Thousands of asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, don’t have access to clean water. They have to use the Rio Grande for bathing, washing clothes and cooling off from the blistering heat. Migrants have developed skin infections, and some have drowned. But a group of volunteers is trying to make their lives better.
On a recent early fall day, men, women and children splashed in the Rio Grande to cool off from the 90 degree heat.
It was a peaceful scene and very different from what happened a few weeks ago when a teenage Honduran girl nearly drowned. She was bathing in the Rio Grande when the current swept her away.
She was dragged ashore, and dozens of people gathered around as someone tried to resuscitate her. Another asylum seeker captured the scene in a video provided to Texas Public Radio. Eventually, the girl was revived.
This scene inspired Gaby Zavala to spring into action. She is the founder of the Asylum Seeker Network of Support, an organization that assists asylum seekers.
“We decided to do a temporary solution to this problem, so that people don’t have to resort to going to the Rio Grande to access water,” Zavala said. “We decided to start a project where we would get clean water delivered to the place where they’re at.”
Zavala worked with Kelly Escobar of the Ohio-based organization Love Without Lines.
The team paired up for this project. Escobar handled the rollout of this project in Mexico.
“We get the tanks. We fill them up with water. We have bathing tents that we’ve set up. People get a bucket of water and a cup to wash with, and then we supply the shampoo, conditioner, soap, and they line up, get a bucket [and] go to the shower,” Escobar explained. “For some of them, it’s the first shower they’re had with clean water in a long time.”
These showers were available for asylum seekers about three times a week. People try to shower and collect clean water. If they’re unable to, they wait until the next time the showers and water are available.
The team also hired a few migrants to help facilitate the process. Henry, a migrant from Honduras, assisted the operation. He came with his teenage son. He gave only his first name because he feared speaking out might hurt his claim for asylum.
"When we got here at the beginning, repatriation would give us big water containers, and we would use buckets to bathe,” he explained. “But then, they didn't want to give us water."
Henry said he didn't understand why they stopped giving them water.
Delmer was also from Honduras. He also gave only his first name so as not to risk his asylum case. He came with his 10-year-old son. Delmer said they’re happy with this project and are glad they now have clean water because his son was having problems bathing in the river.
“We would take a bath in the river, and I started to notice that my son would start to scratch himself, especially in his belly button,” he explained. "He’d say, 'dad, I’m itchy here,' so I started to buy water, but I didn't have enough money to keep buying gallons of water so that he could bathe.”
He said his son’s skin would get extremely dry and he wouldn’t stop scratching. Delmer also said they recently saw a decomposing body in the river, near the area where they and other asylum seekers bathe.
“At home, I had clean water to shower with. I started to feel human again. In my country, even the pigs in the pens, they bathe with clean water. And that’s Honduras,” Henry said. “Here we had to go bathe in that contaminated river.”
He said he felt like a new person after his shower.
“With something so simple, you start to recuperate part of that dignity that was taken away from you,” Henry said.
Zavala said there are plans to eventually provide enough water that people can take showers every day.