NewsMar 14, 2019

Stories from the U.S.-Mexico border prompt professor to advocacy and action

Dr. Sylvia Cowan urges understanding of immigrants and refugees, rather than labeling.

Photo portrait of Sylvia Cowan

In February, sitting in a rural Texas detention center, Dr. Sylvia Cowan listened to the stories of dozens of asylum seekers.

One man escaped his country with his 15-year-old son who had repeatedly refused to sell drugs for a local gang. Then they witnessed gang members in his village murder a teenage neighbor who had also refused to join the gang.

Another man told Cowan that gangs killed five of his family members, and police did nothing.

“'You speak, you die’ was one of the slogans that one of the asylum seekers reported in his village,” Cowan said. “If I had been born somewhere else, that could be me. It’s a human thing to want to protect your children and keep them safe. I think those were the stories that really tugged on my heartstrings.”

upward looking shot of barbed wire on top of a wall
Cowan visited the U.S.-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, where she spoke to refugees seeking asylum.

Cowan, now an adjunct faculty member, directed our International Higher Education & Intercultural Relations master’s program (then called Intercultural Relations) for 15 years. She was prompted to go to the border after seeing news reports that, she believed, often painted asylum seekers in a negative light.

For years, Cowan, who is fluent in Spanish, has been involved in issues of immigration and justice for refugees. Most recently, she helped her congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Bedford, Massachusetts, become a sanctuary church — offering a haven for refugees at risk of deportation. As part of a committee, she also worked to form a coalition of 10 congregations and about 400 volunteers to help a woman in danger of deportation who currently resides at the church.

A long-time social justice advocate, the Atlanta native studied and taught intercultural relations and was involved with the civil rights movement as a young woman, attending rallies and marches and joining with students at historically black universities to fight for equal rights.

“Not everybody in my family was excited about me waving the flag,” said Cowan, who still speaks with a faint drawl. “They sort of wondered why they had this little rebel child, but they didn’t stop me.”

Civil rights then and now

Participating in the civil rights movement had a lasting impact on Cowan that has taken her all over the world and, in February, to Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.

Cowan and a fellow bilingual Unitarian and educator, Dr. Raquel Bauman, spent two weeks volunteering with detainees through the nonprofit Refugee & Immigrant Center for Education & Legal Services (RAICES), a partner of the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice, helping asylum seekers at the center in Karnes. The facility, surrounded by cow fields and oil rigs, temporarily houses 600 men and their sons seeking asylum.

Each adult must meet with a government official for a “credible fear” interview, to assess whether their request for asylum is justifiable or if they will be sent back to their country. RAICES tasked Cowan and Bauman with interviewing and preparing as many men as possible for the interviews.

“They’ve just come on this long journey, so they don’t really know the laws of the land and what the process is going to be. This is really to help them tell their story for the first time,” explained Cowan.

The pair listened to the men’s experiences and assisted them in accurately telling their stories and what to expect during the interviews. During the 11 hours they spent at the center each day, Cowan and Bauman also met with detainees post interview to explain their rights and responsibilities under U.S. law.

To the border and a bus stop

Following their stint at the detention center, Cowan and Bauman spent a few days on their own at the border between Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, where more than 1,000 asylum seekers waited at a temporary shelter in an empty factory on the Mexico side. With the U.S. government processing only 12 people a day, the situation was dire for many.

Mexican men in a orange clothes sit on a trailer behind an orange truck on the edge of a river
Mexican rescue workers monitor the Rio Bravo, where refugees crossing to America have been in danger of drowning.

The two then met up with RAICES again in San Antonio, Texas, where they helped people released from a detention center board Greyhound buses to unite with their sponsors.

Cowan and Bauman joined other nonprofits who handed out food and supplies and helped the immigrants understand their legal rights and responsibilities as asylum seekers, a process that is far from over once they leave detention centers.

“This is not just about them, it’s about us,” Cowan said, and supporting refugees is part of supporting “the values that we cherish.”

A cow in a field.
Although she couldn't take pictures inside the detention center, Cowan did snap pics of the rural Texas surroundings.

The two-week trip only solidified her belief that more needs to be done to “provide a fair hearing and justice for people fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum.

“I’m really wanting to share as much as I can from what I learned and from the people there so that we can find more of a human dimension for understanding the situation there, which is very complex.”

She and Bauman want to bring the refugees’ stories to the Boston area and plan to give presentations on their experience in Texas. They hope that “people can thoughtfully consider what the possibilities are and decide for themselves how they might want to act or contribute to the values that we as a country purport.”

Additionally, Cowan has begun to share a list of New England-based resources where people can begin to get involved in immigration-related needs and beyond.

“Working together, there’s all kinds of things we can do, but it takes a community to continue to ask questions and to continue to try to find the information,” said Cowan.