TW: Sexual Assault
When you walk into the shelter in Juárez, the first thing you have to do is sanitize your hands and the bottoms of your shoes. There‘s a small wooden table adorned with an assortment of plastic bottles just inside the door.
With 20 people, a collection of women and children all staying at the shelter, they have to take every precaution necessary to keep them safe from outside germs.
I grabbed the hand sanitizer first. Rubbing the cool liquid into my palms and all around my fingers. Then I started to spray off the bottoms of my shoes, as I’d been instructed to the day before, with another bottle of disinfectant.
K., the woman who brought us to the shelter, is always in high demand. As soon as we got there, she was swept away by one of the residents needing her assistance. Mel and I were left on our own, which normally wouldn’t have been an issue, except an older women approached us and started pointing at my feet - saying something in Spanish. I didn’t know if she was a volunteer or a resident, all I knew was that she was clearly trying to communicate something very important to me.
Had I not done it right? Had I missed a step? My heart began to race and I froze, not wanting to contaminate anything any further until I figured out what I had done wrong. Another younger woman walked over, who we’d met the day before. She’s 17, and we were told she’d just finished up her nursing studies. I looked to her for some sign as to what I should do. Her face gave me no answers, so I turned back to Mel. “What did I forget? Did I do it wrong? WHERE IS K.?!?” Mel was as lost as I was, and that’s when the young nursing student said, “She like... she like... your shoe... where did you get?”
The older woman then removed her own sandal to show me the hard plastic toe separator. Suddenly, we were speaking the same language because I HATE those too!!! I prefer the fabric kind that don’t rub against your toe pits. Yes, I said toe pits. It’s a thing! Ha!
Immediately, a wave of relief washed over me as I began explaining to them, probably in too many words for the younger woman to translate, that I’d just stopped at Walmart that morning, while we were still on the American side, to pick them up.
See, I’d come down to El Paso in a dusty old pair of Vans, I knew I should’ve packed my flip flops, but alas, I didn’t. And after traveling the streets of Juarez the previous day, my Vans had rubbed awful blisters on both my pinky toes.
Mel, my partner-in-crime, had been telling me for a month now that I needed new shoes since I’d been slowing her down at all of the protests we’d attended in May.
“My feet were just made for flip flops, Mel! I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Mel is sensible and wears sensible shoes, but I’ve never been sensible and flip flops are life.
I told the two women I would find her a pair next time I was at the store. I’m not sure if they were able to understand my words, but a few hours later we needed to go pick up some diapers for a family with a newborn that just moved into the shelter.
Because there was a recent outbreak which shut down a number of factories where people earned their livelihoods, Mexico is taking this virus VERY seriously. So seriously, that only one person is allowed in their grocery stores at a time. I told K. I could just give her my card and PIN number, but she said she’d feel more comfortable if I just ran in myself, so I did, even though I was completely incapable of communicating with anyone.
An officer at the front of the store took my temperature, squirted a dollop of sanitizer into my hands, and gave me a small paper number to use when I checked out - I guess to confirm I’d gone through the proper decontamination steps upon entry. As I turned the corner to find the diapers, there is was... a glorious display of my beloved flip flops.
I searched through the racks mad at myself for not getting a better look at the woman’s shoe size, before finding a nice comfy pair that looked like they’d fit just right.
When we returned to the shelter, I carried in the diapers and a few other bags of small knickknacks and toys we’d picked up for the kids. And then I saw the woman from earlier and remembered the flip flops! I was so excited to give them to her and she was just as happy to receive them.
We’d told K. about our funny foible early, and how that was the woman the shoes were for. Then she told me who she was. She was a resident of the shelter who had survived a horrific amount of sexual abuse and because of it suffered from Fistula. Fistula is debilitating, and the only other time I’d really heard much about it was in regards to women who’d suffered nearly lethal rapes in the Congo.
(You can learn more about Traumatic Fistula here: https://fistulacare.org/what-i
My heart broke for her. We might be walking in the same literal shoes today, but I can’t begin to imagine what she went through on her journey to seek asylum.
So many of the women we met had similar stories, some with (physical) scars more visible than others because “torture porn” is taking a hold in Juárez and these women have been subjected to things most of us in the states can’t even fathom.
But their smiles, flip flop discomforts, hopes and hearts are still just as real as our own. There wasn’t a woman or child there that hadn’t suffered seemingly insurmountable challenges, but yet they were all still standing. Still persevering, still helping those with whom they shared these walls.
“We’ve been given much so that we can give much.” That is the motto I live my life by, and it’s clearly a motto this amazing woman lives her life by as well, as she’s now helping care for others alongside those who care for her.