A chilly wind swept across the plain as Melinda Menzer waded into the waters of Lake Amistad, a vast reservoir near Del Rio, Texas, formed when the Rio Grande and the Devil River were dammed to flood the semi-arid canyon lands straddling the U.S.-Mexico border.
The closest point to the Mexican state of Coahuila was 5 miles away; Menzer, a professor of English and linguistics at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, would spend the next six hours swimming there and back.
Rivers and borders and swimming have profound meaning for Menzer. She exists, she says, because her grandfather was born on the East Prussian side of the German-Lithuanian border in 1907. The chance birthplace gave him the right to emigrate to the United States under German citizenship, which he did in 1925; the rest of his family, born on the Lithuanian side of the border, were among the 2,000 Jews in the village of Jurbakas murdered in the Holocaust.
“I chose Del Rio, and I chose Amistad, so I could swim through the border, to make real the idea that borders are fluid, and waters connect us,” Menzer says. “The people on one side of the lake are not different from the people on the other side of the lake. They are our neighbors. They are people we should care about.”
Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border was Menzer’s second swim to raise awareness of, and funds for, the refugee crisis. In June 2017 she swam more than 9 miles in the Tennessee River as part of the Chattanooga Swim Fest and raised more than $4,000 for HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. In Del Rio, she raised more than $10,000 for HIAS, which assists refugees of all backgrounds around the world, including those crossing from Latin America into the United States.
While her family’s history underpins Menzer’s passion for helping refugees, two striking images that became worldwide phenomena moved her to combine swimming with raising awareness. In 2017, she was moved by the photo of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Kurdish boy whose body washed ashore in Turkey as his family sought refuge. This year, it was a father and his daughter, Oscar Alberto Rodriguez Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter Angie Valeria, Salvadorans who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande into Texas.
“Like so many others, I was heartbroken,” she says. “I saw a father who wanted to give his child a life of safety and freedom, the life we are fortunate to live in the United States. When they drowned at our border, I knew I had to do something.”
Menzer, who grew up in Dallas, started planning her trip to Lake Amistad in June. She filled out the requisite forms and got permission for her swim from the National Park Service, which operates the American side of Amistad. No paperwork was required, she says, to stand on Mexican soil. But she stayed in ankle-deep water, because if she had gotten out completely, she would have had to re-enter the U.S. through a border crossing.
Like previous open-water swims, she had a support team of family and friends. She and her husband, Tim Rogers, and their son, Miles, flew into San Antonio to meet their older child, Delia, who attends Trinity University there. Her mother, Alice Menzer, drove down from Dallas with hand-knitted scarves for asylum seekers. Kevin Hicks, whom Menzer hadn’t seen since high school graduation, had learned about the swim from Facebook; he showed up from Dallas to paddle a kayak, as did Susan Schorn, a friend of Menzer’s from grad school at the University of Texas.
But many people in South Carolina warned against going to the border, painting it as a dangerous place where bad things were sure to befall her.
“We – people who don’t live near the border – see a line on a map and think in terms of us and them,” Menzer says. “The reason that I’m alive is because my grandfather was born on the right side of a line. I was born on the right side of a line.”
Refugees, she says, “aren’t bad people. They were just born on the wrong side of the line, and some of them need help, and we can help them.”
Friends back home were also worried she would be picked up by U.S. Border Patrol agents. On the contrary, a border patrol agent provided one of the kayaks her team used. His wife, Tiffany Zook, helps run the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition and had come to cheer Menzer on. When a kayak rental place was closed, Zook phoned her husband, who showed up with a kayak.
At the turning point, in Mexico, Menzer stood and held a banner with the HIAS motto: “Welcome the stranger, protect the refugee.” The funds she raised will bolster HIAS efforts in El Paso, Juarez, Mexico and San Diego, where they help refugees through the legalities of seeking asylum.
The winds had calmed as she swam back to the United States, feeling the gravity of the situation and her privilege as someone who was free to come and go.
“Coming into the U.S. is the hard part,” she says. “I’m coming home, but so many people get to that line and they can’t get across.”