Mothering on the Borders

Yifat Susskind stands at three of the world’s most militarized borders and reflects on what is revealed about these zones of separation and violence when we see them from the perspective of mothers.

Yifat Susskind | Longreads | April 2019 | 17 minutes (4,193 words)

 
When my sons were younger, I remember explaining to them the difference between real and imaginary. Their dreams and nightmares weren’t real; you couldn’t see or touch them. The stories in their books weren’t real; I soothed their worries about monsters coming to life by assuring my boys it was all just imaginary.

Those conversations have surfaced in my mind as I’ve been thinking about borders; these made-up lines etched across the Earth by the powerful to hold their power in place — lines that are imaginary at first and then all too real.

Just look to the killing field that Israel has sown around Gaza, imprisoning people on a spit of land so ruined that it will soon be uninhabitable. It’s over one year since people there rose up to stage on-going protests against the occupation that has ruined lives and destroyed communities.

There’s also the US-Mexico border in Arizona, cutting across the land of the Indigenous Tohono O’odham People, now thick with the apparatus of state violence: cameras, fences, drones, guns, jails. Or the line that was drawn to divide Korea, now the world’s most militarized border, stuck with the Orwellian designation DMZ, for “demilitarized zone.”

As the director of MADRE, an international women’s rights organization, I’ve spent time recently at each of these borders, with feminist peace activists and Indigenous women leaders. In each place, I listened as women described what it’s like to be trapped by borders, as mothers told of their responsibility for the survival and peace of mind of their children in these zones of hostility and violence, loss and separation.

To see the world through the eyes of those who are responsible for its most vulnerable people: that’s what it means to work from the perspective of mothers. When we do this, we understand anew the issues that drive migration and border brutality — and the solutions needed to address them.

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Palestine: Motherhood under Siege

I grew up with a story about the food in Aleppo, Syria. My grandmother would recount a meal to me, the best she’d ever eaten, as I looked down at the plain boiled chicken and clumps of white rice on my plate: the sweetest tomatoes, the greenest olives, the endless variety of salty white cheeses, the crispy roast lamb and pistachio kibbe, the rich desserts scented with orange blossom and honey. We would sit at one of the long white Formica tables in the noisy communal dining hall of the kibbutz she had founded, called Evron. My father and I were born here, on land belonging to the Palestinian village of Ghabsiyyeh. From my favorite spot by the window, I could see the avocado fields, and beyond them, the tops of the hills in Lebanon. That’s where most of the people of Ghabsiyyeh lived as refugees, but I didn’t know about them then. They were never part of my grandmother’s story.

To see the world through the eyes of those who are responsible for its most vulnerable people: that’s what it means to work from the perspective of mothers. When we do this, we understand anew the issues that drive migration and border brutality — and the solutions needed to address them.

She was 19 when she ate the most memorable meal of her life in Aleppo, a stop on her journey overland from Hungary to Palestine. It was 1937, and my grandmother didn’t yet know that Europe’s borders would soon become deathtraps for the family and friends she had left behind. Or that the borders of the new country she was going to help “build” (in the Zionist parlance of her day), would cut her off from Aleppo forever. Her story always ended the same way: with a promise that peace would come soon, like a longed-for break in bad weather, and we would then take the train to Aleppo to taste its legendary cuisine.

That was my favorite part of the story — not the idea of peace, which I knew I should wish for, yet couldn’t imagine, — but the notion that it might one day be possible to cross the border.

Contrary to my grandmother’s fantasy, Israel’s borders have not become enticing gateways for visits to neighboring lands. They remained war zones throughout most of my childhood and are essentially war zones today. That’s largely because Israel has tended to treat its borders as temporary limitations on its expansion. If you watched a time-lapse of a map of historic Palestine, from 1948 — when my grandmother danced with my father on her shoulders to celebrate Israel’s independence — until now, you would see the shape-shifting lines of Israeli territorial control expand to nearly wipe Palestine off the map. Spend an afternoon in Hebron or Jaffa or Jerusalem, and you can watch this happening now, in real-time.

Israelis themselves became a people obsessed with borders: where they should be, who should be allowed through, how to control them. That obsession can be mobilized into political leverage, as recently re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted when he vowed to annex the West Bank and definitively redraw the lines of Israeli sovereignty — an 11th hour attempt to rally votes from the right for his beleaguered candidacy.

By now, Israelis have managed to barricade themselves in on all sides: the 25-foot-tall Wall to the east; the network of fences, checkpoints, and barbed wire between Israel and Gaza; the fence along the border with Egypt meant to keep out migrants from Africa; and to the north, a new cement barrier to seal off the border with Lebanon. These borders are famously fortified to keep people out, not least, the descendants of the 800,000 Palestinians that my grandmother’s generation drove from Ghabsiyyeh and hundreds of other villages in 1948.

But as William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That was the message of the March of Return that began last March in Gaza and that triggered a full year of protests: that the dispossession of 1948 and the occupation that began in 1967 continue to unfold daily for Palestinians who have lived under Israeli siege since 2007, when Israel imposed an air, land and sea blockade on Gaza.

The blockade has made Gaza into an open-air prison, one of the hardest places in the world to be a mother. It prevents almost two-million Palestinians from crossing the border to work or visit family. It has also deeply restricted access to the resources mothers need to care for people: food, education, medicine, essential services such as clean water and electricity, and any possibility of economic livelihood. The result is that today, nearly 80 percent of Gazans depend on humanitarian aid, and over half live in poverty. Mothering in Gaza has become even harder since the Trump Administration made punishing cuts to US funding for humanitarian aid.

Beginning March 30, 2018, Land Day, a group of young Palestinians spearheaded ongoing protest along the massive network of electric fences, barbed wire, surveillance systems and shoot-to-kill zones that we call the Israel-Gaza border. As is often true of popular, peaceful protest, this was a family affair, with space for participation, voice and leadership from women and girls, as well as men and boys.

One young woman, 21-year-old Razan al-Najjar, found her calling as a first responder, treating those injured by Israeli army gunfire and teargas. During the ninth week of the march, she was shot dead — a victim of indiscriminate Israeli military violence against protesting civilians, which the UN last month reiterated may have constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity. News of her death reached me through my friend Majda, who helped train Razan as a volunteer medic.

On the phone that day, Majda and I began planning to replenish the first-aid supplies needed in Gaza with a shipment in Razan’s memory. We talked about our own children and about the unimaginable heartbreak of her mother. Just one week after her daughter’s death, Razan’s mother donned a medic’s vest and took her daughter’s place caring for protesters at the border.

This is how I understand border militarization. Not as an abstract set of policies, but as a real and present threat to families and communities around the world. It’s what killed Razan, consigned her mother to a lifetime of grief, and keeps Palestinians trapped under occupation. It’s what strips people of possibility and turns them into second-class citizens, forced to navigate checkpoints in places as far afield as Arizona and Palestine. It’s what throws up walls, literal and figurative, between communities, and convinces people that they’re safer behind those barriers, even as they allow their own humanity to slip away.

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From Central America to Arizona: The Road to Refuge

The violence of colonial borders is well known to Indigenous Peoples around the world, including the Tohono O’odham, whose territory straddles Arizona and Mexico. Their land is ground zero in the resistance to Trump’s proposed border wall, projected to loom along 75 miles of these federally recognized tribal lands. As currently planned, the wall would cut people off from their families, sacred sites and ancestral lands. The Tohono O’odham language has no word for wall, and people here have no intention of seeing one built on their territory.

Last year, I traveled with an international delegation of six Indigenous leaders to the Tohono O’odham territory and southern Arizona. These women, from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cameroon, Kenya, and Nepal, have all seen their lands divided by colonial borders created to exclude and control. Yet they believe, as Eduardo Galeano writes, that “the world was born yearning to be a home for everyone.”

And so they came to Arizona, to demonstrate that migration is an Indigenous issue and to lay the groundwork for a global campaign of solidarity with the Tohono O’odham and with the migrants seeking refuge on their land.


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Over tacos and iced tea, in the concrete courtyard of the Puente Community Center in Phoenix, we sat in a circle of colorful plastic chairs, talking with families who had risked the treacherous journey across the desert, to the US. Each story was unique, but every person hinted at the longstanding US policies that ultimately made their home untenable.

Fabiana* born in Mexico the year that NAFTA came into effect, spoke of the trade agreements that bankrupted farmers. Ignacio made a wry joke about the US meddling that helped install Honduras’ repressive government (adding that it surely rivals any Russian operation in the US). Paola described the patrols of vicious armed men that mushroomed across the Salvadoran countryside as Washington waged its “war on drugs.” All of this in the wake of the US-backed wars and genocide of the 1980s, with their legacy of displacement and trauma — a burden that weighs heavily on those especially targeted, Indigenous Peoples.

Throughout the region, years of repression and instability have also produced epidemic levels of gender violence. For instance, during Guatemala’s 36 years of civil war, tens of thousands of Guatemalan women and girls were raped, tortured and murdered. These attacks — abetted by Elliott Abrams, who is now back in action as the US Special Representative for Venezuela — were part of a deliberate strategy to traumatize individuals and terrorize entire communities. Since peace accords were signed in 1996, the perpetrators have rarely been brought to justice, further normalizing gender violence.

This is how I understand border militarization. Not as an abstract set of policies, but as a real and present threat to families and communities around the world.

A 2015 report found that Guatemala has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world; the number of women murdered in the country has tripled since 2000, and with rampant impunity:in 2011 less than four percent of homicide cases result in conviction, and by 2015 the numbers had not improved. With no protection for those at risk and effectively no accountability for the crimes that have been committed, it is no wonder that so many of those fleeing to the US are women with children in their care.

Trump has seized upon the narrative of Central American gang violence, but not out of concern for its targets. Instead, he strips away any of this political or historical context and labels entire communities as “criminals,” demonizing the victims of gang violence that is part of the US legacy in Central America, and cutting them off from safety.

As families shared their stories, one other reason for leaving home stood out: climate change. “We could no longer grow food,” said Magdalena, a young mother from Guatemala. Shifting her four-year-old, Bibi, on her lap, she described the gathering panic of watching corn wither on the stalk. “Every morning it’s a little worse until you realize all is lost.” The parents in the circle nodded grimly. “After my daughter was born, we had less to eat every year.”

In fact, since Bibi’s birth in 2014, when the “child migrant crisis” on the southern US border began making headlines, a creeping “Dry Corridor” has cut through the four Central American countries with the highest rates of migration: Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. For all of Trump’s racist and self-serving talk of gang violence, many migrants from Guatemala are, like Magdalena and Bibi, fleeing the drought that’s been intensified by a century of US carbon pollution.

We said our goodbyes to the families at Puente and headed southeast to the town of Florence. There, we met with exhausted young lawyers from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, hard at work trying to reunite families separated by the Trump Administration. Their clients included babies as young as one year old and terrified Indigenous children, who speak neither Spanish nor English. No one had told them where their parents were or why they were alone in a strange place. I thought about the time I had lost sight of my son in an airport when he was a toddler. It was all of 10 minutes, but I can still remember the terror that lodged in the back of my throat from not knowing where he was and whether he was safe — and the relief that surged through me when I found him.

I climbed back into the van with my colleagues and our partners, and we immediately began to organize: planning a network of Mam, Tz’utujil, and Kaqchikel speakers to translate for people in detention, finding trauma counselors to ease suffering, and continuing our partnership with the Florence Project and with groups across the border to build a network of support for migrant mothers.

Later, I stood at the border, looking over the fence into Mexico. The hard-baked ground was strewn with discarded plastic water bottles, bits of small pink clothing, used diapers. It was punishing to stand in the sun even for a few minutes, impossible to imagine carrying a baby across that desert.

I thought of Warsan Shire’s poem, “Home,” where she says:

you have to understand,

no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days

and nights in the stomach of a truck

unless the miles travelled

meant something more than journey.

And I also thought of another arid landscape, thousands of miles away, where mothers in Gaza remain trapped with their children. They have little option to flee to a safer place as Israel’s border policies and economic siege render their homes unlivable. Young people in Gaza are especially vulnerable to the deprivations that occupation creates. It cuts off the fuel needed to generate electricity for water treatment or sewage management, so dirty water is a leading killer of children. Gaza’s economic collapse has meant that more than half of the people are unemployed. That number surges to about 66% among youth.

Some have disparaged mothers who make the dangerous journey north to the US or who would allow their children to take part in the border wall protests in Gaza. They have blamed Razan’s mother for permitting her daughter to do the dangerous work of a medic. They’re unable or unwilling to imagine that no one puts their children in harm’s way unless a greater danger looms.

***

On Motherhood and Marginalization

There are simple, daily acts of mothering — nursing, caring, healing — that carry immense power. These are the ways we show our children that they are loved and safe, and grow them into compassionate, capable adults. These acts of love are more than private, familial shows of affection: they are the way we help ensure the best potential of human beings. Every public policy should be oriented in support of that work.

Instead, parenting is under assault — at the US border and in so many of our policies and institutions. The Trump Administration has dehumanized migrants to the point where they deem it acceptable to kidnap and cage thousands of children. Or to take a nursing child away from their mother. Or to stalk and detain a woman as she brings her son to the hospital for his broken arm.

One of the more wrenching dinner-table conversations I’ve had with my sons was about how Trump’s “family separation” policy is only the most recent expression of this country’s white supremacy. We talked about enslaved black children, sold away from their parents for profit and to sever ties of love that anchor resistance. We talked about Indigenous children, abducted and sent to boarding schools to extinguish their cultures.

My sons are teenagers now; they already know of these atrocities, but I still sometimes have to resist the urge to shield them from these stories. Somehow, when you think your children are safe you don’t want to even speak to them of danger. But that option to protect my kids from the mere knowledge of US brutality is one born of white privilege. It’s an option that perpetuates racism and deprives our children of the tools to confront it. What’s more, the brutal world will always intrude. What safety could I promise my Jewish children after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh? We can’t hide forever behind white privilege, oblivious to both danger and responsibility.

Parenting is under assault — at the US border and in so many of our policies and institutions. The Trump Administration has dehumanized migrants to the point where they deem it acceptable to kidnap and cage thousands of children.

And of course, the option to turn away from hard truths is one that millions of mothers don’t have. The story of systematic and forced separation of families by the state isn’t only foundational to US history. It’s also the story of millions of incarcerated people in the US right now, disproportionately poor, brown and black people — and increasingly, mothers. Their right to mother and be mothered, to parent and be parented, has long been under attack. Many prison reform and abolition advocates were quick to point this out. During the flashes of public outrage against the Administration’s abuse of immigrant families, they guided people to see common and long standing policies of mass incarceration in the same light.

So, what comes next? We organize, to sustain that flash and turn it into an enduring, more expansive spotlight. We refuse to turn away. We join together to support mothers and activists who never grew inured to the danger because racist assault has always been a clear-and-present threat in their lives and who could never afford to shield their children from the truth. Anyone looking for ways to sustain resistance and action should turn to their wisdom, leadership, and solutions as a guide.

***

The Two Koreas: A Dream of Peace

Last May, I traveled to the Korean peninsula as part of a delegation organized by Women Cross DMZ and the Nobel Women’s Initiative. We were more than 30 women peacebuilders from all over the world, gathering to strategize with local women peace activists. For these Korean women, peace means erasing the arbitrary, impenetrable border imposed on their country by the US and the Soviet Union nearly 66 years ago. Peace means reuniting the families that have been severed along with the land.

“During the war, I fled to the south,” one elderly woman told me as we joined 1,200 other women in a peace walk across the so-called “demilitarized zone” along the border. “Then Korea was divided, and I never saw my mother again. My children never knew their grandmother. When you don’t know your grandparents, when you don’t know the place you come from, you are missing a part of yourself. Because of the border, everyone in Korea is missing a part of themselves.”

The peace walk was held on May 24, the day the UN launched a new agenda on nuclear disarmament. In Korea, the women told us, denuclearization is not an isolated imperative. It’s a prerequisite to the dream of making their country and their families whole again. And overcoming the nuclear threat, in Korea and everywhere else, is inextricably linked to taking on the culture and economy of militarism that holds so many of our countries hostage.

Militarism has seeped into the way we decide policies, approach conflict, deliver humanitarian aid, greet impoverished families seeking refuge at the border and set government budgets. Trump’s latest proposal for US military spending in 2020 clocks in at $750 billion — an increase of $34 billion over last year. Militarism has come to define our very identities as people and countries. Its power is manifest in a 1.7 trillion dollar an year industry (in which the US spends as much as the next seven countries combined) and a global infrastructure of nearly 800 US military bases in 70 countries. Increasingly, we’re seeing the tentacles of this monstrous industry wrapping around borders, in an explicit sales pitch to “[bring] the battlefield to the border” by installing military weaponry, surveillance, and personnel. In this globalized political economy, military research and development is subcontracted by the US to Israel, tested on people in Gaza, and then sold and installed to enforce border regimes in the US and Korea.

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Mothering and Migration as Acts of Hope

That architecture of separation on the Korean peninsula reminded me of the US-Mexico border that artificially divides the Tohono O’odham People. It reminded me of the restrictions on freedom of movement for Palestinians, with arbitrary checkpoints and military zones dividing families. Over time, this kind of separation eats away at the ties that bind people to each other and to their histories.

But the work of mothers to make their families and communities viable and safe, to meet people’s basic needs for health care, water, or schooling, also serves to build back the connections that create resilient, healthy communities able to imagine a new way of living, and to demand policy action to achieve it. That’s the deeper promise behind South Korean women’s lifesaving efforts to deliver milk, medicines and humanitarian aid to mothers in the north; behind mothers mobilizing across Central America to care for migrants and their children making the dangerous trek north; or behind Palestinian women’s organizing to support health care and food delivery.

The work of mothers to make their families and communities viable and safe, to meet people’s basic needs for health care, water, or schooling, also serves to build back the connections that create resilient, healthy communities able to imagine a new way of living, and to demand policy action to achieve it.

This work gives us all a lens to reconsider issues like international trade agreements, development, climate change, national security, geopolitical relations, nuclear weapons proliferation, and the military-prison-industrial complex. These are not only women’s issues — as women’s human rights activists have long argued — but also mothers’ issues. You don’t have to be a woman or a parent to know this. You only need to understand that the policies that govern the most pressing questions of our time require a fundamental overhaul from serving the powerful to protecting the vulnerable. And that is what mothers have always done.

When Trump announced the deployment of US soldiers to the southern border, shut down the government over billions in funding to build a wall, and even threatened to close the border altogether, I thought again of Magdalena, who fled the fatal realities of failed harvests in Guatemala. Trump would have us believe that it’s not climate change, but Magdalena and her four-year-old who are the threat. His diatribes against an “onslaught” of immigrants echo the Israeli government warnings — not of the inhumane conditions in Gaza, but of Palestinians protesting those conditions, threatening to “breach into Israel’s borders.”

In fact, at borders around the world, black and brown people are trying to escape conditions largely created by the countries that enforce those borders. Public support for militarized border enforcement depends on the demonization of those seeking safety and sustenance: the men are “rapists” and “animals,” says Trump; the women are guilty of bringing more black and brown people into the world.

Those of us inside of militarized borders, within zones of relative safety and wealth, have a choice to make. We can choose Trump’s fearmongering and seek the way of the “armed lifeboat.” That’s the choice to hide behind weapons and barbed wire to deny the rest of the world.

Or we can build a mothership that carries everyone, understanding, as the poet Alexis De Veaux does, that “Motherhood is not simply the organic process of giving birth… It is understanding the needs of the world.”

If we wish for more than mere survival, our best hope to overcome the crises we face — from climate change to militarism and beyond — lies in the bonds and resilience we build with each other, across borders of all kinds. If we understand that, we defend people’s right to have viable homes safe from war and disaster. We can confront policies of separation and occupation that spread misery and pain. And we fight with just as much fervor for people’s right to seek new lives across borders. Because migration, like motherhood, is an act of hope.

*All names in this section have been changed.

* * *

Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women’s rights organization. For more than 20 years, she has partnered with grassroots women activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities that meet urgent needs and create lasting solutions.

Editor: Sari Botton
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel