Elisa and Luisa were exhausted. Pushing through the river’s current, the sisters held on to their children and their few belongings as the water rose to their shoulders.

Life in Mexico had become intolerable, Luisa recalls, as she and Elisa rest at a welcome center in Phoenix, Arizona, operated by the International Rescue Committee. Their children weren’t able to go to school because of the violence, Luisa says. “Sometimes, bullets would fly in front of them.” 

Elisa remembers the day when gang members stormed into their modest home and demanded that they leave. “They threatened us,” Elisa says. “They said they were going to take our home. We lived in a very small place, but it was still home.”

Mexican asylum seekers at IRC welcome center in Phoenix
Luisa with her three children at the IRC's welcome center for asylum-seeking families. “We weren’t in detention for very long, but that’s where my daughter got sick because it’s very cold there,” Luisa says. The IRC and our partners provided medicine for her daughter.
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

The families quickly packed. Luisa grabbed things nearest to her. She wanted to take family photos, but there wasn’t enough time to gather them. Her daughter stuffed toys in her small backpack but her mother reminded her to pack light.

The sisters traveled through Mexico by foot and bus, and eventually crossed a river to claim asylum in the United States. The family was detained at the border for a few days but then released and taken to the IRC welcome center. 

The families mostly brought what they needed to survive the journey, but they were able to take small reminders of the lives they were forced to abandon. Here’s a closer look at what Luisa, Elisa and some of their children packed: 

The most important thing I wanted to bring was my children.


What Luisa packed:

The water was scary; I was holding my mom and Peppa.


What Lisa, 5, packed:

I told the kids we were traveling—they don’t know the reason why we left.


What Elisa packed:

These are our favorite toys.


What Rosa, 8, and Luis, 6, packed:

At the IRC center, Luisa and Elisa were overwhelmed by the warm welcome they received. They were given new clothes, food and the opportunity to shower—for the first time since leaving Mexico. “We weren’t treated this way when we first arrived [at the border],” says Luisa. “We’re very grateful for the IRC.”

Mexican asylum seekers at IRC welcome center in Phoenix
Elisa with her three children at the IRC welcome center for asylum-seeking families. “I couldn’t fight back,” Elisa says, referring to gang members who took their home. “It was just me and my kids. I didn’t want them to hurt my kids, so we left.”
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Families fleeing violence and persecution come to the U.S. because they are desperate. At the Phoenix welcome center, the IRC and its local partners are providing medical assistance and legal counseling in addition to basic necessities to people who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to seek safety. Since opening last summer, the IRC center has helped hundreds of asylum seekers. Learn more about our work.

Photos by Andrew Oberstadt/IRC