KBI, located in the adjacent border towns of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, is a faith-based organization with a mission to provide humanitarian assistance for deported migrants and to protect vulnerable women and children from abuse and exploitation.
After the trip, Ms. Griffin shared her thoughts about the misperceptions and realities of refugees and migrants, the American mindset toward the issue, and the upcoming Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees tour with Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, and The Milk Carton Kids. The tour aims to raise awareness and funds for the JRS Global Education Initiative.
Question: What were your first thoughts when you heard about the refugee crisis?
Patty Griffin: Well, for me the refugee crisis started here earlier, because I live in Texas and just a few hours from me people are being detained for crossing the border without papers. And a few years back there were definitely people who were running from violence in Central America. And there were these stories that were sort of bubbling up about how they were being treated, including rapes, and children who were being sent back and being killed. As a Texan — I’ve lived there for about 20 years — the refugee crisis has been here for a long time. (Listen to the full interview below)
Q: How did you come to support the cause and the work of Jesuit Refugee Service?
PG: I approached my friend Gail Griffith a few years back. We had a conversation about what was going in in Texas and on our American borders (regarding migrants), and Gail ended up working for (JRS/USA as director of their Global Education Initiative) and was dealing with (this issue) specifically. And so, I have just jumped on board from there.
Q: Now that you’ve seen this issue first hand and visited the border, what are one or two things that stand out?
PG: The thing that stands out to me is – how these people are real. They are put in a position of, even if they make it here, they have to disappear. They’re human beings. I think because we’re so close to Mexico where I live, that really hurts as a human… I come from being not that far removed; I come from grandparents who were escaping poverty.
Let’s just forget for one second that a lot of these people are running from violence, which they are. But a lot of them are trying to get out of a vicious cycle of poverty. That’s also an honorable reason to try to cross the U.S. border and be treated with civility and dignity. And I come from that, I’m very close to that. I was raised by a parent that never let me forget that, that his parents were from that (situation). And I can’t ignore it.
Q: Has that feeling come in recent times or do you feel like you just can’t ignore it, and is that the challenge, to turn that into action now?
PG: I feel like I can’t ignore a lot of things anymore. There’s just been this sort of feeling of malaise and a feeling of powerlessness that I think maybe the whole country has felt around these issues that deal with the heart and decency and taking care of those who have less. It seems like for the last 30 years of my life this department in our country has been under siege – this area, this way of thinking about life, where everybody deserves respect. Somehow or another we’ve been told it’s not realistic or something to try to approach these issues and approach poverty and justice like it has anything to do with reality. And to me it’s the only reality. I had to get older to really understand that.
Q: You were talking about what has happened in this country and how we’ve become immune to caring about people, and where you think we need to be in that process.
PG: I came of age in the ‘70s — I was a young girl then. And a lot was going on – we’d been through assassinations and the Civil Rights movement … There was this sense that good can prevail, that you really can take care of other human beings (and that) there’s enough for everybody, including women, people of different races.
This country to me, through my experience as an adult, has slowly taken away things that made the playing field even for all of us. It says a lot about the mindset of where we’re at. With all the money in America, for example, to not (adequately) fund public schools to be the best in the world, that to me is a symptom of some way of thinking about people who have less.
If you have a lot and you’re not taking care of – or not paying attention to — those who have less and need help and are asking for help, if you’re ignoring that, you’re living in the Dark Ages. There’s no way to find happiness in a life that ignores that. There’s no way to find joy in a life that ignores that. So to me, the only thing to do is to try to find a little piece that I can do to help. And it’s a little piece — I know it’s a little piece — but it’s better than nothing.
Q: What struck you today, moved you today, surprised you today? What was your sense of what you saw?
PG: There were children at the comedor (what KBI calls their soup kitchen) and mothers, and the vulnerability factor really hit home. To bring your children to a desert in the summer, you have to be in a desperate situation. There’s no way that that is happening because somebody wants to take advantage of our welfare system. That’s (BS), sorry for the language. It makes me angry that there is a smear campaign about people who are trying to cross here without paperwork. They’re crossing with children — there’s some need that needs to be addressed here. It’s not a political issue, it’s a humanitarian issue.
Q: I understand you’re doing a concert tour this fall to raise money and awareness for the refugee issue. Could you talk a little bit about the tour?
PG: What we can do as musicians is raise awareness. We have a platform, we have a stage, we have certain songs that people want to hear when we go. So in order to get to those songs they’re going to have to listen to us talk about this (issue). And that’s part of our deal right now, because it’s important and we’re going to take advantage of that for now.
The purpose of the Lampedusa Tour, which is an 11-city tour that starts in Boulder (Colo.) and ends in Washington, D.C., is to bring together people from different age groups in this country — that was one of the goals in organizing it. There are multi levels of artists, as far as age and demographics go, and we’re hoping to reach out not just to our old tried and true people who always come through and listen to NPR; we’re trying to get to the younger crowd a little bit with this and to get them interested and informed. Emmy(lou Harris) and I have been fortunate enough to go out and meet people in these (refugee) crises and hopefully that will translate a reality to people seeing these shows.
Q: How hopeful are you that progress is being made to alleviate the refugee and migrant crises?
PG: I think that these problems are enormous. I think I’m seeing flickers of goodness and real compassion and good work, and enough of a shift. I’m hoping for a big shift in this country, and I won’t give up for a big shift in the U.S. on its attitudes toward this.
This is a humanitarian issue — it is not a political issue. These are real people with real needs and it’s not going to go away and we have to deal with these issues in a realistic way, and realism has to do with compassion. So I’m hopeful as a nation that we can see something turn in my lifetime, (but) I don’t think these problems are ever going to go away. But in the meantime, I’m doing what I can do.