Pancho Ocholea and Linda Hirsch offer supplies to a young mother and child in Nogales, Sonora. Photo by Kathi Noaker

Voices from the Border (VFB) has been tending to the medical and humanitarian needs of asylum-seekers and residents in Nogales, Sonora for the past 2.5 years. Several days each week, their refurbished ambulance, ‘La Cristina,’ was a familiar sight at the various shelters and gathering places near the border.

But the situation at the US-Mexico border has changed greatly since the onset of COVID-19. In March, the Trump administration halted the asylum process, leaving hundreds of families to choose whether to return to sometimes dangerous homelands, move to new regions, or stay on in Nogales as residents, unable to move forward.

Due to the spread of the virus and the lack of adequate personal protective equipment, the core Sonoran Migrant Services team of Nurse Francisco (Pancho) Olachea Martin and Kathi Noaker curtailed their frequent medical visits. They could no longer dispense medications or advice, or help sick patients connect with adequate medical care. Other volunteers stopped crossing the border as well.

Throughout the spring and into the summer, Noaker and Olachea did what they could from a distance. Noaker outlined the daily work: “Pancho spent (and still spends) a lot of time on the phone and on WhatsApp, talking, counseling, supporting, and doing telemedicine. And we took many trips to the Oxxo [Store] every week to transfer money to the families for all their needs, including food and daily necessities, doctor appointments, medical tests, medicines, etc.”

The third Migrant Services team member, Linda Hirsch, solicited masks for the migrants. “In the spring, through connections with good friends, we had an amazing response to our ‘asks for masks’ shout out. We received hundreds of cloth masks and two dozen N95 molded masks, plus some face shields.” Donors purchased bakery equipment to enable a migrant shelter to better feed its guests. There have been many good deeds, and the needs continue to grow.

In late summer, the team began visiting Nogales once a month. On August 23, Hirsch joined Olachea and Noaker to spend the day checking in with those they had been supporting.

“Although it was certainly different than before – masks, the stress of making sure everyone was social distancing, and constantly reminding each other to hand-sanitize – it was still wonderful for the three of us – Linda, Pancho and Kathi – to be working together again and to see so many migrants that we’ve been working with since and before COVID. But it was REALLY hard not to hug everyone,” Noaker said.

In a special fundraising effort, the Board and supporters paid for a major operation earlier this month for a woman whose health was in grave danger. According to the recent newsletter, “the organization is currently providing safe, clean transitional housing to two families who are trying to make a go of it in Nogales, where basic pay in a “maquila” (factory), if you can get the work, is a little over $10 per day.” They hope for the time when they can continue the asylum process.

One of the mothers expressed her gratitude in the newsletter: “For now, we can sleep in peace, even though we have been through some terrible times being cold and hungry and a lot of discrimination from a lot of people. The rents are so high…We know that times are not perfect. We have learned a lot in the middle of this pandemic. We can never forget the help that you brought us for medical attention and the help you give by buying our bordados (embroideries some asylum-seekers make to sell in a partnership with the organization Artisans Beyond Borders). And now thanks to this safe place to live, we’ve been able to enroll our kids in the internet school so they can continue their studies from home.”