MÉXICO, Reynosa — The American with a ripped t-shirt and kaleidoscope arms towers over the diminutive Catholic sister as he follows her on a tour of the migrant shelter in a Mexican border town.
He listens intently and respectfully. And then he responds with a gentle and lyrical Spanish of his own, before translating for his travel companions.
“They’ve experienced robberies and kidnappings and extortion. So they come here sad and tired and frustrated,” Bill Boegeman says after listening to Sister Catalina at Casa Migrante in Reynosa, Mexico.
Boegeman is in his element. It’s why he joined the Minnesota-based Alight on this humanitarian mission. He knew he could contribute by documenting the visits and translating for the team. But he also knew he’d gain as much as he’d give.
“It’s just pretty incredible what the human spirit can endure. You get to learn a lot about that down here at the border,” Boegeman said while driving back to Harlingen, Texas, after making several border stops.
Boegeman’s own connection
Boegeman began his humanitarian mission with specific stories – and students – in mind. As a Spanish immersion social studies teacher at Forest Lake High School, Boegeman leads classes that include newly arrived migrants.
“This year, I had four students from Honduras,” he said, adding, “I had a student from Guatemala. But in the past, I’ve had students from Mexico and El Salvador as well.”
The teenagers – many of whom traveled north as unaccompanied minors – quickly found support in the teacher who listened and could speak their language.
“I usually become a confidante for a lot of the newly arrived migrants from Central America just due to the fact that I’m one of the few adults in the building that speaks their language. And usually at some point of time, I kind of get a window into their stories,” Boegeman reflects.
Stories that astonished this teacher, almost as much as the manner in which they were delivered.
“You can hardly believe the words that are coming out of their mouth, in the composed manner in which they are. The things that these kids have seen and been through. And the journeys that they took – to get to where they are now. And so that’s always really resonated with me,” Boegeman said.
Seeing for himself
Boegeman is quick to clarify his week-long trip at the border – however intense and thorough – does not begin to compare to the long journeys migrants make from their home countries. But he does believe his southern border excursions provided an opportunity to visualize more of what his students have experienced.
“I’ve found them popping into my head a lot of times with things that they’ve told me, that I’ve just had to picture in my brain,” Boegeman said.
Among those sites Boegeman believes could have played pivotal roles in his own students’ journeys: a bus station in McAllen, Texas, where migrants arrive after staying at a detention center, a humanitarian respite center across the street that serves as the next step, and a shelter in rural San Benito, Texas, where migrants may stay for weeks or months, if needed.
“It has been pretty crazy to see their stories reaffirmed by what I’ve seen with my own eyes,” Boegeman said.
Perspective gained and encouraged
And with the opportunity to glimpse more of his students’ journeys – and even hear the stories of other migrants – Boegeman has gained greater perspective. It’s what he believes others should seek to do when considering the complicated questions surrounding the immigration issue.
“I think that listening to these stories is something that everyone should seek to do when thinking about this issue, because it’s one thing that’s really important to consider when you’re trying to figure out what you think about this super controversial topic in the United States of America,” said Boegeman.
And that’s a lesson this teacher himself has followed. He’s invited his migrant students to share part of their journeys with their classmates as part of the immigration unit in his Human Geography class.
And Boegeman also urged the greater community – in a Star Tribune editorial – to consider other perspectives, too.
Regardless of political positions, Boegeman believes the debate needs to begin with basic empathy.
“The empathy is there. And it’s first and foremost amongst the things that I personally am considering when I’m thinking about potential solutions,” he said.
As for those “potential solutions,” Boegeman acknowledges they’re elusive and challenging. And he’s even concluded that his experience on the front line complicated – rather than simplified – his own analysis of the immigration debate. But he has offered some thoughtful perspectives on a path forward, that he’s shared in his personal blog.
Finally, Boegeman – like other teachers and students throughout the state – is savoring his summer days while looking forward to starting another school year. But this teacher with the telling t-shirts and striking tatoos – who’s also, and amazingly, a professional wrestler – knows he starts this year with a greater connection to some of his most vulnerable students.
“A lot of times, they don’t run into people in their schools other than fellow migrants that kind of understand their stories or have personal connections to their stories. So the fact I’ll be able to have that now, I think will lend me an extra ounce of ability to connect with those kids,” Boegeman said.
And the teacher can even predict what he’ll say in the reunion: “Certainly among the first things that I tell them will be that I was there.”
For more information on Alight’s work on the southern border and how you can support their response to the humanitarian crisis at the southern border, click here.
And stay with KARE 11, kare11.com, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for this ongoing series of stories on Minnesota at the border.