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Helping the Poor just South of the US Border


Helping the Poor just South of the US Border
Helping the Poor just South of the US Border
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A river - and an international border - separate the city of Juarez in Mexico and El Paso in the United States. Even though they are in many respects worlds apart - Juarez is poor and crime-ridden and El Paso is prosperous and relatively safe - the two cities are bound by powerful ties. One of them is the family of Jesus and Maria Ruiz and the charity they have started.

U.S. Interstate 10 is a major thoroughfare in the city of El Paso, Texas, bustling with traffic night and day. Just several hundred meters to the south, on the hilltops overlooking the interstate, sit the concrete houses of Juarez, Mexico.

Jesus and Maria Ruiz and their 19-year-old daughter Liz and 13-year-old son Jesus Jr. live in a quiet suburb of El Paso. Like 80 percent of the city's residents, they're Latin American.

Every weekend the family makes a trip across the border into Mexico. They go not to visit relatives or friends but to help people in need.

"Once you cross the border [into Mexico] you see so many people there already, people all over the place. You see a lot of people who are hungry, who need food, who need money, who are asking for your help," said daughter Liz.

All along the way, they have to watch out for drug dealers and kidnappers. They also have to be wary of the police, many of whom are corrupt. One hour after leaving their home in El Paso, they arrive in one of Juarez's poor suburbs.

"These are the outskirts of Juarez. Usually the outskirts are the areas that's being forgotten," Maria said.

As on every weekend, the family's destination is an aid office that is the base they use to deliver goods to the poor.

"When we come over, it's not only the food. We bring hygiene supplies and school supplies," Maria explains.

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By 9 o'clock on this morning, almost 200 people are lining up outside the aid office. The volunteers inside pack rice, canned food and vegetables into paper bags. All the people in line receive a free lunch and a large bag to collect 10 items of clothing, one pair of shoes and soap and shampoo.

Jesus is no stranger to poverty. He was born and grew up in Juarez. He came to the United States, illegally, when he was 14. The difference struck him immediately - and angered him.

"In those 14 years I lived in Juarez, I experienced poverty, I experienced everything that they are living right now till today, it has not changed even a bit. When I came across, I made a promise to myself, I turned around and I was so upset with the country and the society, the way they handle things, I screamed and I yelled to Juarez and said Juarez, Mexico I will never, ever, come back to you, turned around and left," Jesus explains.

But it was Maria, who was born in the United States, who changed his mind. She made her first visit to Mexico more than 10 years ago, for the funeral of a relative, and was shocked by the poverty. "I had to tell my husband, I said, 'I have to go back and I had to do something.' I couldn't just turn around and say 'Oh' and pretend I didn't see anything," she says. "I told him I want to do something, and he said, 'What do you want to do?' and I said, 'I want to take apples, oranges and bananas and sweet breads to the kids to the school.'"

Soon, when word got out on what they wanted to do, people in and around El Paso began donating money, clothing and food to the ministry that the couple started, Jesus es mana, which translates as Jesus is the bread of life. With the approval of the local government in Juarez, Maria and Jesus built a church and an aid office on an abandoned lot in the middle of the slum.

As for the Ruizes, they gave so much to the ministry they started that their living standard in El Paso was close to that of those they were helping in Juarez.

"Even though we were living under the poverty level, when I would cross the border and see other people's need, then my needs were nothing compared to what their needs are," Maria said.

As the ministry they started has grown, so have their ambitions. They are now building a community kitchen with space to feed 500, an orphanage for 100 residents and a trade school.

Why do they do it? "When you make a child smile," Maria says, "it's awesome."