enough to be trafficked for sex.
“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t my normal,’ ” Ms. Anticole said. “The whole time I’m talking to people, hearing their stories, playing with the kids, giving them hugs, I’m thinking: ‘I get to go home.’”
On the evening of her third day in the camp, Sandra Villarroel chatted with a mother from Haiti whose 1-year-old daughter toddled just a few feet away. The daughter had six fingers on each hand, something the mother hoped could be surgically corrected in the United States.
By now, Sandra and her team had distributed most of the supplies she’d brought from Pittsburgh through her Greenfield-based organization, Worth Manifesto. It was a good time for her to hear the stories of the asylum-seekers stuck in the camp, just south of the U.S. border in Matamoros.
As Sandra said goodbye to the mother from Haiti and began walking away, a woman sitting cross-legged in a nearby tent with an open flap said to her, “I have a story, too.”
The woman said her name was Bea. She was 22 and her troubles began, she said, when she applied for a job as a secretary in her home country of El Salvador. She arrived for an interview only to discover the job posting to be a trick by a gang recruiting young women for a sex-trafficking operation.
Bea said no and left, but the gang now had leverage over her — information from the job application she’d filled out. They had names of her relatives, phone numbers, addresses. They called and left threatening phone messages, including this one: “We know you have a son, and we know who watches him when you’re gone.”
That message terrorized Bea. She had not mentioned her 4-year-old son on the job application. The gang was obviously following her closely and she feared for her son’s safety.
She hired a guide and, with her son, fled north. On the second night of their voyage, the guide took Bea to a two-story house in the Mexican city of Miguel Alemán. Inside were a number of men and one pregnant woman. The men were drinking, so Bea and her son went to bed.
Later, in the darkness, Bea awoke to discover a man lying on top of her. He pressed a handgun against her ribs and raped her while her son slept nearby. Bea struggled but feared waking her son — the rapist, she thought, might kill him.
“I’m not well. I’m not OK. All I do here is cry all day.”
The next day, Bea arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in Matamoros. She showed a border official the bruises on her legs, the result of her struggle during the rape. She was sent back to Mexico.
After settling in the camp, Bea experienced signs she was pregnant. A test at the camp’s health clinic proved inconclusive but a second was positive. Since then, she’d experienced bleeding, which she hoped meant a miscarriage. She does not want a pregnancy from the rape, she said. She was scheduled for an ultrasound at the clinic in a few days.
“I’m not well,” Bea said, “I’m not OK. All I do here is cry all day.”
Bea’s story shook Sandra. To her, it encapsulated all the problems faced by women in many Latin American countries — failing government and police agencies, gangs, exploitation, abuse without consequences and deep corruption.
At one point, Bea’s son bounded into the tent and handed his mother a few dirty coins he’d found nearby. “Here, here, Mommy,” he said. “Today you have money.”
In the face of these problems, Bea had little power, Sandra said. She lacked job skills and had no other place to go if denied entry into the U.S. In addition, no mental health care was available in the camp. All Sandra could do was say, “I’m sorry this is your life.”
She thought, “That could be me.” Sandra had made her own journey through broken systems, but she was lucky. Because a handful of people cared about her and saw her as worthy, and because someone loved her, she escaped the brokenness and arrived in the United States through a New York airport.
Freed from the suffocation of simple survival, she created a life for herself. She built a business, a home and an organization that helps others. She wondered, why couldn’t similar futures belong to Bea or to the young woman dying of sorrow because her 5-year-old son had marched alone across the border?
Delivering supplies is not enough, Sandra realized. Women at the border need education and empowerment. “Why not organize a school?” Sandra thought. If the women learned English they would better understand the immigration system, and they’d acquire a skill they could use the rest of their lives. If they gained entrepreneurial and business skills, they could build lives no matter where they ended up.
Once back in Pittsburgh, Sandra began working to make her idea a reality. She is now in the process of organizing the school. In addition to offering classes in English, she says, the school will teach women to make soap, jewelry or furniture — items frequently in demand, and for which materials are readily available. Still more classes will teach skills needed to start and operate a small business, and computer coding.
Learning such skills and putting them into practice “changes your mindset,” Sandra said. “The first time I bought my own camera, I cried. But it was not about the camera. It was because I had been able to work and save money to build my business. That was life-changing.”
Sandra also wants to provide help for women dealing with trauma they’d experienced in their home countries or during their journeys north. She’s reaching out to psychologists and psychiatrists and asking for help and advice.
“I know what I want to accomplish, I just don’t have enough knowledge to know how it will work,” she said. “So I’m in the learning stage right now.”
Photographs from Worth Manifesto’s trip to the border will be exhibited in Pittsburgh this summer.
Steve Mellon: email@example.com
Design and Developement Zack Tanner