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The Treasures of Trash

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They wait for the phone call. They wait to hear the voices of their loved ones, who have left their homes in effort to attain better lives in America. However, for many families that phone call never comes.

This harrowing truth is the backing force for Deborah McCullough, a mixed media artist, who collects and incorporates found items along the border into her artwork to commemorate the migrants who have lost their lives on their journey to America.

McCullough was born in Akron, Ohio in 1950 and was raised in western Maryland. She received her undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern history at a small liberal art college in Wooster, Ohio, and by her junior year she was studying in Beirut, Lebanon, working with the refugee camps.

“This was the first time I encountered the injustices of poverty and I wanted to take action to help others,” said McCullough.

With conviction to help the less fortunate, McCullough decided after college to teach at a girl’s school in Cairo, Egypt. Today her main focus is the border between the United States and Mexico.

“What really led me to the border work was working with the refugee population here in Tucson which I still work with,” said McCullough.

McCullough has worked closely the last six years with No More Deaths, an organization that volunteers its time to aid injured or lost migrants along the U.S. border and additionally has worked with Tucson Samaritans for the last four years.

“It’s very touching to me every time I come home,” said McCullough. “The contrast between coming back here and just an hour or two away knowing that people are walking, trying to get here to find work.”

Busted up shoes, aluminum tuna cans and plastic water jugs are items usually rejected as trash; however, these are McCullough’s canvases to create her artwork.

“We dismiss it as trash when really these are elements of someone’s life,” said McCullough. “Remember these were things they’ve had to leave behind.”

McCullough, not only finds “trash” on the trails alongside the U.S border, but many times she discovers little keepsakes that were left behind by passing migrants.

“When I’m standing at a place where people have stopped to either change clothes or to rest, that is where you find the handwritten letters, the embroidered pieces, and the little mementos,” said McCullough.

In the last six years McCullough has walked hundreds of miles on the trails that the migrants use to cross the border. Many of those times she has come into contact with traveling migrants.

“The first thing we ask them is if they need food or water and make sure they’re not injured,” said McCullough. “We never ask them where they’re from or where they’re going.”

Many times she finds migrants who have gotten separated from their group or are lost and want to give up.

“At this point they know we can’t take them and they know they can’t go forward so they want us to call the border (patrol),” said McCullough. “Lots of times they go back to Mexico to rest and try again.”

The estimated time to get to Tucson, Ariz., from the border on foot is three days; however, this only holds true if the person is in the upmost physical shape and has a good sense of direction.

“We’ve found people a mile from the border who have walked for ten days in circles,” said McCullough. “Once we came across five men who asked if they were in Kentucky.”

For many migrants their chance for survival on the journey to America is slim. McCullough said that this year alone there have been about 200 reported migrant deaths and for each reported death there are three missing people.

McCullough knows that her efforts won’t change the world, but she can only hope that her work can ease the pain of family members who have lost their mother, sister, brother or aunt.

“A woman who lost her daughter told me once that she appreciated that I cared about someone as poor as her daughter,” said McCullough. “It’s heartbreaking but that’s the sort of stuff that makes my job so much easier.”


Written by Christina Licata

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